Oscar’s Live-Action Shorts: From Black Comedy to Heartbreak

In a tough category to predict, the standouts are a dark, audacious comedy and a heartbreaker set in Russia

In many ways, the Live-Action Short category is the toughest of the three Oscar short-film categories to predict. Voters’ likes and dislikes are easier to track in the animated and documentary categories, where emotional appeal often trumps everything else; the live-action nominees tend not to be as personal, mixing light and dark, rough and polished.

Recent winners in the category have been all over the map: the blackly humorous “Six Shooter,” the heart-tugging Holocaust story “Spielzeugland,” the slick “West Bank Story,” the unbelievably depressing “Wasp” …

(Making things more difficult, the film I like best wins about a third of the time – and the film I like least wins just about as often.)

As usual, this year’s slate is long on international work; the one film set in the U.S. comes from a Danish director, while the one made by a USC student was filmed in India.

One is lighthearted, a couple are grim, and one’s an outrageous black comedy. The body count isn’t quite as high as it is in the animated short nominees, but it’s getting up there nonetheless.  This isn’t the strongest of the category’s recent lineups, but there’s enough good work on display to make them worth your while.

These shorts, and a separate program of the animated nominees, will open on Friday in about 90 theaters around the country via Shorts International, expanding in the ensuing month into more than 100 cinemas. For information and trailers, the official website is here.

In the meantime, as part of our three-day survey of the 15 shorts nominees, here’s a guide to what’s in the running.

 

“The Door”
Director/writer: Juanita Wilson
Producer: James Flynn
Running time: 17 minutes

In a stark, snowy urban landscape, a man sneaks into a deserted but guarded high-rise, steals a door, and drives away with the door strapped to the back of his motorbike. That’s the setup to Irish director Juanita Wilson’s tale of the repercussions of a catastrophic event in Russian history; we don’t really know why the man needs the door until the end of the film, but sadness and loss permeate the short all the way to its devastating conclusion.

Wilson filmed in Russia, and in Russian, eliciting a haunting performance from lead actor Igor Sigov. Based on a true story from one of the survivors of Chernobyl, “The Door” is quiet, spare and utterly heartbreaking; to my mind, it packs an emotional punch that none of the other nominees can match. Perhaps the events of the film don’t resonate with Oscar voters the way, say, Holocaust films have always done, but Wilson’s film is so graceful and so chilling that it must be considered a formidable competitor in this race. (Octagon Films)

Instead of Abracadabra“Instead of Abracadabra”
Director/writer: Patrik Eklund
Producer: Mathias Fjellstrom
Running time: 22 minutes

Like quite a few recent nominees in this category, “Instead of Abracadabra” is light and fast and slick, the tale of a usually-hapless amateur magician who dreams of glory when he’s not fending off his dad’s entreaties to get a real job. He falls for the girl next door and figures legerdemain is the way to her heart; it’s safe to say that complications ensue, all the way up to the delightful punchline that ends the movie.

This Swedish entry is by far the slightest and jokiest of the nominees – and while that means it stands out from the others by virtue of its frivolity, voters in the category have never shown any inclination to embrace the light side. It would take some true sleight-of-hand for this one to mount a serious challenge. (Direkt├Ârn & Fabrik├Ârn)

Kavi“Kavi”
Director/writer/producer: Gregg Helvey
Running time: 18 minutes

Filmmaker Gregg Helvey has already won an Oscar for this film, albeit a Student Academy Award. Though he’s a USC student, his film was shot in India, and deals with a young boy who’s essentially a slave in a brick kiln in that country. A stark, brutal look at a hellish life that holds little hope of escape, the film has a hand-held style and a rough-hewn aesthetic that gives it the feel of a documentary. It’s clearly a work of fiction, but that fiction is grounded in the reality that more than 20 million people around the world are currently enslaved.

The film is serious and issue-oriented in a manner that’s often the province of the documentary shorts rather than the live-action ones. And I suspect that its dead-serious approach, coupled with its blunt style and unrelenting brutality, will make it a longshot. (Gregg Helvey)

Miracle Fish“Miracle Fish”
Director/writer: Luke Doolan
Producer: Drew Bailey
Running time: 17 minutes

Bullied at school on his eighth birthday, a young boy retreats to sick bay, takes a nap, and wakes up to find that his school is completely deserted. This Australian short starts out sad and touching, slips into an odd dreamlike state, and then abruptly shifts tone when we find out what’s happened in the school. The denounement is jarring, a bit troubling, and definitely unconvincing in certain ways.

Lots of recent nominees in this category have depended on crucial twists (or sudden reveals, or, to be honest, gimmicks) to be noticed. And as twists go, this one is a doozy. But I also think it’s more off-putting than satisfying, and I doubt it’ll win over many voters. (Druid Films)

“The New Tenants”
Director: Joachim Back
Producer: Tivi Magnusson
Running time: 20 minutes

A bickering gay couple moves into a New York apartment building where the previous tenant had been killed. Over the course of a nightmarish day, they meet the cast of grotesques who are their new neighbors; what ensues is a lot of arguing, some of the most misanthropic monologues ever committed to film, and a truckload of emotional and physical violence.

 

 

The New TenantsSlick and dark and funny and twisted, the short features Vincent D’Onofrio and a batch of vaguely familiar actors; for my money it starts out awfully unlikable, but ends up being the funniest and best black comedy to grace this category since Martin McDonagh’s marvelous “Six Shooter” a few years back. (That playwright-turned-filmmaker went on to make the terrific feature “In Bruges.”) “Six Shooter” won the Oscar, which suggests that venturesome voters could make “The New Tenants” a strong competitor as well. (Park Pictures)

Bottom line: The mean-spirited audacity of “The New Tenants” is a real kick, and I can see that film winning over a good portion of the electorate. It’s also conceivable that the more sober-minded voters could respond to “Kavi.” But nothing else in the category packs the emotional punch of “The Door.” It’s the nominee that’ll haunt viewers, which means it’s also the one that should win.