Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Oscar Nominated Shorts 2016


Once more we set out for the balcony of the Hollywood Theater in Portland to see this year’s crop of short, non-documentary films. It turned out to be not a very good year, though my picks for the winners are all deserving.

Animated. You quickly notice the lack of diversity here. All five are from either the US or Canada. Even one of the runners-up (included at the theatrical showing because it would be a damn short show without a few more) is from the US. That’s out of a record 70 qualified animated shorts. What do I want to do about that? Why, absolutely nothing. I’m not going to start a hashtag #OscarsSoNorthAmerican. For one thing, I really ought to know what a hashtag is before making one up. For another, I think you need to be a subscriber to Twitter to make a hashtag, and the sun will gutter into a candle flame before I join up to that horrific club. For yet another, I don’t believe in quotas for awards. Whatever the nominating process is, you just have to live with the results.

Borrowed Time (US) (7 minutes) Directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj. One of those, you just wonder how it made the final list. It’s about a sheriff in the Old West who revisits the site of a great tragedy in his life. He decides not to commit suicide. The end.

Pearl (US) (6 minutes) Directed by Patrick Osborne. A sort-of poignant story of a man and his daughter living out of their hatchback sedan, working as troubadours. He mans up, gets a job so he can provide her with a stable place to live. She rebels, gets involved with some questionable friends. But they all get together and go to a rock concert in the end. Fairly minor effort.

Blind Vaysha (Vaysha, l’aveugle) (Canada) (8 minutes) Directed by Theodore Ushev. This is my choice. It’s about a girl born with one eye that can only see the past, and one eye that can only see the future. If she looks at you, she will see an infant and an old person. Or sometimes she sees all the way back to creation, and all the way forward to the coming apocalypse. It’s a good fable, but what really sold it to me is the art. At different times it evoked for me the works of Van Gogh, Japanese or Chinese art, woodcuts, and many other visuals. It looks simple and yet is surprisingly complex at times. In another year this might not have been the best, but like I said, this was not a good year, and I was really taken with this one.

Piper (US) (6 minutes) Every year Pixar has an entry. Every year it is very good, very funny, I like it a lot. And every year I feel a little like this is the Yankees going up against the Little League. I’ve been an underdog rooter all my life, and though I love Pixar, I find it hard to hope their shorts will roll right over the small films made with great devotion by people who work on a small scale. The director is listed as Alan Barillaro but I think of it as a product of the Pixar machine. Yes, yes, yes, it is very good, with stunning attention to detail. There have to be several million individual grains of sand on the beach where a sanderling chick is learning the ropes. And yes, I was grinning at the end. But I’ll still stick with Blind Vaysha.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada, UK) (35 minutes) Directed by Robert Valley. My least favorite. The only way this could have made it into the final is on the strength of the art, which is very good. Valley is a graphic artist who has done a lot of good work in comic books style. But here we have the highly personal and apparently real story of a friend of his, “Techno” (I hope it’s a nickname) Stipes, and his descent into self-destructive oblivion. If I had any liking or sympathy for this asshole I might like the film, but I didn’t, and I don’t. Techno is a guy you had to have grown up with to even tolerate, in my opinion. I don’t care for the stories of alcoholics and addicts. They are so depressingly similar.

Honorable Mentions:

Once Upon a Line (US) (8 minutes) Written, produced, and directed by Alicja Jasina. This one is better than four of the ones which made the list. It is very simple animation, and totally delightful. You can see a trailer for it on Vimeo, here:

The Head Vanishes (Une tête disparaît) (France, Canada) (10 minutes) Directed by Franck Dion. I didn’t really get it. A woman is walking around holding her head under her arm, while another woman pursues her. It seems it was an allegory for a senile old woman and her daughter. It was based on personal experiences. In its favor I’ll say the design is pretty good, with a lot of strange imagery. Some of it I even liked. Most of it, I didn’t.

Asteria (France) (5 minutes) Directed by Alexandre Arpentinier, Mathieu Blanchys, Lola Grand, Tristan Lamarca, Thomas Lemaille, and Jean-Charles Lusseau. Wow. It takes almost as much time to type in the names of the directors as it did to see the movie! This trifle is funny, and once more, better than some that did make the final. Two astronauts land on a barren planet and are about to plant a flag and claim it when two … subternauts? …strange aliens emerge from the ground and start to plant their flag. Conflict ensues, and the ending comes out of nowhere. It’s basically just a joke, but what’s wrong with that?

Live Action:

Sing (Mindenki) (Hungary) (25 minutes) Directed by Kristóf Deák. Dorka Gáspárfalvi is Zsófi, the new girl at school, and Dorottya Hais is Liza, the first friend she makes. Zsófia Szamosi is Erika, the choir director. Many of these live shorts seek to teach a lesson. This is one. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Here we have the new girl who is told that everyone can join the choir, but that she isn’t good enough and so must just stand there and mouth the words. No one else knows, but she is crushed and humiliated. It develops that there are several other silent singers. The choir is the best in the country, and if they win a competition now they will get a trip to Sweden for the Best of Europe show. When the secret of the silent ones emerges, the children act together to show their protest, and it is ingenious and satisfying.

The bad thing the teacher did was to tell the children to stay silent, and yet still put them in the choir, in my opinion. I believe that everyone in schools should be allowed to participate … but I also deeply believe in excellence. I’m not saying that winning is everything. It isn’t. But being the best you can be is everything, and in group endeavors that means that the inept, untalented, mediocre, or just plain bad ones have to be weeded out. They should be put in a secondary choir and told, rightfully, that if they work and improve they can move up to the main choir. Sadly, for some that means they will never move up, because some of us just do not have the talent for something.

Take my own case. I’m 6’5”, and my high school basketball coach always looked at me with longing. But I’m a triple threat: can’t run, can’t jump, can’t shoot. Not to mention can’t give a shit about basketball. Luckily, being a basketball hero was never on my agenda. I feel for the 5’5” dude who really would like to have my height. But it’s not meant to be. We had an A Band and a B Band at Nederland High. You had to be good to make the A Band. Mr. Kelly would never put someone in a chair and tell them not to blow. If they couldn’t master their axe, down they would go to the B Band. There they could play to their heart’s content and not ruin it for the rest of us.

I know there are people these days who believe one’s ego and self-esteem should not be crushed by being told they’re just no damn good. I despise those people. Bottom line, they are champions of mediocrity, they make it impossible for anyone to shine, they pull everyone down to the level of the worst member of the team. Fuck that, forever.

Okay, I know that’s a long rant for a short movie, but it’s a real hobbyhorse of mine. It is the descent into a bland inclusiveness that seems to have started, oddly enough, when I left school. Suddenly accelerated programs (which I was enrolled in for science courses, math, and English) were “elitist.” Mainstreaming became the rallying cry, and while I approve of that in cases of physical disability, putting retarded (who are now “mentally challenged”) kids in with average and above average kids is not only stupid, it’s criminal. … okay, there I go again. I’ll stop now.

The film features the choir of the Bakáts Square Musical Primary School from Budapest. They sound very sweet.

Silent Nights (Denmark) (30 minutes) Directed by Aske Bang. Malene Beltoft is Inger, a Danish girl who volunteers at a Salvation Army shelter, and Prince Yaw Appiah is Kwame, a … well, he’s not really a refugee, because all he is fleeing is poverty back home in Ghana. He’s not an immigrant, because he doesn’t intend to apply for citizenship. I guess we have to call him a guest worker. Only there’s no work. He’s on the street, trying to survive and work and send a little money back home. Inger befriends him and soon they are a couple and she is pregnant. But it’s not a sweet story at all. To survive, even a good man must sometimes do things that are not good. But I could not like him after he stole money from the Army. If you’re gonna steal, damn you, don’t take from the only people in Denmark who really give a damn about your black ass. Then, and even worse, his big secret, the big lie of his life is revealed. And Inger, either the most saintly or the most gullible woman in Denmark, forgives him. I didn’t really care for this one much. I guess I’m just not that nice.

This is another one, like Sing that raises a moral dilemma for me. I totally spit right in the orange face of Donald Chump and his immigration ban … but any rational person has to admit that we can’t simply throw our doors open to anyone and everyone who is having a tough time back home. We could get a hundred thousand entering the country every day, and we just couldn’t handle that. In fact, conditions are so bad in so many places that all the prosperous Western nations put together can’t handle the flood of desperate humanity. Can everyone in Syria be allowed to flee the violence to a safer place? I don’t see how. Refugee camps are already bulging, and the inmates are increasingly restless. That’s not even considering so-called “economic” refugees, people who can’t make ends meet back in whatever hellhole they were born into. What to do? I really don’t know. I wish I did.

Timecode (El corredor) (Spain) (15 minutes) Directed by Juanjo Giménez. This is my choice for Best Live Action Short … and I may say less about this one than any of them. How do people in totally boring jobs, jobs where nothing happens night after night after night, like being a security guard, pass the time? I have often wondered. Here is a delightful answer. No way I’m going to give it away. Please, if you can hunt it up, watch it!

Ennemis Intérieurs (Enemies Within) (USA) (27 minutes) Written and directed by Sélim Azzazi. Here we have a story that is part Kafka, part Soviet Russia, and part Guantanamo Bay.

It is the 1990s, a time of great Algerian terrorist activity in France. An Algerian man, a Muslim but not a very devout one, has applied for French citizenship. Ironically, at the time he was born in Algeria when it was literally considered to be a part of France, and he was thus a French citizen at that time, he lost it later after the revolution and independence. He has only been to Algeria to visit relatives. He considers himself French. But not everybody does …

He is being interrogated by a young intelligence operative to determine his suitability to become a full-fledged frog. The questions start out vaguely disturbing, and soon turn into outright accusations. He has gone to a few meetings with men from the local mosque. What was discussed? Who are they? You must name names. As we get deeper and deeper into the inquisition the man realizes that he can actually be deported, a stateless person. But what finally cracks him is the threat to basically destroy the life of his teenage son. It is a well-done movie, and terribly depressing.

It is impossible to watch this and not think of The Orange Horror’s Muslim ban. I can so easily imagine American-born Muslims in that hot seat.
It is meant to be a horror story, and it is, it makes my skin crawl … but I think it should be pointed out that this is precisely how intelligence agencies around the world break up terrorist cells. From Belgium to Germany, France to Egypt, Russia to the United States, it is dirty work like this that keeps us safe. So the question is … is it worth it? Do we really want scum like this interrogator to force a good man to betray his friends? (We have no idea if these men are even sympathetic to the Algerian cause.) Espionage is, by definition, a filthy business. Betrayal, back-stabbing, lying … all part of the life blood of the spy game, whether it is international or internal, by men like this interrogator or the KGB or the FBI.

Well, sure, some innocent people will be caught in the net and squashed like bugs, but that’s a small price to pay for safety, isn’t it? It’s not an easy question, but I’m sure that most Americans would say yes, so long as it’s not me you are sweating under the bright lights. Go ahead, bring out the rubber hoses and car batteries and waterboards. Keep us safe! My position, that we as a nation must sometimes accept casualties in the fight to keep our basic freedoms, is not a popular one.

La Femme et le TGV (The Railroad Lady) (Switzerland) (30 minutes) Directed and written by Timo von Gunten. So we round out the night with a happy story. TGV stands for Train à Grande Vitesse, which in English might be VQCC, for Very Quick Choo-Choo. These suckers routinely move at speeds of 185 mph, and have gone as fast as 357.2 mph! Elise is a 70ish woman who lives in a small cottage by the rails, outside a picturesque Swiss village by a river. (Villages don’t get much more picturesque than those in Switzerland.) Every morning at 6:30 or so and every evening at around 6 the train whooshes by, and she leans out her window and smiles and waves the Swiss flag. No one could possibly see her but the engineer, and she can’t see him through the dark glass. But she has been doing this for many years. She owns a small, failing bakery in town. She has a budgie in a cage who rides to work with her on her bicycle. In short, we immediately love her.

One day she finds a rolled-up note in her yard. It’s from the engineer, Bruno, who says she makes his lonely, routine day much more pleasant. She can’t get his address but she begins sending letters, and then packages of pastries to the railroad offices, and he writes back and sometimes throws out packages of cheese. (Ironically, she doesn’t like cheese, so they pile up in the fridge. A Swiss woman who doesn’t like cheese! But they look like some of those soft, possibly stinky French cheeses.)

That’s enough of the story. Suffice it to say there is a happy ending, which I always like in small stories like this. It is actually inspired by a real story. A Swiss woman named Sonja Schmidt actually did used to wave a flag at the train, and the engineers would flash their lights at her. There was no exchange of notes, though. TGV train windows don’t open.

A note about the woman who plays Elise. She is Jane Birkin, and I thought that name sounded familiar. She is an English actress who has lived in France for a long time. She was a figure in Swingin’ ‘60s London, Carnaby Street, hanging out with the Beatles and Stones, that sort of thing. Remember that classic scene in Blowup where David Hemmings cavorts with the two naked teenyboppers in a huge sheet of purple background paper? First time full frontal nudity was shown in the UK? Jane Birkin was the blonde one.

And one more thing: Jane Birkin is probably most famous today as the source of the “Birkin bag.” If you aren’t in the Trump family or their economic and moral equivalent, you may not have heard of it. They are made by the horrible company Hermès, and they sell for … and I’m not making this up … between $10,000 and $150,000. You can’t really blame Birkin for them, though. She happened to be seated next to the head of Hermès, on an airplane once, an asshole named Jean-Louis Dumas and she complained that the straw bag she was carrying was no damn good. The scumbag thought it over and produced The Bag, for sale to other scumbags from Beverly Hills to Tokyo. No rich cunt in the world can afford to be seen without one unless, of course, she is carrying an even pricier one. It is the equivalent of the $150,000 Patek-Philippe watch her cunt of a husband is wearing.

So there has to be an editorial here. I submit to you that there is something fundamentally wrong in the head of a woman who would spend (and probably not even think about it) thirty times the yearly income of the average Nigerian on a fucking purse! And I’m talking about the cheaper model here. And of course many millions of people around the world subsist on far less than the average Nigerian. I doubt she thinks of herself as evil … but she is. Blackly evil as the moral cesspool she sprang from. I’d cheerfully cut off the arm of the woman carrying one, or the hand of the man with such a watch on his wrist. …well, okay that’s probably an exaggeration, I do that when I’m really steamed, but if I ever saw such a thing it would be best if there were no meat cleavers handy, because I would be tempted. And I will add that there is something basically wrong with a world where such stark inequities exist. So what do we do about it? Elect a psychotic billionaire to be our president. That should work!