When the Oscar race starts to get me down as it does every year when it’s finalized and put to bed — for most it’s just another day, another contest, another Super Bowl. For me, it’s recorded history that I then sift through the following year to try to make sense of it. I always think of it like heading into the Grizzly Maze in hopes that I can remain objective but as the season wears on and the bears start eating their cubs it’s impossible not to feel like Timothy Treadwell, trying to “fix” nature and losing one’s mind while doing so. Good times.
But the one part of the Oscar race that gives me joy and makes me feel hopeful both for the future of the Academy Awards, as such, and the future of film overall is the short categories. The films I’ve seen there are so good, so worth your time and best of all they aren’t driven by marketing teams or advocates — they are just the movies, chosen because they were well made and their stories well told.
I have to once again whine about the lack of female subjects in both the animated shorts and the live action shorts. Only one of the live action shorts is (sort of) about a woman but really it’s about a man. I wonder if this dynamic will ever change? Probably not, when your voting body is made up mostly of men. But it didn’t used to be this way. Many decades of Oscar featured stories about women — good ones and bad ones. All About Eve, Gone with the Wind, Terms of Endearment and even Titanic. I just wonder what happened. Why did they just go completely away?
Nonetheless, the shorts illustrate vital storytelling nonetheless. I won’t go through all of them — but you should see all of them. Both the doc shorts and the live action shorts will take you to far reaches of the world to different countries with different points of view about our human experience.
The best of all of them, I think, is the documentary short Inocente. Maybe it’s because the film’s subject, artist Inocente, is so utterly compelling or maybe it’s the broader points it makes about immigrant life in Southern California among the invisible who can’t be US citizens, but are stuck here. The “dreamers” as Obama calls them. Maybe it means more to you if you live here in California, or maybe not. Inocente is, above all other things, a film about why we make art. We make art because we have to. They tell you this when you are first starting out if you study in the arts but if you don’t feel that compulsion to do it you’ll never know what they mean by that. Inocente is a kid who can’t stop it. It bursts forth from her as naturally as the air she breathes. It isn’t a question of being “good” at it. That comes later. She is good at it, of course. It is that she does it, day in and day out. But the film isn’t just about a natural artist — it’s about a person who appears to have been kissed by sunshine. Homeless, living from shelter to shelter with her mother and brother, so badly abused by her father that she had to go on the run with her mother, and enduring a complex relationship with her mother now. She can’t leave, she can’t stay.
We first meet Inocente as she’s painting her face. She is drawn to bright colors and they seem to follow her everywhere. The same way that the sunlight illuminates the brightness in flowers so does Inocente bring the color everywhere she goes. It seems sickly sweet as I’m telling it but I dare you not to be won over by her. Here in LA we live parallel lives with invisible people. They are the gardeners, housecleaners, nannies, dishwashers in white communities. They are referred to simply as “illegals.” In their communities they are building lives we never see. Inocente is the story of one girl, one artist, who broke free of all known stereotypes by simply not accepting them. As Bob Dylan would say, she’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back. I will be surprised if Inocente doesn’t win but you know, you never know.
There is at least one American storyteller in the live action shorts this year, and that’s Sean Christensen. With many awards already under its belt, Curfew stands out for several reasons but the one that struck me at first was that it is written and directed by its star, Christensen. That means we have a new auteur on the scene — a gifted writer, director and actor like that doesn’t come around very often. Curfew is a surprisingly moving story about a guy who’s on the brink of suicide. The phone rings and it’s his sister – can he come watch her daughter. It is surprising at every turn, this movie, as you think the kid is going to turn out to be your run of the mill brat. But of course, she’s not. You think he’s going to turn out to be a flake but you see a different person than the one you think he will be.
I think Curfew will win and you’ll get no complaints from me. The film I was most impressed by was Buzkashi Boys, which won’t win because it contains a couple of scenes of animal brutality. I’m sorry filmmakers of the world but the Academy voters can’t stomach anything but the most soothing of stories, especially these days as most of them are in retirement or headed that way. Notice what kinds of films keep winning Best Picture? Yeah, write it down and remember it. Losing the Oscar for narrative short should send no message at all to Sam French, whose films lifts the veil on street life for young boys in Afghanistan. In such a short time, French gives us such richness of character. One kid is a blacksmith’s son. He must follow his family’s tradition of pounding out metal. The other kid has no home, no family but wants to ride in the goat dragging sport Buzkashi. It’s filmed in Kabul by Afghan and international filmmakers and is deeply moving in how the sad, hopeless story plays out. A brief discussion on Facebook I saw first said many didn’t like this year’s selection of live action shorts, and further, that this film was “too brutal” for them watch. So voters probably won’t connect with this film — and that is yet another reason why the Oscar race should be taken for what it is and not expected to be something it isn’t. Alas.
Finally, in the animated category, I was transported by both Adam and Dog and Paperman in vastly different ways. They remind me of Lincoln and Argo. Adam and Dog is Lincoln — languid, poetic, meandering but profound by the end. Paperman is lean, flawless, balanced and a general audience crowdpleaser. Both are good. Adam and Dog features stunning animation of a dog wandering an undetermined path. It is a symbolic dog, of course — Dog’s place in our lives perhaps. Neither dog nor man were meant to wander alone and yet here they do until they find each other. It’s lovely watching this dog move through the various landscapes, his movements and body language dead-on accurate. Maybe you have to be a dog lover to really have it sink into your soul, like being someone who loves Abe Lincoln is going to enjoy Lincoln more but I have always been admiring and grateful for dogs who seem to offer us nothing but friendship and love. It might not win because it is too particular a taste for all people to agree upon it. Paperman, however, is a movie anyone can get and anyone can love. It is the story you expect but not in the way you expect it. For that reason, Paperman is probably going to win.
All of the shorts this year are every bit as good as the features up for the big prize and they are well worth your time to see them. You’ve no doubt seen the animated shorts by now, so which one did you like best?