Film Review: ‘2015 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live-Action’

Oscar Live Action Animated Short

Compared to the epic all-American coming-of-age tale that is “Boyhood” — a feat 12 years in the making and three hours in the telling — Oscar’s live-action short film nominees have seldom seemed shorter or smaller, and yet, judged on their own terms, this year’s offerings demonstrate genuine understanding of the form’s potential. Where the best picture category offers its selection of ambitious tapestries, these mini-narratives, which range from 14 to 40 minutes, feel more like quilt squares, intricate in their own right, yet modest and far more self-contained — overall, a quality mix available for consummation on every size of screen imaginable.

Once again, the category represents Oscar’s least American batch of nominees to be found outside the foreign-language race, which further heightens the sense of discovery we get while sampling work from that hails from unknown helmers in countries less often represented at the multiplex.

For example, director Talkhon Hamzavi’s sensitive Swiss-made graduation film “Parvaneh” invites audiences to empathize with a character common enough on the margins of big European cities, but seldom deemed worthy of protagonist status in a feature: a young Afghan immigrant named Pari (Nissa Kashani) finds herself overwhelmed with the adjustment to life in Zurich, where employers take advantage of her illegal status. In the short time we spend with her, Pari wants only to send her earnings home to her family, but even this simple task is complicated by the fact that the Western Union office won’t wire funds without a proper ID, forcing the mouse-like young lady to appeal to anyone who might help, resulting in a connection, however fleeting, with a spoiled local girl (Cheryl Graf) who gradually comes to recognize how much they have in common. It’s a poignant, if pat little portrait, but one that could scarcely exist as a feature — making this just the right way to experience it.

Cute, but overly familiar by comparison, Michael Lennox’s “Boogaloo and Graham” concerns two Irish kids growing up amidst the Troubles in Belfast. Fortunately, the country’s violent conflict serves as little more than peripheral color to a story that could just as easily have taken place in a small-town American trailer park or a Manhattan tenement. One day, a father brings home two pet chicks for his sons to raise, and while the birds brighten up the kids’ lives, their mother threatens to cook them up for dinner, until dad invents an elaborate and unlikely solution, delivered a bit too suddenly and without much thought to logistics in the short’s final seconds. Though thin on story, the professional-looking film clearly demonstrates Lennox’s aptitude to take on a larger project (his feature debut, “A Patch of Fog,” is due out later this year), using its 1978 setting to supply a few vivid details to this otherwise twee trifle.

At 40 minutes, the most fully realized of the nominees could potentially be expanded into a larger feature, but works beautifully in its own self-contained form — released as a standalone in its native Israel, where “Aya” won an Ophir Award. Co-directing couple Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’ enigmatic, mostly-English-language short indulges the kind of mischievous “what if” scenario that sometimes cross our minds, only to be vetoed instantly by our more rational selves: While waiting for her husband to return at the airport, Aya (Sarah Adler, star of 2014’s terrific “Self Made”) reluctantly agrees to hold a chauffeur’s sign while he runs out to move his car. When the passenger (Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) arrives before his real driver returns, Aya impulsively decides to go along with the misunderstanding. What might happen if she agreed to drive him to his destination? Is the awkward, wryly comic encounter that follows the result of chance or something more like craziness? The beautifully understated film explores the sort of possibilities inhibited by social conventions, teasing a certain romantic potential while leaving just enough to our imaginations.

If the cast of “Aya” seems impressive, it’s nothing compared to the coup British commercials directors Mat Kirkby and James Lucas pulled off in landing Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent for “The Phone Call.” Hawkins plays a volunteer helpline counselor who regularly offers a listening ear and emotional support for troubled souls. One day, she gets a call from a lonely old man who ever-so-gradually reveals what’s bothering him — the sheer anguish of which plays out on Hawkins face (as the voice on the other end, Broadbent is never seen), while the clock on the wall ticks by, indicating the limited time she may have to avert whatever crisis he’s phoned in to report. As the suspense mounts, the conversation gets increasingly personal, suggesting the possibility that perhaps she too could use some advice. The ending, while bittersweet, poignantly alternates between the end of one life and the possible saving of another.

The last of the nominees, Chinese director Hu Wei’s “Butter Lamp,” comes as a stunning inclusion, if only because the Academy almost never recognizes conceptual art films in any category — and yet, the shorts race remains something of an Trojan Horse to the org’s traditionally stodgy taste. Here, in what deceptively looks like a documentary, the camera never moves, but the background does. Inspired by a vintage Michael Nash photograph, “Warsaw, 1946,” in which a Polish woman poses for a portrait in front of a painted canvas that hides the bombed-out city behind her, Wei assembled groups of Tibetan nomads to have their picture taken in front of similar aspirational backdrops: the Great Wall of China, Disneyland, a dream house or a desert island. In the final shot, he raises the printed tarp to reveal the actual backdrop, underscoring the theme of how modernity is impinging on a fading way of life. Again, it’s a surprising choice, seeing as how it challenges the status quo, both politically and cinematically. Though it will never win, if a short film like “Butter Lamp” can land an Oscar nomination, there’s hope that the Academy could some day come around to recognizing features that do the same.

Film Review: ‘2015 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live-Action’

Reviewed online, Jan. 18 and Feb. 19, 2015. Running time: 123 MIN.


A ShortsHD release presented with Magnolia Pictures.


(Switzerland) A Zurich University of the Arts, SRF Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen production, in cooperation with Netzwerk Cinema CH. Executive producer, Stefan Eichenberger.
Directed, written by Talkhon Hamzavi. Camera (color), Stefan Dux; editor, Hannes Ruttimann; costume designer, Jacqueline Kobler; sound, Sergio Milliet; assistant director, Thomas Kaufmann; casting, Susan Muller. Running time: 25 MIN.
With: Nissa Kashani, Cheryl Graf. (Dari, German dialogue.)

Boogaloo and Graham
(U.K.) A Pesky Films, Out of Orbit production, made with the support of Northern Screen Ireland via the BFI Net.Work. Produced by Brian J. Falconer. Executive producer, Richard Irwin.
Directed by Michael Lennox. Screenplay, Ronan Blaney. Camera (color, widescreen), Mark Garrett; editor, Livia Serpa; music, Jered Sorkin; production designer, Niall McEvoy; costume designer, Susan Scott; sound, Chris Woodcock; sound designer, Steve Bond; chicken wrangler, Kenny Gracey; casting, Mary-Ellen Lavery. Running time: 14 MIN.
With: Martin McCann, Charlene McKenna, Riley Hamilton, Aaron Lynch.

(Israel-France) A Cassis Films, Divine Prods. presentation, produced with the support of the Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts – Cinema Project, with the participation of the Leon Recanati Foundation, with support from the Cultural Administration, Israel Ministry of Culture and Sport, Israel Film Council, CNC, with the participation of France Televisions. Produced by Pablo Mehler, Yael Abecassis, Hillel Roseman.
Directed by Mihal Brezis, Oded Binnun. Screenplay, Brezis, Binnun, Tom Shoval. Camera (color, widescreen), Binnun; editor, Dov Steuer; music, Ishai Adar, Ronen Shapira; production designer, Dani Avshalom; costume designer, Keren Ron; sound designer, Gil Toren; visual effects, Eran Feller; assistant director, Daniel Danny Mozes. Running time: 40 MIN.
With: Sarah Adler, Ulrich Thomsen. (English, Hebrew, Danish dialogue.)

The Phone Call
(U.K.) Produced by Michelle Kirkman. Executive producers, James Lucas, Mat Kirkby. 
Directed, written by James Lucas, Mat Kirkby. Camera (color, widescreen), Ole Bratt Birkeland; editor, Lizzy Graham; music, Andrew Wallace, Andrew Ross; music supervisor, Wallace; production designer, Peter Franci; sound, Clive Copland; assistant director, Stuart Williams; casting, Dan Hubbard. Running time: 21 MIN.
With: Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent, Edward Hogg, Prunella Scales.

Butter Lamp
(France-China) An AMA Prods. presentation, produced with Goya Entertainment, with the participation of CNC, ARTE France. Produced by Julien Feret. Co-producer, Yagxu Zhou.
Directed, written by Hu Wei. Camera (color, widescreen), Jean Legrand, Stephane Degnieau; editors, Wei, Li Ran; sound, Liu Cheng, Wu Shi; special effects, Etienne Salancon. Running time: 16 MIN.
With: Genden Punstok, Soepha. (Tibetan dialogue.)