A good short film hooks viewers, carries them through the story, and delivers a satisfying payoff. The beauty of short films is that they are brief, intense snippets of a larger life. This year’s Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts all follow this format, making it difficult to pick a winner. The five international shorts in competition may be the strongest group of contenders in years.
Ennemies Intérieurs is a mostly two-hander set in the 1990s, about a French-Algerian man (Hassam Ghancy) who is applying for French citizenship. His interrogator (Najib Oudghiri) asks him a series of increasingly more intense questions, as the threat of terrorism hangs in the air. Flashbacks to meetings and other events in the applicant’s life raise the question of innocence or guilt. As the power shifts back and forth between the two men, Ennemies Intérieurs makes some key points that certainly resonate today with the current immigrant ban.
In La Femme et la TGV, Elise (Jane Birkin) is an older woman who runs a failing bakery in a small town. She is decidedly old school, refusing to use the Internet, or make a cheaper, inferior product. One of her simple pleasures in life is to wave a flag twice a day at the TGV train as it passes by her house. One afternoon, she discovers that her flag-waving is a ray of light to the lonely TGV conductor. As these two strangers exchange letters and packages, they form a connection. Elise is invigorated, but a change in the conductor’s schedule threatens to derail their budding relationship. Based on a true story, La Femme et la TGV is an old-fashioned epistolary romance, complete with a race-to-the-train-station climax, but it features a lovely performance by Birkin, and the veteran actress is especially charming when she expresses her happiness by dancing in her shop.
Silent Nights is also an engrossing tale. Kwame (Prince Yah Appiah) is a Ghanian immigrant in Denmark who is having difficulty finding work. He seeks refuge in a shelter where Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) volunteers. The pair soon initiate a romance that runs into trouble when Inger wants to take their relationship to the next level, and learns things about Kwame that test their relationship. Silent Nights does not hold many narrative surprises, but the film’s strength is that co-writer/director Aske Bang establishes his characters efficiently. Viewers understand Kwame and Inger’s respective struggles, adding depth to this slice of life story, and the performances by the two leads are terrific.
Sing, from Hungary, is a sweet fable, inspired by actual events, about an ambitious music teacher Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi) who tells her new student Zsófi (Dóra Gáspárvalvi) to mouth the words to the songs in the choir so they can win a competition. Zsófi is frustrated by this command, and when she teams up with her new friend Lisz (Dorka Hais), they conspire to expose Miss Erika’s fraud. Sing takes its time getting to its payoff, but the ending, when it comes, is highly satisfying.
Rounding out the nominees is the clever Spanish entry, Timecode, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for Best Short Film. It’s a worthy short about two security guards Diego (Nicolas Ricchini) and Luna (Lali Ayguadé), who respectively monitor a parking lot night and day. They communicate only barely, but soon leave each other coded messages that establish a bond between them. What transpires is a bit of amusing mischief best left for audiences (and the guard’s boss) to discover.
While oddmakers have Ennemies Intérieurs as the likely victor, the smart money might bet that the academy will award La Femme et la TGV because it is a sentimental romance, and stars a well-known actress. If there is an upset, however, it could come from Sing, for being a crowd-pleaser, or Timecode, which is the only real comedic entry. We will see on February 26th, but fans of short films should see this year’s crop. It’s pretty terrific.
The Oscar nominated Live Action Short Film program begins today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.