La Femme et la TGV
La Femme et la TGV

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Borrowed Time

Are movies longer than they used to be? They sure feel like it. Superhero movies routinely run over two hours these days due to a dependence on extended action sequences and multiple villains. Oscar-nominated movies are among the worst offenders. This year, the average length of a Best Picture nominee is 124 minutes, only a slight improvement from last year’s 131 minutes. Either way, the challenge of watching all of them before Oscar night has become a journey almost as exhausting and painful as what Leonardo DiCaprio went through for The Revenant.

So thank God for the Oscar-nominated shorts. They come and go quickly and leave little pain in their wake. Unfortunately, most people don’t care enough to find out. That’s why the producers of the Oscars ceremony typically pick hot, young comedy stars to present the short film awards: It’s the only way to keep viewers in their seats. Here’s another way to care about them: Go see them. Find one you like, and root for it like hell.

The animated shorts, however, are having a bit of an off-year, with only two clear standouts in the bunch. The first is Borrowed Time, a six-minute western that cuts between two narratives: an elderly sheriff considering suicide while standing on the edge of a great canyon and a wagon chase in which his childhood self was pursued by bandits years earlier. Directors Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj utilize symbolism, montage, and swift, concise characterization to craft a deeply satisfying story told in the span of a feature film’s opening titles.

Like Borrowed Time, short films work best when they let their imagery do the storytelling, but two of this year’s nominees—Blind Vaysha and Pear Cider and Cigarettes—are brought down by exposition. The former is a lovely, thoughtful fable about a young girl born with a unique curse. Her left eye sees the past and her right eye the future. At times, the filmmakers ingeniously explore the concept, particularly in a proposal sequence, when she can only see the naïve child her suitor once was and the smelly old man he becomes. Despite featuring gorgeous, hand-drawn animation conveying the bizarre world this girl finds herself in, Blind Vaysha relies too heavily on voice-over narration, and its attempts at lesson-learning in the final scene are too didactic to be effective.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes is the longest of the bunch, clocking in at 34 minutes, and by far the most adult-themed (it runs last, in case you want to take the kiddies home first). Its story of a hard-living young man named Techno and the friend who repeatedly tries to save his life features animated nudity, drinking, and violence. The gruff voice-over that accompanies its neo-noir animation is an attempt to imbue a feeling of importance into this otherwise drab story, but it’s not enough. Take out the shock value, and Pear Cider and Cigarettes is riddled with alpha-male cliches. In fact, you might want to skip out before this one whether you have kids or not.

That way, you can let Pearl and Piper, two sap-happy tales of parenthood, linger in your mind. Pearl is an extended music video for an original song written by indie artists Nicki Bluhm and Kelley Stoltz. It starts out with a hippie guy singing the song in his car while his young daughter plays in the backseat. As the song plays, the film documents her entire childhood, through fights and reconciliations, boyfriends, and run-ins with the police. At first, its crude computer animation might be off-putting, but for those of us who grew up with Nintendo and other 8-bit video game systems, it is like a warm rush of nostalgia, underlining the poignancy of this coming-of-age-story.

Piper, on the other hand, contains some of the finest animation you’ll ever see. Another perfect Pixar creation, it’s the story of an infant seagull who overcomes dangers like hermit crabs and soft, lapping ocean waves in learning how to feed himself. It’s painfully cute and unabashedly sentimental, but for anyone who has ever had a parent or a child (you know, pretty much everyone), it’s sure to hit home.

The live-action shorts are, on the whole, a stronger bunch. The only problem is that they are bleak as hell. Unlike the animated films, there is no wistful escape here from our awful realities. Instead, they force us to grapple with contemporary issues through painstakingly personal drama. It’s an effective technique, but, with the full slate coming in at an exhausting two and a half hours, not an entirely welcome one. 

Two films deal explicitly with the immigrant experience. Denmark’s Silent Night is a romantic drama about a kind, beautiful soup kitchen volunteer who falls in love with a homeless African immigrant. Between the realities of life on the streets and the intrusions of the woman’s racist, drunken mother, these two never get much of a honeymoon period. But the stars-in-their-eyes moments that do occur mean much more because of the pain that lies on either side. Silent Night is occasionally too mawkish, and the characters are probably a bit too sympathetic, but there are worse crimes in a hard world. 

Ennemis Interieurs hits our current political moment right on the nose, and as such, is a serious contender for the big prize. It starts out as a simple dialogue between a government agent and a middle-aged Algerian man applying for French citizenship. The Algerian thinks it is a formality, as he is initially asked to name two rivers in France and recite the country’s motto. Quickly, it morphs into an inquisition into the brief time that he attended meetings at a certain mosque. He’s asked to name names. Director Selim Aazzazi expertly builds the tension, creating a feeling of claustrophobia, while his two actors construct a thrilling mental chess game. There are echoes of McCarthyism and, of course, Trump’s Muslim ban in this tense and provocative short.

Here’s something a little more pleasant: Timecode, which won an award at Cannes last year and is therefore the likely winner here, and La Femme et la TGV. Both concern romances in which the parties court without ever meeting, a la The Shop Around the Corner or The Lunchbox. In Timecode, two parking garage security guards perform interpretive dances for each other on the security cameras, each leaving a post-it note telling the other where to find their performance in the previous night’s log. La Femme et la TGV features a widow who takes great pleasure in waving her Swiss flag at the commuter train that passes her window every day and begins receiving notes and gifts that are hurled into her yard by the train’s conductor as it passes. Both films are delightful, a little bit lightweight, and altogether enjoyable.

Finally, there is Sing, whose stakes are far lower than any other in this slate but, for those who remember their childhood, will be just as emotionally-involving. This Hungarian film concerns a young girl who is excited to join the choir in her new school, but is mortified when the director pulls her aside after the first rehearsal and asks her not to sing, but only to mouth the words to the song. Turns out the teacher won’t let anything stop her from winning the upcoming national championship. As the girl and her friend begin to investigate, they learn that she’s not the only one who has been asked to zip it, and the kids organize a devilishly clever revenge on their unfeeling teacher. A revolution of the masses against a strict authoritarian leader? That’s the kind of catharsis we need right now. The heroes and the setting of Sing may be small, but as these short films demonstrate, size isn’t the only thing that matters.

The Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts open Friday at E Street Cinema.