Monday, February 9, 2015

One Category at a Time: Live Action Short (plus Docs)

One of the inarguable patterns that can be gleaned from this category is that American productions have a tough time getting nominated. Best Live Action Short is always heavy on international entries, resulting in a diverse cross-section of story content and cinematic styles. Shorts in this year's race hail from North Ireland, Switzerland, China, Israel, and the UK.

With this category now opened up to the full Academy membership, films with an overt emotional appeal are going to fare well. The Phone Call, which stars Sally Hawkins as a crisis hotline rep and Jim Broadbent as a distraught caller, is a real heart-string-tugger on that front and looks like a frontrunner. The fact that it features recognizable actors -- both of whom deliver moving mini-performances -- can only broaden its appeal.

But nothing is ever cut and dry when it comes to the Shorts, and there's plenty to please all tastes.

A perfect tonic and likely challenger to The Phone Call's weepiness (if that's not your thing) is Boogaloo & Graham, which is the shortest of the five and the lightest in tone. It scores a ton of cuteness points for telling the story of two boys in 1970s Belfast raising their pet chickens. The story is a bit under-baked, coyly skirting the political unrest in Ireland at the time. But the film has charm and humour to spare, and its brevity could help it stick in voters memories.

Conversely, the longest of the lot might give viewers too much of an opportunity to un-suspend their disbelief. Aya's premise -- a woman impersonates a professional driver at the airport and chauffeurs a stranger -- stretches credulity, but its execution is great. It gives actors Sarah Adler and Ulrich Thomsen a lot of time to explore their characters, presenting an interesting dual psychological study of people who are closed off versus people who need to be close to others (even those they don't know).

Parvaneh depicts the odyssey of an Afghan girl living at a hostel in Switzerland as she travels to Zurich in hopes of sending cash to her family back home. She develops an unlikely friendship with a local girl and the plot eventually morphs into one of those 'long night of the soul' things. It doesn't finish as strongly as it starts, but still finds lovely, poignant moments between its two young leads.

But there's one unique short in the bunch that could be a dark horse because it truly stands out from the fray. Butter Lamp doesn't really have a story to follow, but makes an extremely well conceived impact as a clever political statement: Tibetan nomads pose for photographs in front of a series of backdrops, each one bearing images of an increasingly Westernized China, culminating in a potent final reveal. I suppose some viewers wouldn't warm to its favouring of concept over narrative, but then I suppose there are some who would find it to be easily the most distinctive nominee.

Will win: The Phone Call
Runner-up: Boogaloo & Graham

Should win: Butter Lamp
Should have been nominated: SLR

As a bonus, I'll tack on my prediction for Best Documentary, Short Subjects. Unfortunately, these do not get the same theatrical package as the animated and live action shorts, but I can understand why. The doc shorts are typically 40 minutes or longer, and stringing them together comes to well over three hours. Three hours of usually very heavy real-world subject matter is a tough sell.

The only nominee I've seen is Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 on HBO (good stuff). You can read up on all the contenders at various Oscar-covering sites, but it still comes down to guesswork. I'm tentatively placing my chips on Joanna, the tear-jerking study of a terminal cancer patient.

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