Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts (NR)

Grim is the prevailing mood among this year’s live-action shorts, but always an artistically-expressed grim. 



Short films may be a niche market today but it wasn’t always so. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized their importance by including awards for short films almost from the beginning of the Oscars. In the old days shorts were used to round out a feature showing, while today they’re more often a showcase for young directors trying to make their mark in a treacherous industry. Having watched all five of this year’s live-action nominees, I feel encouraged for the future of filmmaking: All show a secure command of style as well as the ability to tell an interesting and complete story in 25 minutes or less. My favorite is The New Tenants (I’m ready to give it the prize based merely on David Rakoff’s performance), but given the conservative tastes of the Academy (and because none of this year’s nominees involve either handicapped people or the Holocaust), I’m tipping Kavi as the likely winner in this category.

Grim is the prevailing mood among this year’s live-action shorts, but always an artistically expressed grim. Kavi, written and directed by Gregg Helvey, is a small-scale Slumdog Millionaire which presents a glimpse at modern-day slavery (bonded labor, if you prefer euphemisms) through the eyes of young Kavi (Sagar Salunke) who must work at a brick kiln to help pay his father’s debts. Beautiful, warm-toned photography by John Harrison contrast with the unflinching brutality of the story which is brought alive by Salunke’s spirited performance. Abuse hasn’t yet driven the light out of Kavi’s eyes, nor forced him to abandon his dream to go to school and play cricket like other boys of his age.

The Door, written directed by Juanita Wilson, looks at the experiences of a Russian family forced to flee their homes after the Chernobyl explosion. Chilly tones of blue and grey set up a somber mood and hint at the reason for the puzzling action which opens the film: A man steals a door from an abandoned building. Spare dialogue, understated acting and outstanding location cinematography by Tim Fleming tell a powerful story about a family’s reactions to events completely beyond their control.

Miracle Fish, written and directed by Luke Dolan, looks at the world through the eyes of eight-year-old Joe (Karl Beattie). An imaginative but withdrawn loner who is bullied at school, he wishes on a birthday “miracle fish” that everyone else would just disappear. Imagine his surprise upon waking and discovering that his wish has come true. Dolan expertly handles the shift in tone from psychological portrait to tense thriller and proves a master of both genres.

The New Tenants, directed by Joachim Back, is an extremely black comedy about the tenants of an apartment building where someone was recently murdered. Filmed (most appropriately) in New York‘s Chelsea Hotel, The New Tenants stars David Rakoff (who also adapted the screenplay from work by Anders Jensen), Kevin Corrigan, Jamie Harrold, Liane Balaban, Off-Off-Broadway veteran Helen Hanft and Vincent D’Onofrio. You have to love a film which opens with a monologue including the thought “Everybody buys the farm at some point, and usually in the most hideous, least photogenic manner…” and contains a discussion of whether it’s OK to eat the dead guy’s potato chips.

Someone had to break the mood, and Instead of Abracadabra, written, directed and edited by Patrik Eklund, is positively sun-drenched in an endearingly tacky sort of way. It looks with understated humor at Thomas (Simon J. Berger), a sort of grown-up Napoleon Dynamite who at age 25 still lives with his parents and has no job in the commonly accepted sense of the word. But in his own mind he’s a master magician whose self-confidence is unmarred by the fact that his reach frequently exceeds his grasp. Eklund displays a wonderful sense of comedic pace, and someone came up with some terrifyingly-sequined ’70s-inspired costume for the film’s aspiring illusionist. | Sarah Boslaugh

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