Review: ‘2018 Oscar Shorts Program’

Reflecting on the Oscar ceremony each year, what’s the most energetic, off-the-wall moment of the night … usually? It’s that middle section where a certain Hungarian filmmaker wins the foreign language film award or the director of a little-seen short injects mania and uncompromising glee into an evening full of been-there-done-that Meryl Streep stares. Sorry, Meryl, but it’s true.

And, in an effort to get these hard-scrabbled labors of love in front of an audience, the Oscar Shorts Program has been an event for the past decade or so, neatly packaging the Live Action Short/Animated Short film nominees together in one palatable event for any and all to see. Whether you’re an Oscar ‘completist’ (yes, they exist) or simply someone looking for an adventurous time at the theater, it’s a terrific choice to make.

In the Live Action block, the two best short films include Kevin Wilson Jr’s My Nephew Emmett (pictured above) and Reed Van Dyk’s DeKalb Elementary. Both films are visually stunning and carefully controlled exercises that re-enact horrific moments within American history. My Nephew Emmett (running 20 minutes) follows 14-year-old Emmett Till after he is taken from his home by a small lynch mob in 1955. Starring L.B. Williams as uncle Mose Wright and his wife (played by Jasmine Guy), My Nephew Emmett exists in a nocturnal space of low-light and moonlight as the events unfold and the couple try and make sense of things. What’s most striking about the film — besides its acute attention to light, shadows and the whites of someone eyes — is the way director Wilson maintains a strong sense of dread throughout. It’s a powerhouse short film that deserves the Oscar.

Parlaying that same sense of uninterrupted tension is Reed Van Dyk’s DeKalb Elementary. Based on an actual hostage situation that occurred in Atlanta and crafted from the existing 911 phone call, it’s a very different visual experience than My Nephew Emmett. Filmed in clean, eye level static shots as a gunman (Bob Mitchell) holds a school worker (Tara Riggs) hostage and relays some unique demands to the police crouched outside, DeKalb Elementary also succinctly explores an abhorrent cycle of violence in America that shows we haven’t come very far from the tainted ills exhibited by human nature upon each other since 1955 (or the beginning of time for that matter). Watch this short film and I doubt one will hold their breath the entire time as I did.

Less successful but still hugely moving is Chris Overton’s The Silent Child. Observing the warm relationship that develops between young, deaf Libby (Maisie Sly) and the sign language teacher the family briefly employs to help their daughter communicate, the film has a big heart and touches all the right emotional strings. I can see the Academy going for this more simplified version of life than the abrasively ‘real’ efforts of Wilson Jr. and Van Dyk.

Also featured are Derin Seale’s slight, comical The Eleven ‘o’ Clock and Katja Benrath’s strong exploration of the violence between Muslims and Christians in Watu Wote (All Of Us).

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Looking for a bit of relief from the troubled social commentary in the Animated Shorts block? Not likely. Exorcising many of the same personal and societal demons as the Live Action films, the handful of selections here are different only in their candy colored, CGI aesthetic.

From Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s Negative Space, which feels like a bit of mordant self analysis via Charlie Kaufman, to Florian Babikian’s Garden Party, whose deft humor comes to a bracing halt with a slice of demented political commentary, these animated shorts take no prisoners.

While those two films marinate ideas of hostility and loneliness, Dave Mullins’ utterly charming Lou (pictured above) utilizes the Pixar style of animation to relay an exuberant story about a schoolyard bully forced to re-evaluate his attitude towards his classmates. Fleet footed and entertaining, I can see the film being pushed aside for the more topical films mentioned above, but it’s a lovely and endearing effort nonetheless.

Rounding out the fourth and fifth spots are Jan Lachauer/Jacob Schuh’s ingenious scrambling of various nursery rhymes, titled Revolting Rhymes, and Glen Keane’s sketch animated Dear Basketball, which serves as fairly pedantic paean about Kobe Bryant (who also did the voice over) and his love of the sport that’s consumed his entire life. Both handsomely crafted, they pale in comparison to the genuine emotions leveled in the other three efforts.

Regardless of the length or subject matter, all of the films included here provide  a unique and swift view of the world. If you don’t like one, you don’t have to wait very long for the next. And, in the process, perhaps you’ll see the debut work of the next auteur of the year 2025.

The Oscar Shorts Program opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, February 9 at the Magnolia in Dallas and the Angelika Film Center in Plano.

 

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