For casual viewers of the Academy Awards, that moment in the show when they announce the winners of Best Live Action Short and Best Animated Short serves as an unofficial bathroom break. This is understandable: The era in which short films were routinely screened at cinemas has long since passed. Viewers are even more likely to pay attention to obscure categories like Sound Editing and Visual Effects, if only because they are more familiar with the nominated films.
Those who do seek out the short films will be richly rewarded for their diligence. Awards season may be filled with the year’s best cinema, but it’s also marked by the worst kinds of Hollywood excess: hours of red carpet footage, shameless Oscar campaigning, and gossip-driven coverage of the Academy horserace passing for film criticism. If you’re sick of it, the short films will make you well again. There are few—if any—stars involved, and, with some entries as brief as 10 minutes, they showcase efficient filmmaking at its finest. You’ll need to clear an afternoon for The Revenant or The Hateful Eight, as well as a few hours to recover. But this year’s short films each tell a complete, compelling story in the time it takes to watch the trailers before a typical Hollywood movie.
Because there’s little marketing for these films, you can enter each story free of expectation. That naiveté works marvelously, for example, in Alles wird gut (Everything Will Be Okay), a German live-action short that’s the longest of the bunch at 30 minutes. It opens with a mundane activity—Michael, a divorced father picking up his eight-year-old daughter Lea from her mother’s home—and then slowly devolves into emotional trauma. It seems innocuous at first; the two go to a toy store, and he promises her a trip to the fair later on to ride the bumper cars. But soon, alarming details begin to creep in. Director Patrick Vollrath keeps things insular; we never have any more information than Lea does, but an adult sensibility can piece together the clues. Alles wird gut morphs seamlessly from a mystery to a domestic thriller, easing the audience into its awfulness so slowly that we become just as powerless as its characters.
On the other end of the pain-pleasure spectrum is Stutterer, a British romance about a young man with a crippling stutter. Although director Benjamin Clearly effectively conveys the anguish of his predicament—the first scene, in which he tries and fails to call customer service to inquire about a billing error, speaks volumes—he chooses a more hopeful sensibility. At heart, Stutterer is a romance. When his online girlfriend suggests an in-person meeting, the man is paralyzed from fear, and his efforts to overcome it carry large stakes. It may look like a rom-com, but Stutterer is actually about a man deciding whether or not to be alive. It’s the short that looks most like a Hollywood film, which means it’ll probably win the Live Action category.
It’s also by far the easiest watch in the group. In general, the live-action shorts will put you through the emotional ringer, with several hinging on child suffering. Shok focuses on a friendship between two boys in Kosovo as Serbian soldiers take over the country. One starts doing favors for the soldiers to earn some extra cash, and when he brings his buddy along, their friendship is soon pushed to the breaking point by their violent, manipulative oppressors. English Director Jamie Donoughue and his young actors understand the rhythms of adolescent male friendship, and since the film ends—suddenly—as a portrait of refugees, it seems extra timely in our current geopolitical climate.
The last two live-action shorts also revolve around conflict, although neither is as effective as Shok. Ave Maria is a slight but impactful tale of an Israeli family who gets stuck in the West Bank after accidentally crashing their car into a convent. As the nuns try to help them out, the clash of cultures is mostly played for laughs. Day One, however, opts for brutal realities as a means of generating empathy between warring sides. Depicting the first day on the job for a female Middle Eastern translator hired by the U.S. military, the film takes one gut-wrenching turn after another. On their walk to interrogate a bomb-maker, a passing cyclist gets blown up by an IED, and that’s the best thing that happens that day. It’s a difficult watch, and although it earns its hopeful ending, the anguish experienced along the way is not quite worth the payoff.
Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016: Live Action and Animated open Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.