Presenting brief reviews of the five films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, ranked from my favorite to least-favorite.
White Eye (Tomer Shushan, Israel)
To talk about White Eye is necessarily to talk about its central stylistic element, which I will not call a “gimmick” mostly because I liked the movie. But if you wanted to call it a gimmick, I will not by any means look to stand in your way. The 21-minute film is made up of a grand total of one tracking shot; not, as far as I could tell just by looking at it, one of those artificial long tracking shots that are stitched together digitally from several smaller pieces. At any rate, if it’s not one single 20-minute take, it nevertheless acts like that’s how it was captured, never breaking the contiguous reality of the space around one short stretch of road and a couple of buildings right on that stretch.
This proves to be the film’s biggest limitation in addition to its most salient aspect, because in this particular case, “we need to do it all in one take” has been allowed to dictate everything else. I wouldn’t ever say the film is “bad” because of this – indeed, I’m rather impressed by the whole thing – but it never does entirely feel like the rhythm of the story is right, or that the movements of the actors are motivated by character as opposed to choreography.
Still, what’s left of the story and characters is very fine, a perfect use of 20 minutes, a length long enough to develop a situation but not long enough for that situation to hit more than one key point. In this case, we have a story that plays a little bit like a lost sequel to Bicycle Thieves, in which Omer (Daniel Gad) finds his bike which was stolen a month ago, chained up outside of a restaurant. In his urgency to get it back, he brings the cops in, only to find that the people currently in possession of the bike aren’t necessarily “the bad guys”, and he might very well cause substantial trouble to somebody else if he pursues this. But he also needs his bike. It’s a simple, in-and-out moral fable, built around the most basic moral question of all: how far am I willing to ruin somebody else’s day in order to make my own better? And whatever limitations the film has, the performances, including a powerfully ambivalent turn from Gad, and the sense of onrushing inevitability as one event kickstarts the next, to ever more terrible ends, both contribute a great deal of tension and weight to the simply plot. Plus, since I spent the opening bagging on the long take, the least I can to do end is to declare that it’s actually a pretty great way for the film to ratchet up a feeling of anxiety and the concern that things are going to break for the worse at any moment, as the moment just keeps spilling out and stretching itself into infinity.
The Present (Farah Nabulsi, Palestine)
To begin with: it feels much more calculated than could possibly be the case for the Academy to have just so happened to have nominated an Israeli production the same year that they’ve nominated this unabashedly anti-Israel propaganda (and whatever your opinions on the subject are – I certainly have no particular love for the Israeli government, myself – there’s little point in denying that this is propaganda). That the two films in question are, comfortably in my opinion, the best of the nominees can’t even be rightfully called a coincidence, since it’s purely a matter of taste. Still, it strikes me as funny.
None of which has anything really to do with The Present, which like White Eye has the uncommon benefit of being precisely the correct length, neither too rushed nor badly puffed-out, the problems that are so extremely common to short films. 24 minutes is exactly the amount of time that director/co-writer Farah Nabulsi and co-writer Hind Shoufani require to move us into a brief, almost parable-like examination of an everyday sort of petty oppression in the lives of a Palestinian family, a little slice of pointless humiliation that starts to build up to something like a big, melodramatic confrontation, only to fizzle out in the face of the realisation on both sides that there are just no stakes here, only the bored exercise of just enough power to ruin a man’s day. Yusef (Saleh Bakri) and his daughter Yasmine (Mariam Kanj) want to go shopping in the West Bank to buy a birthday present for his wife & her mom, Noor (Mariam Basha); in order to do this, they have to go through an Israeli checkpoint. And at this checkpoint, particularly on the way back home, Yusef is treated with a suspicion that’s heavy with the potential for violence. And that’s kind of the whole thing.
As slice of life, captured by Nabulsi with a very clean version of flat, docudrama-like realism (especially in the long-ish opening scene that introduces us to the family, a solid, functional unit that only slightly demonstrates the crushing stress that both parents must feel all of the time), this is slightly terrific. As a drama, it suffers more than a little bit from its extreme desire to be About The Issue Of Occupation; while the actors are very good at bringing some personality to their roles, as written these feel less like characters than pawns to be manipulated by the author for maximum Learning Opportunities. And I am no less irritated by how very clearly this is targeting a Western, white, and American viewer, tugging on the heartstrings in the hopes of convincing us to be just scandalised by the existence of these checkpoints. It never feels like a human story that happens to have a message; it feels like a message movie that happens to have humans.
But there’s enough of a core of domestic calm at the foundation of the thing that they’re still very good humans, and likable, and it’s easy to get caught up in what happens to them. And I really cannot over-praise a film that stays so small and compact, and is so willing to end on a semicolon rather than an exclamation point. It’s extremely satisfying, well-built in every way, and that’s much rare for a short film than it ought to be.
Feeling Through (Doug Roland, USA)
“The first film ever to co-star a deaf-blind man!” pridefully declares the PR campaign for Feeling Through, as though there’s nothing else to say about it. And unfortunately, the reality is: there’s maybe not? It’s a perfectly fine piece of filmmaking that writer-director Doug Roland has provided for us, working with cinematographer Eugene Koh to depict New York at night as a cool and lonely, but not necessarily hostile or scary world of navy blues with slices of neon and sodium vapor bringing some small measure of vitality to spaces. There have undoubtedly been more realistic depictions of that city, not least that city as a nighttime realm of lost souls, but Feeling Through is an admirable addition to a long tradition.
As far as a story, though, it’s awfully… present. Tereek (Steven Prescod) is a teen with nowhere to go one night, and as he fruitlessly texts friends and lovers looking for a place to crash, he notices middle-aged Artie (Robert Tarango) standing still as a statue at the edge of a street. Noticing the sign declaring that Artie is deaf and blind, and needs have someone give him a tap when it’s safe to cross the street, Tereek decides to help him out. In short order, he ends up spending the whole night with Artie, learning how communicate with the older man, while helping him find the right bus stop and other such things that Tereek has always taken for granted.
It’s nice as heck, and it’s not an ounce more. The best thing one can say about this is that Prescod plays Tereek with rather more prickly edges and less of a soul-stirring “aha, I understand what it is like to be disabled!” arc than one might assume was forthcoming; he’s not afraid to let the teen come across as slightly abrasive in viewing Artie as an unexpected, unwanted obligation as much as a new friend. And insofar as the ending works, it does so mostly because of Prescod’s refusal to play an earlier scene with any sort of of sentimental overtones. Beyond that, this is very much a case where what you see is what you get: we learn that the disabled are people to, and it’s all very sweet, and thankfully not belabored at 18 minutes. I’m inherently suspicious of this kind of story about disability that doesn’t appear to have thought even for a minute about making the disabled character the actual protagonist, but it has been done far more crudely than we get here, and there are a decent number of compensations around the edges of the narrative to make this, at the very least, a painless watch.
The Letter Room (Elvira Lind, USA)
Now this is what I expect from an Oscar-nominated short film: absolutely no trace of storytelling discipline whatsoever in a weirdly bloated curio that features a major actor who appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he takes things easy and relaxed. In this case the actor is Oscar Isaac, who to be fair hasn’t been this immediately appealing in a movie in quite some while, not since he gotten eaten by the Star Wars black hole: he’s allowed himself to fall apart a bit, letting his 41 years on this planet show themselves through his paunch and his greying hair mangled into a rough wavy shape and a big goofy mustache devouring the bottom half of his face. It’s the right choice for the character, and the right choice to make him feel like an actor again, with none of the somewhat brittle sexy charisma that he’s been displaying for the last few years in big-budget stuff.
And that’s definitely the best I have to say about The Letter Room, written and directed by Elvira Lind, who is married to Isaac; it’s a nice little family affair, then, which is maybe why it’s so fucking shaggy and shapeless. In the film’s 32 minutes, corrections officer Richard (Isaac) is promoted to running the letter room at prison, monitoring all incoming and outgoing correspondence for any contraband or potentially inflammatory content. In executing this job, he finds himself getting tangled up in the personal life of Cris (Brian Petsos), a man on death row, and learning in the process that prisoners’ emotional needs are deeper and also more straightforward than he’d thought.
There aren’t 32 minutes of content here. That’s far and away the biggest problem with a movie that is perfectly nice and cute on its own terms, but a wandering, repetitive pile in the form we’ve gotten it. Most of the character arc is bundled up in the last three minutes or so, and most of what we get prior to that is a lot of dithering, as Lind takes unnecessary effort to set up Richard’s new job and career prospects, threads that don’t go anywhere or inform anything, but do at least give Isaac some different beats to play. The muddy visual style that accompanies this doesn’t help matters, giving a flat grey quality to the setting that something this devoid of momentum hardly needed. Pleasant and all, with some grace notes of low-key comedy, but this is pretty empty and slack.
Two Distant Strangers (Travon Free & Martin Desmond Roe, USA)
“Let’s do Groundhog Day, but what triggers the time loop is that every time a Black man is killed by a cop, he goes back to the moment he woke up on the day of the murder” is an astonishingly fragile concept: while I can, in principle, imagine it going well in creating a sharp, angry political commentary or satire on the cycle of violence perpetrated by police officers, I have a much easier time imagining it going horribly. As horribly as we see right here in Two Distant Strangers, an absolutely disaster of a film on every front, though its blunderbluss-like handling of such a high-stakes concept is certainly a big part of that. This is aggressively tasteless, and not in the fun, sassy way of good exploitation, but in the agonising way of a really fucking smug message movie that is way too happy that it gets to lecture at us in really blunt, artless lines of dialogue that tell us precisely what the filmmakers want us to walk away with, and giving us exactly one way to read their symbolism. Symbolism that was not, I assure you, in any danger of being misread, particularly in such jaw-droppingly bad moments as when the victim, Carter (Joey Bada$$), killed for the latest time, dies in a pool of his own blood shaped like the continent of Africa. Just in case you were curious if this film was going to treat the sight of a man dying many times with anything resembling tact.
But let us be clear, this is not a good movie done in by its clumsy handling of a delicate subject. This is a bad movie almost from the very first scene, which tries to rush through setting up the first version of its time loop, and has to do this so quickly that it’s basically just setting up motifs in a glib, manic register that does nothing to suggest that gravity will be entering the film later on. Which means, in turn, that when the gravity does show up, it’s embarassingly po-faced and forced. But that’s towards the end, for right now we’re still in the hell of bouncy comic beats and one amazingly baldfaced bit of product placement involving an automatic dog feeder. 32 minutes is much too long for the film, and yet this all feels horribly rushed (the problem is that the film spends far too much time on one of its last loops). And above and beyond all the rest, we’re already getting a flavor of the extremely perfunctory, declarative dialogue that just mouths themes at us listless, aided in no way by the actors.
Somehow, as much as I was hating all of this, I was still let down by the ending, which is the most pointless, self-negating thing, demolishing any integrity this had as a story in favor of pure snarling cynicism. Miserable in every way, and horribly emblematic of how much intellectual weight the phrase “Oscar nominee” actually carries.