Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Short Films 2015 (shorts.tv, NR)

boslaugh oscars_shortfilms_2015_75One thing AMPAS has gotten right is preserving the Oscars for short films…they still offer a chance to see a variety of work from directors who aren’t exactly household names yet, but may be some day.

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I have a lot of bones to pick with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS)—from their historically bizarre choices in the documentary and foreign film categories, to how they managed to overlook both Ava DuVernay in the Best Director category and David Oyelowo for Best Actor. (My best guess on the latter is that the Oscars are like figure skating and both are expected to “wait for their turn” a bit longer before the voters can actually perceive their work.) But one thing AMPAS has gotten right is preserving the Oscars for short films, rather than sending them the way of the awards former given to assistant directors or dance direction.

Shorts don’t play the same integral role in the movie business that they once did (audiences don’t expect a cartoon and a newsreel to screen along with a feature film these days), but they still offer a chance to see a variety of work from directors who aren’t exactly household names yet, but may be some day. The nominated live-action shorts this year are an international and multilingual lot, as they usually are (and as nominated feature films usually are not), running a total of 118 minutes.

My pick of this year’s nominees is “Aya,” directed by Oded Binnum and Mihal Brezis, which capitalizes on how depersonalized liminal experiences, like waiting in airports and driving on limited-access highways, can foster the contemplation of new beginnings. That’s my experience, anyway, and it also seems to work that way for Aya, a young Israeli woman (Sarah Adler) who impersonates a limo driver and takes an aggressively ordinary Danish academic (Ulrich Thomsen) on a ride that turns into a sometimes bizarre philosophical discussion. This film’s leisurely pace, subtle development, and running time make it feel like a junior version of My Dinner with Andre (which I really liked, by the way).

Fine acting raises Mat Kirkby’s “The Phone Call” above the level of its conventional story. It’s almost a two-hander, with the principal characters being Heather (Sally Hawkins), a shy woman working in a helpline center, and Stan (Jim Broadbent, always off camera), a suicidal man who calls the center one day. It’s a great vehicle for two excellent veteran actors as well as a fine calling card for the director, who shows his mastery of visual storytelling in what could have been a relentlessly talky film.

Talkhon Hamzavi’s “Parvaneh” is also conventional but well-done, focusing on a young Afghan asylum seeker (Nissa Kashani) who lives in hostel-like refugee center in the Swiss Alps. A trip to town to wire money home to her family brings her in contact with German youth culture, and what happens next makes “Parvaneh” a touching coming-of-age tale.

Director Michale Lennox’s “Boogaloo and Graham” contrasts some of the grimmer aspects of life in Northern Ireland (including the presence of heavily armed soldiers) with the ordinary family life of two boys presented with a pair of chicks to raise. An O’Henry twist and obtrusive use of period music make this film feel a bit pro-forma, but the nominees each year seem to include at least one comedy, and “Boogaloo and Graham” fills that slot neatly.

This year’s artiness quotient is more than fulfilled by “Butter Lamp,” directed by Wei Hu. It’s about as meta as a film can be: the action provided by a photographer staging a series of photographs of Tibetan nomads in front of painted backdrops, with everything seen from the camera’s point of view. The irony fairly drips from this film (the first views are of famous Chinese locations like the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, followed by “flat world” choices like a McMansion and Disneyland) and while some may find it profound, I found it pretentious. | Sarah Boslaugh

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