2019 Live Action Short Subject Academy Award Nominees
What a dismal afternoon at the movies. There is not a humorous one in the bunch. Only one of them offers any hope at all; the rest are so dark you want to suck a gas pipe when you come out of the show. I went back over the list of nominees and winners for the last decade or so, most of which we have seen, and every year there has been a majority of films that make you feel good in one way or another.
I really have to wonder: Is it the times? I’ve never felt so hopeless about the world in general. Is this leading artists to create films that offer no joy, no moment of uplift, and the Academy to select a list like this? Remember, hundreds of shorts are submitted every year. Surely there must have been a few that were not so damn dark.
I must issue a SPOILER WARNING here, because I’m going to reveal the endings.
Madre (Rodrigo Sorogoyen and Maria del Puy Alvarado) (Spain) (19 minutes) We begin with a slow pan around a deserted beach on a gray, gloomy day. Then we cut to the interior of an apartment. A young mother and her mother are going about their daily business when the phone rings. It is the son/grandson. At first they are delighted. The boy is visiting his father. But then he says his father took him to the beach, told him he would be right back, and left him alone. Things quickly deteriorate. He is too young to know where he is: Spain, or France. Is anyone around? No. Can you see any houses? No. She calls the police on another line, but there’s little they can do. Come down and file a report, they say. Then the boy says he sees a man. What is he doing? He’s pissing. Run, the mother says. Hide! Now the boy says the man is following him …
Can you imagine it? The sheer horror. My heart, as they say, was in my throat. I imagined one of my sons on the other end of that line. Of course we desperately want some sign that it’s all going to be all right, but the writers don’t allow us this easy out. We cut back to another slow pan around the beach.
I was really tempted to vote NO AWARD this year, like so many did at the Hugo Awards a few years back, when a group of racist, misogynistic, militaristic morons gamed the nominating process. But in the end I opted for this one, largely because of the fantastic performance of Marta Nieto as the mother. In one continuous 17-minute take she goes from happy and excited to utter terror as her world collapses around her. How quickly it can happen, you know? One take. I was amazed. I recommend this, if you can handle it.
Fauve (Jeremy Comte and Maria Gracia Turgeon) (Canada) (17 minutes) My online translator renders this title as “wildcat.” In the film we see a fox, which in French is “renard.” Two boys are horsing around in an abandoned train and quarry, doing double-dog-dares and can-you-top-this. At the bottom of a huge pit, they walk out onto some wet sand. One of them gets stuck. The other at first assumes his friend is messing with his head, because they’ve done that sort of thing all the time. But eventually the stuck boy gets out. Now, of course, the other boy has to go out onto the quicksand. He gets stuck … and pretty quickly he is up to his waist, then his chest. He is really scared, and does exactly what one should not do in quicksand, which is struggle and squirm back and forth. The other boy runs to find help, but finds no one. He goes back to the quicksand, and his friend is gone. So you try to come up with a scenario whereby the boy survived. Sorry, he didn’t. The end. I had very little use for this one.
Marguerite (Marianne Farley and Marie-Helene Panisset) (Canada) (19 minutes) An elderly woman has a nice caregiver, who comes in and bathes her and massages her feet, and so forth. The old woman asks if she has a boyfriend. Girlfriend, actually, she responds. Later, the old woman is looking through a photograph album. She worked as a stewardess, and there is a picture of her with another woman. It’s immediately clear (to me, at least) that she was in love. She has never told anyone, so now she talks about it. It was impossible back then, it’s not like it is now. The lesbian caregiver kisses her on the lips, and then curls up beside her. So this is the only film that has a heart, but it is quite bittersweet. I guess that’s all we can hope for in the Age of Trump.
Detainment (Vincent Lambe and Darren Mahon) (Ireland) (30 minutes) In 1993 Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both aged 10, took a 3-year-old toddler named James Bulger from a shopping center, led him to a railway embankment, and got to work on him. They threw paint in his eye, kicked him, stomped on him, threw rocks at him. (The pathologist counted 42 wounds that would have been fatal.) Then they put him on the railroad tracks, where a train later cut him in two. This little stinker of a film re-creates the kidnapping, and the interrogations afterwards. The actual transcripts are used, and each boy can be seen as an absolute world-class liar, totally willing to throw the other under the bus.
When the film mercifully ended, I just kept asking myself Why? Why would anyone want to resurrect this horror in such excruciating detail? James Bulger’s mother tried to stop it, but was unsuccessful. The POS who made it said: “That would defeat the entire purpose of the film.” He neglected to say what that purpose was, but the only thing I can see was to paint the young murderers sympathetically. (Both were set free after eight years. They have elaborate new identities, and a worldwide court order not to reveal them, or their location.) And, to me, that is one of the more disturbing aspects of this atrocity. The young actors who portray the killers are pretty damn amazing. You’d think you were watching the real interrogations. I submit to you that asking 10-year-old boys to emote that realistically is, in itself, a good reason why this POS should never have been made, much less released, much less nominated for an Oscar. If it wins in a few days, I suspect there will be some booing from those who have seen it. At least I hope so.
Skin (Guy Nattiv and Jaime Ray Newman) (USA) (20 minutes) Adrian is a shit-stain in the britches of humanity, who has a son, Troy, about ten years old. He and his fellow Nazi skinhead Aryan Brotherhood shit-stains go out and shoot up stuff with their arsenal of guns. Troy tries out an AK-Kalashni-Uzi or some such assault rifle. I’m sure a gun nut would know what it is, and drool. So that night they are shopping for groceries, and in the next aisle is a black man. He smiles at Troy. This sets off Adrian, who calls up the shitbird brigade. They attack the black man from behind, like the brave fellows they are, and kick him almost to death while his wife and 10-year-old son watch in horror from inside the car.
Well, shades of Emmett fucking Till! Only this ain’t 1955, and it ain’t Mississippi. The black man’s friends, who are bigger, scarier, and more pumped than Adrian’s crew, waylay Adrian and take him to a garage. Oh, boy, you think. They are going to take this asshole apart bit by bit and mail him back to his family. But they have a better idea. One of them is a doctor or a nurse, because they have hospital monitors and enough drugs to keep him out for a long time. Because it is going to take a long time … to tattoo every inch of his face, neck, chest, arms, and hands with black ink. They don’t want him to die. They want him to live!
That night they dump him in the street. He staggers home, tries to wash himself off in a bucket, finds it won’t come off. It won’t ever come off. He heads for the front door, where his wife is waiting with a revolver. It’s me! It’s me! The wife realizes it is him, slowly lowers the weapon … and gets spattered with blood, as Adrian collapses to reveal little Troy holding the assault rifle. He has just killed his dad.
As we were getting up to head for the door, I said to Lee, “At least one of these things has a happy ending.” Later we talked over which would be the best ending for Adrian. We agreed that letting him live would be worse for him. But that would have defeated the filmmaker’s point, which is obviously that Troy, and probably the black kid in the car, are going to grow up hating each other. One more generation down the tubes.
I am actually waffling now as to which one I’d like to see win this coming Sunday, this or Madre. I wouldn’t be displeased if it was this one.