Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oscar-nominated shorts

Whether you’re a hard-core fan of short films or you just want to see as many nominees as possible before entering the office Oscar pool, there’s a lot to enjoy in this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts.

The strongest category is the documentaries, a parade of pain packaged with strong messages of hope and perseverance, so you don’t feel as if you’ve suffered for nothing.

In Incident in New Baghdad, former infantryman Ethan McCord breaks our hearts with the story of the near-dead boy and girl he rescued from the streets of Baghdad after an American helicopter rained death down on their father and several other civilians, then shows us a way to channel the sorrow with a call to action. The film makes canny use of the startlingly extensive, sometimes intimate documentation to be found in most American tours of duty in this age of phone-camera stills and video, including footage of McCord carrying one of the children to a Medivac vehicle.

Saving Face, a US/Pakistan coproduction that will debut on HBO on March 8, documents the horrific practice of burning women with acid–-and, sometimes, with gas and a lit match—that is still prevalent in parts of Pakistan, practiced mostly by abusive husbands and in-laws. Codirectors Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy got excellent access to their subjects, first giving us the big picture at a free burn clinic for victims of acid attacks and then zooming in on two highly sympathetic victims, Zakia and Rukhsana.

The uplift here comes partly from the services donated by a ex-pat Pakistani plastic surgeon who flies in to reconstruct the women’s semi-obliterated faces as well as he can. But the real hope lies in the bill a female member of Parliament is trying to pass, which would make men who burn women alive eligible for life imprisonment, and the lawsuit Zakia is pressing against her husband. Waiting for the bill to come to a vote and the case to be decided gives the film a tension that feels earned—and a surprisingly satisfying resolution.

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is a US/Japan coproduction by the director of Waste Land that begins with astonishing amateur video from people on a hilltop just outside one of the towns destroyed by the tsunami that devastated Japan last March. In the film’s riveting first half, footage of rescue and cleanup volunteers and interviews with survivors after the event cement the magnitude and horror of that day. (“Things can always be fixed,” as one survivor puts it, “but life can’t come back. It’s unbearable.”) Then the focus shifts to the cherry blossoms that captivate Japan and the role they played last year in helping people find the strength to carry on. There are many moving moments and a few interesting insights in this section, but the film begins to feel a bit repetitious at 39 minutes.

The last of the four documentaries (the fifth nominee, God is the Bigger Elvis, didn’t make it to theaters but will premiere on HBO on April 5) is The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement (USA). Its subject, James Armstrong, is in his mid-80s during most of the film and still cutting hair in his clipping-papered old-school barbershop. A true believer in democracy and the USA, Armstrong marvels at how far his beloved country has come since he walked his young sons past jeering crowds to integrate the local school or stood up to baton-swinging cops to demonstrate for the right to vote in this unembellished slice of American history.

The animated films are enjoyable but largely forgettable, though I’m still savoring the deceptive simplicity of England’s A Morning Stroll, a perkily dystopic view of New York City that’s dispensed in three brisk scenes starting in 1959 and time-traveling forward in 50-year increments. Pixar’s sweetly ingenious La Luna (USA), which proposes a whole new way of looking at the phases of the moon, is the best of that lot, which includes several “highly recommended” selections to fill out the time slot, since the nominees are quite short.

The live action films are generally pretty lighthearted, with the exception of Raju (Germany/India), a doleful dirge about a well-meaning German couple who adopt a big-eyed orphan in Kolkata only to find that he’s not what he seems. My favorite of these was Time Freak (USA), a cleverly executed high-tech twist on Groundhog Day in which a young man who has built a time machine to visit ancient Rome finds himself using it for a much more mundane purpose: redoing a series of encounters from the day before until he gets them right.

Written for TimeOff

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