To See Visual Dazzle In Oscar-Nominated Films, Go Short
Earlier this month, the National Society of Film Critics selected Jean-Luc Godard's esoteric but visually groundbreaking Goodbye to Language 3D as its best film of 2014. A minor controversy ensued when some journalists who cover the awards season beat accused the organization of being "self-congratulatory," "elitist," and generally out of touch.
The reality the dust-up brought to light is hardly a new one. The Golden Globes, Academy Awards, and others awards celebrate a particular kind of movie told in a particular kind of way. Despite the NSFC nod, when Goodbye to Language wasn't nominated for any Oscars, no one declared it a snub. The movie—with its unapologetic focus on the image rather than narrative—was, for all intents and purposes, never in contention.
In that context, the nominees for the short film categories—which for the tenth straight year are being shown in theaters across the country—are refreshing precisely because they offer a wide, though of course not complete, vision of what cinema looks like today.
The short documentary category stands out in particular, the consistent bleakness of its entries offset by the variety of its approaches to storytelling. In a selection that includes, among other things, a harrowing inside-look at a suicide hotline for veterans, Tomasz Śliwiński's Our Curse is the most viscerally upsetting entry. The movie documents Śliwiński and his wife Maciej's experience raising a son, Leo, born with CCHS (known also as Ondine's Curse), a disorder that affects a person's breathing when they're asleep, requiring them to use a ventilator whenever they go to bed.
The film is an immersive video memoir, letting us into Śliwiński and Maciej's lives through long takes shot by a fixed camera, and anchored by a series of nighttime conversations between the parents—debriefing sessions through which we glimpse their anxiety while coping with Leo's disorder. Although the film's final moments try to emphasize the family's perseverance, much of the doc is often so distressing as to be unwatchable, particularly in a scene where Śliwiński and Maciej have to remove and clean Leo's breathing tube, leaving the baby crying and gasping for air in the process.
In contrast to the intimacy of Our Curse, Aneta Kopacz's Joanna, which is about a woman fighting a losing battle against cancer, has an impersonal feel, the camera an unnoticed observer to Joanna and her family's struggles. Kopacz focuses primarily on Joanna's relationship with her son, Janek. But when Joanna and her husband sit down to tell Janek that she only has a short time to live, we're not there with them as we would be in Our Curse; Kopacz shoots the scene from outside the house, through a window, where we can only see Janek's reaction.
The moment is as affecting as any in Our Curse, and watching both films together is cause to relish the contrasting styles represented among the nominees. That feeling grows further with The Reaper, the most visually stunning of the short docs, which recounts a day in the life of a slaughterhouse worker through pristinely composed shots of the tools, machines, and, yes, animals (both living and dead) that he works with on a daily basis. The approach is calculated and emotionally distanced; the director Gabriel Serra Arguello films blood on the wall like a splatter painting. It's far different than Our Curse and Joanna in that respect, but the punch to the gut it produces feels the same.
The animated short category offers a respite from the gloom in the documentaries. The nominees are heartwarming and often funny stories like Torill Kove's Me and My Moulton, a memoir about growing up in a hippie family when everyone else's parents seem normal and straitlaced. (Standout line: "Ten thousand men in our town, one single mustache. And it has to be on mydad.")
That said, the category's best offering, Daisy Jacobs's The Bigger Picture, is about two brothers who get in a fight while caring for their elderly mother. Despite the subject matter, though, Jacobs's approach is still defined more by dry, dark humor than despair, and The Bigger Picture is a must-see largely for its technical accomplishments.
Jacobs achieved the look of the film by painting characters onto the walls of real sets and having these animations, which are childishly simple and at times expressionist in their distortions, interact with 3D papier-mâché props through stop-motion. The astonishing result—whether its simply watching a character pour tea or, more fantastically, suck up an entire room into a vacuum cleaner—is like seeing a mural stick a hand out of a wall to start shaking the hands of passersby. (You can get a sense of the style in this making-of video.)
The live action shorts, unfortunately, are largely disappointing, suffering too often from corny sentimentalism, shallow characters, or insipid plots. Only Hu Wei's Butter Lamp rises above the fray, and even it suffers from a punch-line ending that lands too neatly. Before that stumble, though, it uses a simple story—a photographer comes to a remote Tibetan village and takes portraits of the residents standing in front of large backdrops of busy city streets, a Beijing Olympic stadium, pristine beaches, and more—to reflect on the power of images. It's a fitting topic in the context of this year's Oscar-nominated short films, which, more than nearly all the other Oscar nominees, bring visuals to the fore, compelling us to consider not just their stories but also the way that they are told.
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