Below is a ranking of the five short films that were nominated in the Live Action Short category at this year’s Oscars.
5. Silent Nights (Denmark).
Silent Nights is an unfortunate reminder that inspiring stories don’t necessarily make good movies. It recounts the tale of a Danish girl named Inger (Malene Beltoft, not Eddie Redmayne) and her brief relationship with a Ghanaian refugee named Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah), whom she meets while working as a volunteer at the Salvation Army. Most everything about it is painfully predictable, from the choice of lighting (she’s usually shown in a brighter setting, he’s often depicted scrounging around in the dark) to the one-dimensionally racist people the two have to confront. The film also has a bit of a “white savior” complex to it: instead of focusing in on Kwame’s struggles to make money for his family back in Africa, it seems more interested in showing how Inger has to “understand” the fact that Kwame lives a difficult life that may transgress her moral standards. All in all, it’s a short that could have been something — but which here comes off as little more than a clumsily made DNC propaganda piece.
4. Ennemis Intérieurs (France).
In Ennemis Intérieurs, a French-Algerian man (Hassam Ghancy) seeks to obtain French citizenship, but a tryhard police inspector (Najib Oudghiri) insists on putting him through a grueling, borderline-racist interrogation process. The timing of this release — Trump’s executive order, Emmanuel Macron’s claim that the French colonization of Algeria was a “crime against humanity” — is impeccable, the dialogue is fast and intense, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat waiting to see which of the two wins their tug-of-war. Yet by designing his two characters to essentially be opposing caricatures of “the good guy” and “the bad guy” (save one half-hearted line where the inspector notes that “we’re not interrogating you because we’re all racists, it’s not that easy”), director Sélim Azzazi shows he’s less interested in nuance than in trying to hammer ideas into his audience. Whenever you have the temptation to shout out “You’re an a**hole” to a character on the screen, that’s a sign that the movie’s desire to appeal to your gut instincts has overtaken whatever capacity it may have for judiciously dealing with the views it seeks to condemn. Is that really the best way to show Trump, Le Pen and company where their errors lie?
3. Timecode (Spain).
If you’re ever stuck doing shift work and want a way to enliven your day, Timecode will be just the spark of inspiration you need. A woman (Lali Ayguadé) works as a security guard at a parking garage where nobody ever parks. The only interesting thing that happens during her day-long shift is the brief series of rote pleasantries she exchanges with her fellow night-shift co-worker (Nicolas Ricchini) every morning. By chance, however, she discovers one day that her colleague has his own special way of killing time. This short isn’t groundbreaking; the most it will leave you with is a gentle sensation of amusement that, as with Piper in the animated shorts, will quickly fade by the time you leave the theater. Still, it certainly is a highly entertaining tribute to the unique ways people can create love and meaning in the most seemingly monotonous of environments — and all without ever saying anything beyond “What’s up?” Italo Calvino, the author who in Difficult Loves masterfully portrayed the peculiar variations modernity imposes on traditional man-woman relationships, would almost certainly be proud.
2. La femme et le TGV (Switzerland).
If you didn’t already want to go visit Switzerland, watching this short will certainly give you the necessary push. Set in the middle of the countryside, with gorgeous shots throughout of idyllic lake and mountain landscapes, the film recounts the true story of a woman (Jane Birken) who every morning makes sure to wave at the TGV train that passes right by her house. One day, she finds that an engineer who’s been working on the TGV for years has thrown a letter into her garden — and from that initial moment of contact, a correspondence between the two begins to blossom. This is a story that seeks to mix the mocking whimsy of Amélie and The Grand Budapest Hotel with the romantic implausibility of Sleepless in Seattle. And in the hands of director Timo von Gunten, the combination works; it ends up being a funny, touching tribute to living in the now that to its credit succeeds in avoiding the obvious sentimental ending. As with The Red Turtle, it also provides a loving portrait of an innocent ambiance that modern urban society seems to be rendering more and more obsolete.
1. Sing (Hungary). (Oscar winner)
Whiplash takes a childish, Eastern European turn in Sing, a Hungarian short about a young girl named Zsófi (Dorka Gáspárfalvi) who joins the choir at her new elementary school. She loves singing, but the choir director (Zsófia Szamosi), fearing that she’ll ruin the choir’s chances of winning an upcoming competition, tells her to stick to lip syncing. Unlike J.K. Simmons’ somewhat one-note jazz instructor, said director is not a sadist, although she’s certainly a little vain; you realize, too, that Zsófi isn’t the greatest of singers, and the solution the director devises at least tries to attend to Zsófi’s desire to be in the choir. (Terence Fletcher, on the other hand…) Yet at the same time, you can’t help but feel for Zsófi — the young actresses who play her and her friend Liza (Dorottya Hais) turn in extremely sensitive performances as children who, like Julien and Jean in Au revoir les enfants, find themselves learning all too soon that the world isn’t as kind as they thought. The ending, in which Zsófi exacts a bit of vengeance, manages to tie these two strands together in a resolution that’s both uplifting and sobering: as the singing voices of the choir echo over the credits, you feel glad Zsófi has succeeded in upturning the odds but suspect that her victory is momentary, one last plea for fairness before entering a world that couldn’t care less about such ideals. Altogether, the whole short gives a moving but unsentimental look at the tense contradictions between merit and fairness, passion and skill, childhood dreams and the “real world” — a look that well deserved its win at this past Sunday’s Oscars.