The cream of the Oscar-nominated short film crop this year is the live action category, and by a good margin. This year’s group is a collection of five excellent films from around the world. The United States got squeezed out of this group in favor of two films from the U.K., one from Switzerland, one from Israel and one from China. This wonderful group of films collectively leaves behind the whimsy of the animated category and the gloom of the documentaries for a more diverse selection of moods.
Boogaloo and Graham, from the U.K., is one of the best of the nominated five. The film focuses on two Northern Irish brothers and their relationship with a couple of chickens that their father gifted them. The kids are inseparable from the chickens, walking around Belfast with the chickens on their shoulders. All is rosy until their mother grows increasingly frustrated with the chickens and eventually tells the children to get rid of them. Beautifully directed by Michael Lennox, the story does not hit on any big issues or try to make any overarching claims. But this story of a family and a pair of chickens is, simply put, adorable. The brothers are a delight, and their father’s love for them is so well depicted that it’s sure to put a few lumps in some unsuspecting throats.
Next is Parvaneh, another lovely film. In it, a young Afghani refugee in the Swiss Alps, the eponymous Parvaneh, goes to Zurich in an attempt to send some money back to Afghanistan to help her sick father. She is lost in the busy city and has trouble adjusting to some of the cultural differences she comes across. But after a while, Parvaneh makes a friend who takes her on an adventure through Zurich. Like Boogaloo, the story is only a small vignette, but it is charming. Nissa Kashani is relentlessly appealing as the lead, and over the course of the night the meek Parvaneh unveils a newfound toughness. Kashani does a great job depicting this gradual change over the 25-minute runtime. The film is quite good, but in this highly competitive field, it will probably fall short.
Another that will likely fall short is the most difficult to decipher of the five — Butter Lamp, a Chinese film with no narrative. The entire film consists of a traveling photographer taking pictures of villagers in a small Tibetan village in front of a series of backdrops. There is no narration and almost no dialogue. As a viewer, it takes a while to realize that the entire film will indeed consist only of the photos being taken, instead of moving to a different location or anything else happening. On the surface, it is simply as follows: a Tibetan family sets itself up in front of a backdrop, a photographer gives it instructions, a picture is taken, the Tibetan family leaves, the backdrop is changed, rinse and repeat. However, the little quirks of the families interacting with the photographer, the backdrops and each other give the film a compelling charm. It obviously wouldn’t work as a feature-length movie, but 15 minutes is not long enough for the charm to wear off. Unfortunately, the category is very strong, and despite its latent charm, Butter Lamp can’t really measure up to its competitors.
One of the strongest of this stacked field is The Phone Call. Like Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 in the Documentary Short Subject category, the story takes place in a crisis hotline office. And like in Crisis Hotline, director Mat Kirkby manages to extract a boatload of emotion and suspense from a standard office that at face value does not scream “emotional roller coaster.” The majority of the action focuses on Heather (Sally Hawkins), and as she is on the phone, most of the film is cut close to her face. The voice on the other end of the line is a sad Stan (Jim Broadbent) at the end of his rope, though we never see him. Over the course of 20 minutes, Hawkins’ character connects with Broadbent’s, as Heather pleads with Stan to let her call him an ambulance. They develop a strong connection over their short conversation, and Hawkins sells it with some incredibly nuanced facial acting.
Now, in a strong field like this, it takes an exceptional film to rise to the top. Israel’s Aya manages to do just that. In the film, the titular Aya ends up picking up a stranger at the airport when she is mistaken for his assigned driver. Aya decides to not correct the mistake and drive the man anyway. Over the course of their drive together, the two develop a strange dynamic, first while he carries on believing that she is the driver, and then when she reveals the mix-up to him halfway to his hotel. Sarah Adler is enchanting as the enigmatic Aya. Her character is an open book who expresses her feelings to a complete stranger, but there is an unplaceable aloofness to her that makes the character fascinating. The passenger, a Danish music researcher named Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), plays off of her extremely well. He is very reserved at first, and then outraged at the deception. But in the end, Mr. Overby cannot help but be intrigued by her je ne sais quoi. Directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis complement the performances expertly, and the result is a lovely film that should win in this all-around impressive field.