The Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Short deal with poverty and homelessness in New York City, personal battles with cancer on Long Island, heart disease in Africa and aging and retirement in Florida.
The documentary shorts seem to be a bleak collection but are, in fact, uplifting and hopeful. “Inocente,” about a 15-year old homeless artist, lacks back story for its subject but show a talented, shy but charismatic young woman struggling (and succeeding) to create her art.
“King’s Point,” about a huge retirement village in Florida that consists of 7500 apartments and 15000 residents, is a fascinating look at some of the members of the community in King’s Point, their lives and their losses.
“Open Heart” is a hopeful documentary about eight children in Rwanda suffering from heart disease given a chance to live. They journey to, of all places, Sudan for coronary surgery offered in the only free hospital in Africa.
Another hopeful entry is “Mondays at Racine” about two sisters who open their beauty salon one day a month to provide free service for woman battling breast cancer just to make them feel better about themselves. It makes the sisters feel good, too.
“Redemption” is a lengthy short about the people in New York who eke out a meager living collecting bottles and cans to turn in for their nickel deposit. The film shows the resilience of man in adverse circumstance.
This is a solid Oscar category and the winner is likely a toss up.
The nominees for 2012's Best Documentary Shorts are all cause films to one degree or another, 2 dealing with homelessness, one with rheumatic heart disease in Africa, another with female cancer patients losing their hair. The latter takes a more community based approach, given its binding agent of a hair salon, which ties it to the portrait of a retirement village in Florida.
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix's "Inocente" chronicles the budding of a fifteen year old artist, who expresses herself with vibrant color. She literally wears her talent on her face, which she uses as a canvas daily. Inocente has been homeless for most of her life, a fact she tries to hide from her schoolmates, and during the course of the film, she makes the decision to break away from her mother and siblings to make it on her own. Fine and Nix do a great job showcasing the art, but leave too many questions about the artist's day to day existence.
"Redemption" gives us an inside look at the world of canning (recovering redeemable bottles and cans) on the streets of New York City. Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill give us a wide variety of subjects in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens from the charismatic (and homeless) Walter, who evaluates consumer goods by the number of cans he has to redeem to purchase them, to Ruth, who supplements her social security check by going through trash after a prestigious career in computer science. While Ruth is attacked by an Asian woman in a territorial war, what we're more likely to see is canners helping other canners, like Cuban Joe, who helps guide Ruth away from the altercation, or another Asian woman who helps a less fortunate Japanese gentleman with his grooming. But "Redemption" needs a stronger point of view and less footage of people traversing the city with shopping carts piled high with bags of bottles.
"Open Heart" follows eight Rwandan children with severe rheumatic heart disease as they head to Sudan's Salam Center, the only hospital offering free cardiac surgery on the entire continent. Dr. Emmanuel has a huge caseload to triage and he accompanies the kids on their journey (expenses dictate that these kids must make the 2500 mile trip on their own), consulting with the center's Dr. Gino. Kief Davidson's ("The Devil's Miner") got a real eye opener of a cause here and the kids, ranging from 6 year-old Angelique to the terrified teenaged Marie, make it personal. The hospital is at a financial crossroads and receives a visit from Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir. The irony of a man accused of crimes against humanity providing funds for such a charitable cause is barely touched upon, excused by Dr. Gino's statement about politics not being important within his walls.
Cynthia Wade's ("Shelter Dogs") "Mondays at Racine" begins at the titular hair salon, where two sisters devote one Monday a month to free services for cancer patients, but branches out to look at a handful of these customers' lives. The sisters talk about their Long Island Community's highly held standards of beauty and how their mother became a recluse when cancer treatment began affecting her looks. Now, woman who lose their hair can come and get support and a mani-pedi. Cambria is only in her thirties, dealing with stage 3 breast cancer while in the process of trying to adopt a foster child with her husband. Linda, in her fifties, has gone through sixteen rounds of chemo since initially being diagnosed twenty odd years prior and her marriage has suffered. This winner of the Audience Award at the 2012 Boston Independent Film Festival showcases some amazing women, but its approach is a bit scattershot. One couple is interviewed together, at their home, and never tied to the beauty parlor at all. Cambria and Linda's personal issues take us on memorable detours, but the titular concept itself is so unique, one wishes we'd seen more of it.
My personal pick of the five goes to the 10-years-in-the-making "King's Point" about a retirement village where one of filmmaker Sari Gilman's grandparents resided. She follows a handful of residents as they consider what they initially expected from this safe condominium environment and what they ended up with. Most left the crime ridden New York City of decades past as a couple. Now they feel safe, but most have lost their spouses - what once was a couples community is now mostly single women. Some, like Gert, state no need or desire for a man in her life while others, like Bea, are desperate to connect. Bea has a man ten years her junior who won't commit. Molly Ross believes in self preservation. There is much loneliness and true new friendships appear hard to come by. Gilman jumps over years after establishing some lives and wraps with heartbreaking end credits. This nice looking development suggests a happy retirement, but the reality has changed over the years, especially for those who have moved away from family.
For Live Action Shorts, the nominated films from 2012 represent the strongest line up in years. Films from 5 different countries on 3 continents address young people crossing into adulthood, old people slipping away and a man who documents death.
In "Asad," the son of a Somalian fisherman witnesses the flash lifestyle of those who choose an dishonorable life. But when he takes a prize fish from his father into town, he gives it up to save his friend from these same people and his father understands. Super Bowl ad director Bryan Buckley gets natural performances from his inexperienced cast and a running gag underlines a young boy's moral choice. "Asad" is a lovely, lyrical look at life in place which largely isn't.
The allure of adventure also tempts two young boys in Kabul, Afghanistan. Raji is a blacksmith's son but he dreams of becoming a Buzkashi rider along with his young friend Ahmad. The repetitive hammer strikes of home become a whirl of excitement as the boys watch the wild game of Buzkashi, a primitive form of polo, after Raji's dad allows him a free two hours. Director Sam French uses a monochromatic palette where even the reds look like musty wine until the boys find a horse on a hill, tied to a tree with a colorful scarf. French paints life in Kabul as a place where dreams are crushed as Raji makes a decision very similar to Asad's but with less optimism in "Buzkashi Boys."
In the U.S.A.'s "Curfew," a suicidal young man is given a new outlook on life when his desperate sister calls and asks him to babysit his 9 year-old niece Sophia. The highly regimented young girl has a list of places he can take her, suggestions for proper activities and orders to return by 10:30 or 'there will be hell to pay.' She's hard to win over and it is clear they have something in their past. Director/star Shawn Christensen tries to appeal with whimsy, bringing out flip books he used to entertain her mom with with his character Sophia. Young Fatima Ptacek (TV's 'Dora the Explorer') magically grounds the film in a bowling alley as she struts and dances down a lane (great music). His melancholy and her confidence make for a unique pairing that begins to heal the old wounds between Richie and his embattled sister.
"Death of a Shadow" is the most stylistically ambitious film, recalling Lars von Trier's "Zentropa" by way of "Brazil" with a tip of the hat to 'Night Galleries.' "Bullhead" and "Rust & Bone" star Matthias Schoenaerts is almost unrecognizable as Nathan Rijckx, a WWI German soldier who photographs shadows of people at the moment of their death (which can be seen through his camera lens) for a strange collector. When he's given back his own shadow and the precious gift of time, his attempt to win the girl of his dreams has a most ironic end. Recalling everything from Scorcese's "Hugo" to Chris Marker's "La Jetee," Tom Van Avermaet's film marks him as a talent to watch.
From Canada, the French language "Henry" is the short film response to "Amour" (the sad truths of aging can also be seen in the Short Documentary nominee "King's Point"). Henry (Gérard Poirier) is a concert pianist looking for his wife, Maria but it is soon evident that his reality exists only in his own head and that the woman who is trying to help him is someone he should remember. Producer/writer/director Yan England's largely white world provides a back drop that almost feels like science fiction as he traverses memory, the present and the imagined. There have been many films with central characters suffering from dementia before, but none have so successfully putting us inside the mind of an Alzheimer's patient. It is heart breaking ('Have I been a good man?') and recognizable.
It's incredibly difficult to pick the winner here. Although "Curfew" arrives with the most buzz, there is no denying the trippy "Shadow" and the humanistic head trip that is "Henry."
Of the three different contests for best short film – documentary, live action and animation – the live action nominees are the strongest category
“Buzkashi Boys” follows Rafi and Ahmad, two Afghan boys coming-of-age, and their dreams to become Buzkashi riders – a game played on horseback like polo only with a dead goat instead of a ball. Rafi is the son of the village blacksmith and is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Orphan Ahmed has a very different look on life and proves it when he comes upon a lone Buzkashi horse. The boys’ story is sad and hopeful at the same time.
“Asad” is the story of a boy and his fisherman grandfather living in terror-torn Somalia as insurgents kidnap boys to become soldiers. It has, oddly, a tie to Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea.”
“Henry” is a touching story of an old man suffering from dementia but has long moments of lucidness. At first, it seems that Henry is either a patient or a prisoner in a hospital. The story gives various looks into the old man’s life, his love for his late wife Maria and his remembrances of her. There is sadness to the film as we watch Henry’s waning days.
“Curfew” is the curious story of a man, a deeply troubled suicidal uncle named Ritchie, who is
forced by his sister to take care of his niece Sophia, a precocious kid that puts him way out of his insulated comfort zone. It is a quirky but charming tale of role reversal as Sophia becomes the parental figure and Ritchie the child.
“Death of a Shadow” is a surreal mix of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and “The Public Eye,” a scarcely veiled fiction about 1940’s crime photography Weegee, but with its own original spin. Matthias Schoenarts is a dead soldier from WWI but his shadow was imprisoned by a strange “collector” who recruits Nathan to capture 10000 shadows of death in order to free his own. It is a strange blend of science fiction, fantasy and murder mystery.
The Oscar picks for Best Animation Short include Maggie Simpson, a man and his dog, a bizarre snack, a marriage turned upside down and a boy and a girl meeting cute.
The animated shorts run the gamut with a variety of efforts which, surprisingly, has the weakest entry in “The Longest Daycare” with Maggie Simpson. James L. Brooks, Mat Groening and five others are credited with writing the five minute tome and it feels phoned in. Aside from the familiarity of Maggie, there is little that harkens to “The Simpsons.”
The rest of the nominees fare better with “Adam & Dog,” a fable about man’s best friend that is simple and charming, showing that the dog captured man’s affection before there were women. (Think a funky Old Testament.)
“Head Over Heals” is clever stop-motion animation about a husband and wife who have grown apart but still sharing the same home. But, she lives an upside down life that has her walking on the ceiling and he on the floor. Very clever and a bit sad in its story of a couple grown apart.
“Fresh Guacamole” is a brief but entertaining look at making the titular food and you will never think of guacamole and chips the same way again.
Finally, “Paperman” is a boy-meets-girl story that reminds of the line drawing for “101 Dalmatians.” The best is a draw between “Adam & Dog” and “Head Over Heals.”
The animation shorts are usually offer the most fun and ingenuity, but the nominees from 2012 are a bit disappointing overall.
"Fresh Guacamole" is a very clever stop motion animation that uses visual and verbal puns to great effect - an avocado that looks like a grenade is sliced in two to reveal a billiard ball as its pit. The unseen maker chops up veggies and his dice literally becomes dice. When a chili pepper is needed for the mix, a hand untwists a green Christmas tree bulb and removes its innards, like seeds. The shortest entry provides a number of laughs.
"Head Over Heels" from the UK is a Claymation that twists the 'divided house' concept by taking its title literally - the husband lives on the ground while his wife is grounded to the ceiling. A new take on that montage from "Up." Cute.
"Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare" was partnered with the "Ice Age" threequel in theaters last year. A nice way to spend 5 minutes, but it has nothing on the Simpsons episode which had Maggie in daycare reenacting "The Great Escape" by way of "The Birds."
"Paperman" is Walt Disney/Pixar's entry and is a black and white CGI work which strives for a hand drawn quality. A city office worker, who bears an uncanny resemblance to "101 Dalmatians'" Roger, is smitten by a woman on a subway platform, but she's gone in an instant. Later he sees her through a window in an adjacent office building and attempts to make contact with paper airplanes. Charming and nostalgic.
Hands down the most delightful nominee is Minkyu Lee's "Adam and Dog," the 2012 Annie Award winner. After attempting to connect with other creatures and encountering indifference and danger, a lone dog tails Adam, the first man, through lush, natural surroundings and we witness the genesis of dog becoming man's best friend. When Eve arrives and temporarily distracts Adam's attention from Dog, the suspense is unbearable as Dog, more alone than before, continues to hope. Lee uses color, light and shadow and movement to great effect. "Adam and Dog" is a great love story pure and simple.
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