The Big Shorts
A Preview of 2016's Oscar-Nominated Short Films
Every awards season, a handful of critically acclaimed titles dominate the Oscar race; this year, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant” and “The Big Short” have dominated critics’ attention. Amid high-grossing blockbuster contenders and the star-studded red carpet, short films and their creators, equally as talented as their feature-length counterparts, are often shut out from media coverage.
Since the fifth Academy Awards ceremony in 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has recognized high-caliber short films through the Best Animated Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film categories (The latter was originally separated into two categories depending on length of the film reels).
Defined by the Academy as a film with a running time of 40 minutes or less, the short film genre provides a gateway for many aspiring filmmakers into feature filmmaking. Hollywood legends George Lucas, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson and John Lasseter all launched their careers by making short films. This tradition of excellence continues in the 88th Academy Awards, which will take place Feb. 28. Here is a rundown of this year’s nominated films.
Best Animated Short Film
Famously popularized by the work of Walt Disney, the animated short is an artistic medium in its own right. Disney, who received 12 of his 22 Oscars in the Best Animated Short Film category, started out drawing out every frame by hand in the 1920’s. This year’s nominees represent a variety of animation techniques. Although the category was originally limited to American shorts, the Academy began accepting foreign shorts in 1952. This year, three of the five nominees originate outside of the United States. These films represent a broad array of subject matter and animation style.
Sanjay’s Super Team (dir. Sanjay Patel, United States)
Produced by Nicole Paradis Grindle and directed by Sanjay Patel, “Sanjay’s Super Team” is yet another dialogue-free short from Pixar that delivers the heartwarming material audiences have come to expect from the iconic animation studio. The short is based on Patel’s own experiences as a young boy, forced to pray with his father while he daydreams of a fantastical battle between Hindu deities in the style of his favorite cartoon superheroes.
The short is visually stunning, culturally rich and deeply personal; the reconciliation between father and son is both moving and authentic. With its poignant depiction of an Indian-American family, “Sanjay’s Super Team” is a much-needed shot of diversity in this year’s race.
World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt, United States)
Critics and audiences alike universally lauded the sci-fi short “World of Tomorrow.” Written and directed by Don Hertzeldt, the short is deceptively complex. Despite its stick-figure animations and straightforward voiceovers, it subtly conveys a deeper message.
Of this year’s nominees, “World of Tomorrow” is the only one that uses dialogue as its primary storytelling vehicle. Set in a future where humankind has cheated death through cloning and transferring consciousness, the film revolves around 4-year-old Emily – voiced by Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona Mae, and her apathetic third-generation clone – voiced by Julia Pott. The short is hauntingly poignant, tackling the hefty themes of technology, mortality and ultimately, what it means to be human.
Historia de un oso (Bear Story) (dir. Gabriel Osorio, Chile)
“Historia de un oso,” or “Bear Story,” is directed by Chilean filmmaker Gabriel Osorio and animated by his own studio, Punkrobot. It depicts a lonely old bear who charges passersby for a peek into his complex mechanical diorama, which tells the story of the peaceful life he lived with his wife and son before he was violently abducted by a circus.
The film serves as an allegory of Osorio’s native country Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 to 1981, when Osorio’s own grandfather was detained before fleeing to England. Although it may appear to be a stop-motion film, “Bear Story” was actually digitally animated through a variety of techniques to creating a dazzling variety of visual scenes. The short is whimsical, emotive and a must-see for viewers interested in unique animation styles.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (dir. Konstantin Bronzit, Russia)
Writer and director Konstantin Bronzit unites outer space and animation in “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos.” The colored 2D line animation is reminiscent of a child’s cartoon and is supremely effective in communicating the story of two childhood best friends who support each other in their shared dream of becoming astronauts. The first portion is comedic and light-hearted, but the real power of the short comes in its later, more emotional scenes.
Composer Valentin Vasenkov does great work with the score, crafting beautiful piano music that pairs wonderfully with the mechanical sound effects of astronaut training. The brilliant orchestration is perhaps the best of the bunch. Presented without dialogue, “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” is heavy on pathos and explores themes such as the sacrifices needed to follow one’s dreams and the lasting nature of friendship.
Prologue (dir. Richard Williams, United Kingdom)
Canadian-British animator and director Richard Williams continues to cement his legendary status in the animating field with “Prologue.” Best known for his work as animation director on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and the 1971 Academy Award-winning adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” Williams animated this beautiful, hand-drawn short completely by himself.
Despite portraying a bloody and gruesome battle between four Spartan and Athenian warriors, the minimalistic plot allows the viewer to focus solely on the graceful and fluid nature of the animation work. Without the distractions of color, backgrounds or special effects, the figures themselves are at the forefront of the short and brilliantly characterized, expressing a variety of emotions with nuance. Simply put, “Prologue” is animation in its purest form.
Best Live Action Short Films
This year’s group of live-action short films runs the gamut from sweet romances to heartbreaking stories of childhood shattered by war. Compelling storylines address cultural, religious and gendered issues, and a few may even have viewers in tears in the first half hour.
Ave Maria (dir. Basil Khalil, Palestinian Territory)
When a car carrying a family of Jewish Israelis crashes into the statue of the Virgin Mary at a West Bank convent, things get a little messy. Add in the nuns’ vow of silence and Sabbath restrictions on technology use, and you’ve got some serious cultural barriers to overcome. This tongue-in-cheek short, which is a collaboration between French, German and Pakistani artists, is partly a family drama and partly a lesson in cooperation, producing a heartwarming end result.
Though “Ave Maria” was selected in the short film category at the Cannes Film Festival and has picked up awards at various smaller film festivals, it might not have the emotional heft to bring home an Academy Award. Still, the nomination itself is a big turning point for director and co-writer Basil Khalil, whose directorial work has previously been small-time TV documentaries. Khalil is also no stranger to portraying religion in film, having also worked on the BBC documentary “Son of God,” which traced the life of Jesus.
Shok (dir. Jamie Donoughue, United States)
Beautifully written and compellingly rendered, Jamie Donoughue’s “Shok” emerges as a frontrunner for the award. This 20-minute film follows two boys whose childhoods are torn apart by the outbreak of war in their native Kosovo. The decisions they make in the face of the violence and fear of ethnic hostilities threaten to change their friendship — and their lives — forever.
This short makes impressive use of music. An eerie dissonance mixes with innocent, music-box-like melodies at key moments to expertly build tension while drawing out the main theme: childhood irreparably marred by war.
Framing devices can easily come off as unnecessary or even cheesy, but this film makes expert use of this technique, opening with an adult finding a bike laying in the road and then flashing back for the bulk of the film to his childhood during the war. The closing frames will almost certainly break viewers’ hearts. The film sans frame is amazing in and of itself, but enclosing it with these scenes heightens the drama even more and brings even more tears.
Day One (dir. Henry Hughes, United States)
Another extremely compelling story with well-executed visuals, “Day One” follows an Afghan-American woman who is deployed as an Army interpreter but finds herself in over her head when an Afghan woman goes into labor halfway through her first mission.
The film tackles a variety of issues in its 24 minutes: the experience of being female in the U.S. military, the limitations of cultural traditions and the culture gap between U.S. troops and civilians in the Middle East. Co-writer and director Henry Hughes — who conducted two combat tours in Afghanistan and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing from the American Film Institute — has crafted an incredible script full of emotional conflict, tension and heartbreaking twists and turns. Layla Alizada, who plays the protagonist, navigates this emotionally complex script with incredible skill, and this could very well be a major step forward for her acting career, which so far has mostly consisted of small roles on TV shows like “Rizzoli & Isles” and “Scandal.”
Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut) (dir. Patrick Vollrath, Germany)
This 30-minute short directed by Patrick Vollrath is a two-character play about an emotional journey taken by a divorcee father and his daughter that begins innocently enough, but slowly reveals itself to be darker than it initially appears. Suspenseful and bleak, it tells a tale of lost love and desperation. Both actors are exceptional, especially Julia Pointer’s performance as the daughter Lea. Her emotional transition throughout “Everything Will Be Okay,” which is her very first film, is a testament to her natural skill.
The intensity and panic build as the film progresses with the lighting growing darker alongside the tone. Revealing anything more about the story would spoil it, but suffice it to say that the short, light on dialogue and with a heavy emphasis on atmosphere, is as realistic as it is gripping. This short has already won a variety of awards around the world since its release, and critics have lauded the film for its authenticity and sharp script.
Stutterer (dir. Serina Armitage and Benjamin Cleary, United Kingdom)
The sweetest of the bunch, this short film from British directors Benjamin Cleary and Serina Armitage follows a brilliant typographer forced into reclusiveness by a severe speech impediment. Though an online, chat-based relationship has allowed him to connect with someone without the limits of his stutter, the possibility of meeting his sweetheart in person forces him to confront his insecurities.
This 12-minute gem gives us a lovable underdog who is vaguely reminiscent of BBC’s Sherlock, a fitting comparison since one of leading man Matthew Needham’s few roles before this film was as a side character in “The Great Game.” This short also captures a whole range of relationship emotions — the joy of hearing from a love interest, the agony of waiting for a response, the nervousness before a first date — with well-timed shots and excellent use of voiceovers. The softly-lit frames and sweet piano interludes give this an ultimately uplifting quality that’s perfect for a hopeless romantic — and the British accents are the icing on the cake.
Catch screenings of these films at the E Street Cinema beginning today.