Moviegoers who keep up with all the latest releases are probably sick by now of hearing about the current crop of major Oscar contenders from 2018, in advance of the Feb. 24 Academy Awards. But as always, there are interesting nooks and crannies that remain relatively unpublicized. That’s why the annual “Oscar Nominated Short Films 2019” shows are so potentially noteworthy.
As in recent years, the selection of “Animated” shorts this season doesn’t quite measure up to the “Live Action” roundup. Maybe the predominance of major-studio full-length animated movies is draining the well of imaginative concepts. Or perhaps the novelty of high-tech animation effects has finally worn off for jaded audiences. Whatever, this year’s Academy-approved animated shorts struggle to find the sweet spot that seems so available to the Incredibles and Hotel Transylvania sequels of the world. We have to pick through a lineup carefully to find standouts.
The most intriguing is Trevor Jimenez’s Weekends, the sad tale of a boy whose promise-filled, imaginative inner life does not jibe with his real-life situation, bouncing back and forth between his quiet, newly divorced mother and his fantasy-driven father. Writer-director Jimenez conveys quite a bit of emotion in the dialogue-free, 16-minute story, with its careful pen-and-ink drawings. The boy’s mother wears a neck brace (the product of spousal abuse?) and plays Erik Satie music on the piano; the father toys with his collection of samurai swords and drives a flashy sports car. Meanwhile, the boy dreams about riding a sculpted horse in the sky.
Weekends was produced in the United States. Other shorts in the program come from Ireland, China, and Canada, and there’s a pronounced Asian flavor to some of them. Domee Shi’s Pixar-made Bao, for instance, imagines a Chinese dumpling come to life to brighten the life of an elderly Chinese-American wife. In Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas’ U.S./China co-prod One Small Step, the would-be astronaut is a young girl who looks vaguely Caucasian but lives an Asian lifestyle with her parents.
Over on the “Live Action” side of the ledger — the two programs are presented separately in theaters, with separate tickets — the emphasis is also on youth but the mood is generally gloomy, and frequently violent.
From Irish writer-director Vincent Lambe comes Detainment, a 30-minute true crime story about a pair of 10-year-old boys in Liverpool, England who abduct and abuse a toddler from a market street for seemingly no reason. Lambe’s dismally matter-of-fact scenario is based on the real-life 1993 murder case of little James Bulger, and has the cruel snap of a documentary, with strong performances by juvie actors Ely Solan and Leon Hughes.
Then there’s Fauve, a short-but-harrowing Canadian story of another two boys, whose mischievous adventures in a deserted open-pit mine lead to disaster. It’s written and directed by Jeremy Comte. Similar anxious moments in Madre, a 19-minute effort by established Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen (The Realm), in which a young boy phones his mother from a beach where he has evidently been abandoned, setting in motion what looks like the beginning of a good thriller.
For sheer tension and hammer-and-tong narrative incident, however, nothing in either half of the Academy shorts show compares with filmmaker Guy Nattiv’s American-made Skin. Told from the point of view of two preteen boys in the contemporary United States, it tells the story of young Troy (Jackson Robert Scott), a bright, impressionable kid who tags along with his swastika-tattooed, white supremacist father (Jared Day) for assault-weapon target practice with the dad’s goonish friends, all the while soaking up the hatred. We won’t spoil the action-packed 20-minute plot, except to say that Troy’s dad behaves true to form and faces the consequences. The short is evidently the prequel to a feature-length film, also titled Skin and also directed by the Israeli native Nattiv, which follows a similar brutal trajectory. Skin is highly recommended, as is the “Live Action” shorts package in general.