Short Film Review: 2019 Oscar Shorts – Live Action.
This year’s Oscar nominated live action films feature harrowing stories not for the faint of heart.
2019’s animated shorts were nearly all bittersweet tear-jerkers. The live action shorts are a much darker bunch. Dealing with racial violence, shocking true-crime, childhood tragedy, and the pain of repressed love, these stories hit with tremendous force. While I prefer the subtle intricacy of last year’s live shorts, there’s no denying that this crop will make a strong impression. Whether or not they rise to the level of classics in the form like previous entries is certainly up for debate.
2019 Oscar Shorts – Live Action.
Story: A mother receives a call from her six-year old son who is supposed to be vacationing in France with her ex-husband. The child grows increasingly hysterical: his father has left him on an isolated beach and disappeared. As the mother frantically tries to help her son, they both become aware of a stranger approaching…
Director Rodrigo Sorogoyen takes cues from some of the best cinematography in the business to create this horror short, but the homages are a bit too obvious. The slow pans and dolly work feel lifted from Kubrick and Hitchcock instead of just referencing them. The sound work and score also are overtaxed, especially the final credits which feel like they belong after a Hostel movie, not an ambiguous short horror film.
The premise has immediacy, and seems well suited to a short film, but the film still manages to overstay its welcome. I kept thinking “and then?” It’s long enough to show the holes in the premise but not long enough to pivot towards another tactic. It’s as if you tried to stretch the abduction scene of Taken into 20 minutes of just Liam Neeson on the phone. There’s a tight ten minutes in this film, but it stumbles at the current length.
Story: Two working class kids left to their own devices play an increasingly dangerous and mean-spirited game in the derelict buildings on the edge of town.
This surreal thriller manages to be vague and specific at once, to good effect. You never quite understand the rules of the game the kids play, just that its mean and competitive. Likewise, the derelict setting feels like any economically depressed rural town, while also carrying its own flavor. The imagery and sound work creates a haunting tableau where this could be the next town over, or it could be the last town at the end of the world. Menace, desolation, and rude survival permeate every shot. Director Jeremy Comte creates a striking and brutal drama, worthy of the title Fauve (literally Wild Beast).
Story: As her health steadily declines, an old woman opens up to her nurse about the forbidden love she buried deep inside as a young woman.
Marguerite is the most subtle of this year’s nominees, though you can quickly see where the drama is headed. There’s a nice head-fake early, as a necklace that has emotional importance but is obscured becomes revealed to be a gold cross just as the nurse reveals she is a lesbian. For a second, the conflict on Marguerite’s face (excellently portrayed by Beatrice Picard) could mean hostility or revulsion, before we realize that Marguerite has hidden her own sexuality her whole life and is careful not to let it slip even in front of her sympathetic caregiver. From there we get a redemptive arc as expected, but for a moment built on excellent non-verbal acting, we see the drama from many angles at once.
Director Marianne Farley’s film may not reinvent its subject, but it is filled with fine detail and care. The two leads give strong performances, making Marguerite feel like one of the most complete narratives from this year’s offerings.
Story: In 1993 two ten-year old boys were arrested and convicted of the brutal torture and murder of a toddler. This film recreates the events based on police transcripts and interviews.
Detainment is the second film of the group to feature the brutality of children, and director Vincent Lamb allows his narrative to unfold with the illusion of minimal artifice. It’s one of those dramas that requires deft control from the cast and crew to seem unscripted, when literally we’re seeing the events recreated from police transcripts. In the space between what is said and what is left to the imagination, the drama reaches its full crushing weight. The two young actors deserve accolades for taking such unforgiving and charged material and executing it excellently. Lamb’s cinematography is quiet and haunting as we almost drift through town, following the three children to what we know will be a chilling climax.
Story: A smile shared by a black man and a white boy leads the boy’s white supremacist father to viciously beat the man in front of his family. When news of the attack spreads, friends of the beaten man abduct the skinhead and concoct a gruesome punishment for him.
Our solo entry form the US squanders a solid set-up. The narrative follows the young boy through his daily life, which is surrounded and informed by the hateful ideology of his community. For as loathsome as they are, we still see the boy experience the shared elements of normal life – playing with the dog, dragging his feet about eating vegetables, excitedly explaining newly acquired facts about his favorite animal (snakes) while his father proudly listens. That these elements have the odious elements hanging over them gives the story depth.
Unfortunately, the final bloody climax doesn’t pay off any of these considerations and becomes an ineffective revenge story. A rather absurd one at that, which is unbelievable and fails to achieve any symbolic resonance. At the end of the day, we get a rotten skinhead reaping what he sowed without any deeper reflection. It may be cathartic after the year we’ve been through, but it’s not profound.
And the Winner Is…
This year I had a clear favorite as I left the theater, but am less certain a day later. Marguerite had a fine cast and elegant cinematography, helping to deliver a bittersweet drama. In a year that lacked subtlety, it was the most subtle of the group. As time passed, I have to say that disappointment in the this year’s selections set in. In the previous years, we’ve certainly had many films about hot-button issues. What separates those films from this year is that I didn’t feel that the current films did much that was transformative with the subject matter.
You can expect to get a lot of voltage out of portrayals of racism, violence against children, and the struggles of LGBTQ people, and these are issues that demand attention. A film can’t just get by on the brute fact of including them. Detainment and Fauve are riveting, but they don’t bring a new understanding to the drama like Dekalb Elementary or Shok did. Likewise, Everything Will Be Good tackled the terror of child abduction with more nuance than Madre. My Nephew Emmett is a much more impactful story of racial violence than Skin could hope to be. This year’s entries felt like a step backwards. I still like Marguerite to win…I’m just not sure I like Marguerite as much today as I did yesterday.