Wednesday, February 22, 2017

THE EASE OF PREDICTING THIS YEAR'S OSCARS


It’s that time of year again when film fans turn their attention to the Academy Awards. The ginormous ceremony arrives this Sunday and despite the excitement that the show always brings no matter what, this year may be the most anticlimactic in decades. Truly, only a handful of categories will likely provide any real suspense. Quite simply, if you’re filling out your ballot and predict that LA LA LAND will win in at least eight of the categories it’s nominated in, you could easily have a third of your ballot aced. 


The modern musical about two artists struggling to make it in Hollywood is nominated for a whopping 14 nominations in 13 categories, and to put that in perspective, there are only five categories that it didn’t get recognition in that it could have, and six others that it couldn’t compete in, like Best Foreign Language Film. That many nominations indicate that the film starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone has a ton of support across the Academy and likely ensures that the film will dominate at the event this weekend.

The rest of the ballot isn’t all that challenging to predict either. In fact, when you figure in where all the previous awards have gone, what’s getting the press, who has the buzz, as well as the box office mojo, it’s not that difficult to come off like an expert soothsayer this year. Thus, without any further ado, are my predictions for the 89th Annual Academy Awards.

BEST PICTURE – LA LA LAND
With all those nominations, how does LA LA LAND not win? The only real competition it has comes from two films, both inflated by prognosticators who want a contest. Because HIDDEN FIGURES was such a runaway box office hit, some see it as a real threat. But it’s only got two other nominations. Two versus 14? Please. The genuine threat, though still a real underdog, is MOONLIGHT. It’s the most critically lauded film nominated in the top category this year. (It placed second in the recent Sight & Sound magazine international film critics poll of 2016’s best films.) The Barry Jenkins film has received eight nominations in total, so if any film is going to upset LA LA LAND, it will be his intimate character study of a gay black man growing up in Miami. 

But I believe LA LA LAND has too much broad support, a terrific box office accumulation and standing as a critical darling to be vexed. It also exemplifies the most consistent and somewhat disturbing trend of Best Picture winners of the last decade in that it is a film all about the business. Since 2009’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Oscar’s top prize has gone to four other films with a show biz backdrop – THE KING’S SPEECH, THE ARTIST, ARGO, and BIRDMAN. LA LA LAND is a Valentine to the industry, still heavy enough for voters despite the musical buoyancy. If LA LA LAND loses, it will be a bigger upset than 2006’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN losing to CRASH. But I don't see that happening.


BEST DIRECTOR – DAMIAN CHAZELLE (LA LA LAND)
Chazelle may be only 32, and sometimes youth is voted against by older members, but since this young man’s won most of the critics’ awards, including a key victory at the Director's Guild weeks ago, he should prevail at the Oscars too. The film is entirely his vision and the Academy will recognize that assuredly.


BEST ACTOR – DENZEL WASHINGTON (FENCES)
Interestingly, one of the only real nail-biters of the evening will be this major award. Up until the Screen Actors Guild Awards, it seemed that Casey Affleck was a shoo-in for his brooding, sublime work in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Then, a story about him sexually harassing some coworkers resurfaced and it may have tainted his chances. Granted, he won the BAFTA Best Actor a few days back, but it seems that Washington’s tour de force has more momentum stateside after SAG. I believe it is enough to let him prevail. SAG is seldom wrong in predicting eventual Oscar winners, and Washington's performance is outstanding. The fact that the actor also directed the film can only help his quest. (Actors, the largest wing of the Academy, love to vote for actors who wear many hats.)


BEST ACTRESS – EMMA STONE (LA LA LAND)
Five months ago, the contest seemed to be between Stone and Natalie Portman for JACKIE, but somewhere along the way, the tide turned against the previous Oscar winner’s sublime essaying of the 35th president’s wife. Since then, Isabelle Huppert has emerged as the only threat to Stone for her subtle and fierce work in ELLE. She could upset, but it’s hard to see how Stone doesn’t continue her sweep at the final ceremony. She's won at the Golden Globes, SAG and BAFTA in the past months, and the Academy likes to reward Best Picture winners with an acting prize too. Plus, Stone is playing an actress who makes overcomes hardship in Hollywood and prevails. Life will imitate art here, most likely.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – MAHERSHALA ALI (MOONLIGHT)
Perhaps Dev Patel’s surprise victory for LION at BAFTA could change things, but I doubt it. Ali’s performance has been talked about for months and swept most of the critics’ prizes, so he should continue adding to his mantel. His character is the heart of the movie and turns a drug dealer into a surprising father figure and the moral center of the story. That requires a maturity, gravity and clarity of acting that Ali brings in every second he's onscreen. In fact, his work lingers long after he's out of the picture.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – VIOLA DAVIS (FENCES)
Davis’s knockout work might have given Stone a run for her money had she competed in the lead category where she really should have been nominated. Her FENCES role is truly a lead, but category fraud is done all the time at the Oscars to ensure victories for those not wishing to go up against a tougher slate of competitors. Just ask supporting winners Alicia Vikander, Timothy Hutton, Juliette Binoche or Tommy Lee Jones who won supporting Oscars with starring roles and exquisite performances that eclipsed the featured ones they competed against in their winning years. By being pushed to supporting by the producers and management, Davis’ victory is assured even if she should be listed elsewhere.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
The contest here is between Kenneth Lonergan for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and Damian Chazelle for LA LA LAND. The inevitable LA LA LAND sweep could give Chazelle the advantage, but I believe Lonergan’s work will prevail as its script is extraordinary and has won more acclaim and awards. Also, Chazelle's script has come under fire lately for its whitewashing of jazz to some degree and that might hurt it just that smidgen that allows Lonergan to prevail.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – MOONLIGHT
Other than Chazelle, the auteur who emerged with the most fame and plaudits this year was writer/director Barry Jenkins for his extraordinarily rendered MOONLIGHT. He’s up for producing the film, as well as directing it, but it is as its scribe where he will collect a statue.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – LA LA LAND
Usually a period piece or action pic prevails here, but Linus Sandgren’s ebullient and colorful camera work, especially with its virtuoso long, single-take tracking shots is artistry that anyone can see. And remember, the entire Academy votes on the final ballot and anyone can see this film’s stunning cinematography as one of its most obvious charms.


BEST EDITING – LA LA LAND
Working hand in hand with Sandgren’s sublime work is Tom Cross’ precise editing. His cuts are sharp, keep the numbers moving, and provide a lot of the emotional wallop. The final number of the film, where we see the entire arc of Sebastian and Mia’s story recreated, is the best montage in the movie and would be enough to win the award on its own. But the editing in the rest of the film is pretty spectacular too.


BEST SOUND MIXING – LA LA LAND
Musicals tend to win as they achieve the tricky blending of live sound with prerecorded singing. Sound mixing is so crucial to the success of a musical, it’s hard to see any other film contending here. I don't believe any will.


BEST SOUND EDITING – HACKSAW RIDGE
Sound editing is placing sound effects into the film essentially, you know, what the Foley artist does. War movies, actioners, and special effects extravaganzas tend to prevail here because all that sound has to be created in post. The surprise support for Mel Gibson’s antiwar epic will likely squeak past LA LA LAND for its only victory, but don’t be surprised if LA LA LAND takes this category too.


BEST ORIGNAL SCORE – LA LA LAND
Justin Hurwitz is probably the most certain lock at this year's Oscars for his score for LA LA LAND. He benefits from having all the songs he wrote regarded as the score too, though technically this category should only represent incidental music. (If only JACKIE had opened another year, then Mica Levi’s challenging work might have prevailed.) Still, the voters will vote for Hurwitz, whether it's for his songs or marvelous underscore. They're all sublime. 


BEST ORIGINAL SONG – CITY OF STARS (LA LA LAND)
Sadly, the best song from LA LA LAND will not win here. The truly worthy entry is “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” That is the anthem of the movie, and the most moving piece in the whole production. But because the producers have pushed “City of Stars” hard in the trades and most critics groups have followed suit, it will win instead. Frankly, I’d even give Best Song to “Another Day of Sun” or “Someone in the Crowd” before this one, but “City of Stars” is still nifty enough to earn the gold.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – LA LA LAND
Usually a period piece wins in this category as its production design is the most obvious to the Academy voter, but all the blending of real locations and fantasy sets in LA LA LAND should enable another victory for that film here. 


BEST COSTUME DESIGN – JACKIE
Can LA LA LAND win Best Costumes? Sure, but contemporary films almost never get nominated, let alone win. Again, voters pick the most obvious costumes. Not only does JACKIE fit that bill, but her clothes were as much a part of her character as they were a part of that period. Still, the bold color palate at play in Chazelle’s musical might just give it the edge. It’s a toss-up, but I think the Academy will go for the period.


BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING – STAR TREK BEYOND
What a weak slate of nominees here, particularly when you realize that films like JACKIE, THE WITCH, SWISS ARMY MAN, and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS weren’t even nominated. Inane! Of all the nominees, the STAR TREK universe of alien life points to the most make-up which is often enough for voters.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – THE JUNGLE BOOK
Last year, four $200 million dollar extravaganzas were bested by the $15 million EX MACHINA, as the voters recognized how critical Alicia Vikander's robot effects had to be to pull off the story. Of all the nominees here, THE JUNGLE BOOK needed to ace its talking animals or there would be no story. And Disney did it all incredibly well. In fact, the whole damn jungle was created as the whole film was shot on a stage or in front of green screen or rendered in a computer. 


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE – ZOOTOPIA
ZOOTOPIA has the Disney brand name, and it made a boat load of money, plus it has a timely message of tolerance. I loved KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS too, but I think this category is Disney’s to lose this year.


BEST ANIMATED SHORT – THE PIPER
I’ve seen them all and written about them here, and the likely winner is PIPER from Pixar. Hard to argue with a simple, well-told short with adorable animals.


BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – ENNEMIS INTERIEURS
Again, I shared my thoughts on the nominees here, and any entry in this category could prevail. I believe that this edgy political thriller will as it is smart, taut, an actor’s showcase, as well as a timely essay about prejudice and deportation.


BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT – EXTREMIS
This category is another toss-up and the three that seem to be most in contention are EXTREMIS, JOE’S VIOLIN and THE WHITE HELMETS. Call me cynical, but I believe this one, about an ICU at a hospital, may speak to the aging membership of the Academy and allow it to prevail. It’s also terrific, as are all in this category.


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
I thought that the miniseries THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON was sublime and then I saw this ESPN produced documentary and it blew me away. It made my Top 10 list and is one of the most fascinating documentaries ever made. It runs 7.5 hours and is riveting every single second of it, covering race, sex and celebrity with thorough care. Only if the Academy voters refuse to watch that long a doc does this one lose. If it fails to take the top prize, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH will instead.


BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – TONI ERDMANN
I’m at a bit at a disadvantage calling this one as I have not seen all the nominees. Chicago simply doesn’t get access to as many foreign films as the coasts do, but the nominees must be amazing as I cannot believe that Pedro Almodovar’s JULIETA or Paul Verhoeven’s ELLE didn’t make the short list. Having said all that, Germany’s entry TONI ERDMANN should come out on top. It is one of the most provocative and arresting dark comedies I've ever seen, and it was justtpicked as the #1 film of the year by the wide range of international critics polled by Sight & Sound, so it has a lot going for it. If that kind of acclaim is lost on the Academy voter, well, then shame on them.


Those are my picks for the 24 Academy Award categories. All in all, I expect LA LA LAND to win 9 Oscars. Perhaps the excitement will come in seeing if that film can sweep up the others and beat the record of 11 that WEST SIDE STORY, TITANIC and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING all share. That would make the show on Sunday incredibly suspenseful. And historical as well. I'll be watching, won't you?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

CHALLENGING DARK COMEDIES ARE ANYTHING BUT FOREIGN TO THIS YEAR’S OSCARS

Original caricature by Jeff York of Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in TONI ERDMANN
In the recent Sight & Sound magazine polling of international film critics, do you know what film was named the best of the year? It wasn’t LA LA LAND. And it wasn’t MOONLIGHT, though that came in second. It was a German/Austrian film named TONI ERDMANN. The dark comedy is up for Best Foreign Language Film this weekend at the Oscars and is considered the favorite to take the gold. It finally opened in Chicago a few weeks back and it’s one of those films that truly stays in your head after seeing it. I find myself not only rapturously recalling the unpredictable marvel that this film is, but my own gob-smacked response to it along the way while viewing it.  

I’ve seen a lot of movies over the years, easily 100 a year in the theater since my teens, let alone all the rentals, Netflix, etc. on top of them, and I am hard-pressed to think of one film among them that was as unpredictable as TONI ERDMANN. As I sat there watching it I couldn't believe how impossible it was to predict where the film was going from one scene to the next, let alone within a specific scene. German filmmaker Maren Ade really created something utterly surprising in her writing of the film. And her direction of those enacting her words is equally amazing as the whole thing seems to be improvised, though none of it was.

This is the third major movie Ade has written and directed, but none have broken through worldwide like TONI ERDMANN. It's taken dozens upon dozens of awards all over the globe. The film spoke particularly well to critics as it defies their 'seen it all before' eyes. In fact, the film truly rebels against filmmaking conformity, just as the theme of the story within the film is about thwarting conformity too. 

The story concerns a late 60's father and his mid-30's daughter who are anything but close. Winfried Conradi (the hulking, veteran Austrian actor Peter Simonischek) is a lackadaisical music teacher with few students. He's long been divorced, and is the type of senior citizen who still loves childish pranks that go against societal propriety. He especially loves to assume other personas as he dresses up in cheap wigs and false teeth. Unfortunately, he's more amused by it then others are. When his old dog dies, he has no one left, so he decides to take another run at forging a relationship with his no-nonsense daughter Ines (Sandra Huller). She's given up on having a mature relationship with him a long time ago, but that doesn't deter him from deciding to drop in on her during her extended business trip to Bucharest. Things don't go well, as she is preoccupied with landing a big deal and has no time for his shenanigans. She sends him away but he decides to linger around and that is where the story really gets going.

Winifried is a non-conformist whose loosy-goosey attitude and silliness comes from a bygone era, part 50's teen, part 60's hippie. Ides, on the other hand, is quite the opposite of her father with a calculating ambition that borders on ruthlessness and a wardrobe that is crisply perfunctory in its style. Still, this is not a typical comedy about an odd couple, or a romp in the style of so many comedies that come down the pike. Rather, this one is darker, stranger, even meaner. Sure, Winifried is going to keep coming at Ides trying to wear her down, but there is little of the earnestness or schmaltz that invades far too many Hollywood productions. 

As Winifried trails after Ines, the film continually finds way to thwart normal plotting and story beats. For starters, the movie edges close to three hours. That's unheard of in comedies that in America are hard-pressed to push past 90 minutes most of the time. In every way, this film truly zigs where so many of its competitors zag. 

It's exceedingly unconventional as well to have such little dialogue between the two main characters too. In fact, Winifried barely says a peep in most scenes. When he's dressed up in his wig and cheap novelty story teeth, pretending to be the businessmen Toni Erdmann to chat up Ides' colleagues, he talks then. But mostly, he's a quiet observer. In fact, both he and Ides are as their roles are mostly reactive to all that's going on around them. And indeed, they're reactive to each other as their time onscreen together is mostly spent watching the other interact with others in a setting.  

Such silence between them works on two fascinating levels. Not only does the  lack of discourse between them suggest the chasm of non-communication that's existed for decades, but being so quiet around each other forces them to truly listen to how they are with others. Thereby, they come to learn about each other and discover a person they barely know. 

Another way the film zags is in its approach to the comedy. There are few clear comedic set-ups or few set-pieces for that matter. The humor in the story seems wholly organic, coming out of scenes that aren't the types that would typically be ripe for chaos and laughs. But ripe they are, and what transpires within a scene, with little foreshadowing, is outrageous. The laughs may take your breath away as you have no sense of preparation for most of them.  

Ade also works wonders with her cast because none of them seem like they're giving a comedic performance. Just as some have said that George C. Scott was one of the greatest comedic actors because he always played the comedy as if it was drama, the same goes here with how Ade instructs her performers to approach each scene. No one ever delivers a line or gives a knowing look like they know this is funny. It also was shrewd to cast her leads when their resumes reflect mostly serious roles. Who knew these two could be so utterly amusing. George C. Scott would've been proud. 

And yet, the comedic scenes in this film could rival anything done by Blake Edwards or Judd Apatow. Two of the biggest doozies come in the final act, and both appear completely out of left field. Curiously, both scenes take place at parties, but you never see the craziness coming in either setting. I'll leave it there and let you be gobsmacked yourself by these scenes if you've not yet seen TONI ERDMANN, but suffice it to say, once you see them, they will forever live in your cherished cinematic memories. 

Throughout TONI ERDMANN, every time you think you have Winifried or Ides pegged, they do something that surprises you, even shocks you. Especially with Ides, and kudos to Huller for giving such a brave, nakedly vulnerable performance. One scene, where she socializes with a co-worker who's more than a colleague takes place in a hotel room, and what happens there is so shocking, bizarre and yet darkly hilarious, your jaw will drop. Such challenging scenes as this may be why Huller herself doesn't regard the film as a comedy. She's to cognizant of all the pain that Ides has in her existence. Indeed, there is a lot of pain onscreen, but this isn't MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. True, both films have estranged characters who are lost souls searching for some sort of meaningful connection, but I didn't howl during that Kenneth Lonergan masterpiece. I did during TONI ERDMANN. And you will too. 

BTW…TONI ERDMANN is already slated to be remade in America with Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson supposedly signed on to play the lead roles. We'll see how they render these rich and strange characters, but I’ll wager that if the trailer shows Nicholson as Winifried take off the head of his costume to hug Wiig as Ides in the most pivotal scene of the film, the remake will be an utter failure. In the original version, the father's face remains hidden, as it should be. Foreign films don’t feel the need to spoon-feed audiences the way Hollywood so often does. Let's hope that remake zigs instead of zags as much as the German original. 

Isabelle Huppert in ELLE.
Another well-awarded foreign language film, one that has won a slew of awards across the season as well, is the French film ELLE. It was ranked at #3 on that Sight & Sound list, and it just missed the final five of this year Best Foreign Language film Oscar nominees. Perhaps it’s unsavory subject of rape turned off too many Academy members, especially since its tone is more akin to that of a dark comedy than a Lifetime movie of the week. Still, lead actress Isabelle Huppert was not overlooked, and she stands as the one spoiler who could ruin Emma Stone's night this Sunday.  

ELLE, written by David Birke and directed by veteran filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, tells the story of Michèle Leblanc, as strong a woman character as has been put on the screen in many a moon. She’s not only the successful head of a video game company in Paris, but she has high-powered friends, a lush lifestyle, and a confidence in everything she does, from micro-managing her game designers at the office to casually bullying her ne’er-do-well adult son. This woman may be petite, but she's large and in charge in everything she does. In fact, the more we see of her as the film progresses, she seems utterly indestructible. Yet, the utter irony of the film is that it starts off with her being violently raped by a masked intruder in her own home.

It’s just one of the major and daring shocks in a movie that holds dozens upon dozens of them. It, like TONI ERDMANN, never quite goes where you expect it to go either, constantly confounding narrative expectation and even character definition. Yes, Michèle is shrewd and icy, managing her reactions to her rape as dispassionately and constructively as she manages everything else in her world, but where her story goes, and how she goes with it, is a constant surprise. No matter what she encounters, from a blasphemous email at the office to a party gone awry by her crazed mother, she will not let anyone get the best of her. She's unflappable, almost to the point of seeming inhuman, as she knows that the world will trample all over women at any turn. If anything, Elle is more feline than human. She is always staring and assessing what's in front of her, just like her shrewd dark-hued cat. Another black comedy symbol? You bet.

Huppert has been a French treasure for decades and her performance here is simply stunning. Virtually onscreen the entire movie, often alone or with that equally steely cat, her performance, like those of the two leads in TONI ERDMANN, is mostly reactive. Huppert always manages to find an expressive way to curl up one corner of her mouth, or arch her eyebrow slightly to change her character’s reaction to someone. Her eyelids alone could teach an acting class, as they say so many different things depending on how much she lowers them. She casts a mighty figure onscreen here, and it's all the more impressive because most of her cast mates tower over Huppert. 

Huppert gives one of the most incredibly poised, strong and calculated performance ever onscreen, and it echoes what Michèle must do every day. She cannot wallow in self-pity after her rape as there is too much work to be done, a new video game to get out, a family and social events clogging her calendar. This is a woman who's handles being abused on a daily basis, from condescending male coworkers, from selfish family and friends, what's one more thing like rape. Her take on it isn't glib, but rather, self-protecting. No one is going to take care of her, and she's overcome all kinds of hell ever since her childhood when her father was arrested for a neighborhood spree killing and the press hounded her as a pre-teen that they assumed was his accomplice.

Michèle is ultimately the personification of a feminist, perhaps even a radical one, as she accepts the challenge to play the man's game and bests them with her unerring strength and acumen. Not for nothing is the world of video games the backdrop of this story. Michèle is playing a game of chess if you will the entire time, negotiating all obstacles, comers, and enemies. She's game. And she intends to win.

In fact, one of the reasons the film is so successful and yet, may have been too polarizing to some voters, is that the tone of it is akin to the almost amusing calculation one makes when they pick up a video game controller and get in the mindset of gleefully starting to  mow down targets in a first-person shooter. Like such, our heroine signs up every day for such battles. And she too will mow 'em down any villains, be they male Millennials questioning her worth as CEO, or lovers expecting her to be at their beck and call, or even a rapist who returns for more. Michèle knows that sex is mostly about power, and she'll use their lowered expectations of "the opposite sex" to confound their expectations.   

If Huppert wins the Oscar, she will do so without a big, crying jag or a rage-filled tirade that would usually win an actress an Oscar. Instead, what she will win for is building a shrewd and nuanced performance layer upon layer. There's a slyness to her work her, a relish, not dissimilar to what her CEO experiences as she oversees the slaying of a beast in an action scene that her video game company is bringing to life, and slays all the other monsters that come at her in her life outside the office. Michèle is one tiny dynamo and may be the most incredible superhero put on the screen this past year. Take that, Deadpool and Doctor Strange! Indeed, WONDER WOMAN is going to have a whole helluva lot to live up to when her film premieres in June.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

THE 2017 OSCAR NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORTS ILLUMINATE WITH THEIR DARK THEMES

Hassam Ghancy and Najib Oudghiri in  ENNEMIS INTERIEURS.
Will the Oscars hold any suspense this year? Unlikely. After all, who doesn’t expect LA LA LAND to sweep? And victories for Emma Stone, Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis seem like all but foregone conclusions. Maybe there is a genuine contest for Best Actor after Denzel Washington bested Casey Affleck at the SAG Awards last weekend, but overall, this year’s Academy Awards ballot is going to be easy to predict, albeit with one exception. Best Live Action Short is a real toss-up. Why? The five nominees are all incredibly impressive works of art, and they're topical too. Thus, any of them could easily take the statue.  

As often is the case, the short films nominated delve into dark, adult themes, and the themes this year seem eerily prescient. Take director/writer Salim Azzazi’s entry ENNEMIS INTERIEURS. The heralded sound editor makes his directorial debut here with a story about immigration and discrimination against Muslims. No, it’s not about recent events in America, but rather France, in the 1990's when it was obsessed with nationalism after the events of the Algerian civil war. 

The story presents a proud French-Algerian man seeking French naturalization in the aftermath of the war. Unfortunately, he finds himself being coldly questioned about his loyalty by a suspicious police interrogator. With Oscar voting currently taking place, in the midst of all the fall-out from the Trump administration’s botched Muslim ban, this short film should resonate resoundingly. 

Hassam Ghancy in ENNEMIS INTERIEURS.
Don’t forget, too, that the actors’ branch is the biggest branch of the Academy, and it helps that this is a two-hander, a true actor’s piece. Shot simply in a stark interrogation room, it's a cat and mouse conversation between the detainer (Najib Oudghiri) and the detainee (Hassam Ghancy). Both are Arabic and they have more in common than not, but the overreach of the interrogator on behalf of the French government drives a wedge between the two. And as he strives to contain a possible terrorist threat he creates a new one, turning a good man into a bad one. It's quietly devastating. 

The other short that is truly of the moment is SILENT NIGHTS. Like ENNEMIS INTERIEURS, this one is also a story about immigration and prejudice. Director/writer Aske Bang and producer Kim Magnusson center their story around an earnest young Danish woman who befriends a struggling Ghanaian immigrant. They quickly become involved and yet unbeknownst to her,  he has a wife and three children back home in Africa. 

Prince Yaw Appiah and Malene Beltoft Olsen in SILENT NIGHTS.
Magnusson has the magic touch in this category. This is his sixth Oscar nomination, and he won the category twice already with BROTHERS in 1999 and HELIUM in 2013. (You may recall that I correctly predicted that HELIUM would win back then here.) What makes SILENT NIGHTS so effective is its complex emotions at play between the two leads. Danin Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) volunteers at a homeless shelter and meets the surly Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) when he curses her for not having room to house extra homeless shivering in the cold. They soon meet again, this time under warmer circumstances, and they take a shine to each other. As they become involved, their relationship is challenged by her mother's prejudice towards the African, as well as Kwame's struggles to find work. As one of his children takes ill, and Kwame is desperate to get funds home to his wife, he steals money from the shelter. But Inger is more than understanding, until she finds out about his double life.

Like so many love stories, Bang’s story doesn’t end with the lovers together, but it's a hopeful one nonetheless. It could almost be adapted into a full-length feature, that's how good it is. Magnusson has made plenty of those too, so we shall see what this accomplished producer comes up with next.

Jane Birkin in LE FEMME ET LE TGV.
LE FEMME ET LE TGV (translated as The Railroad Lady) is also a short about human connection. The Swiss-French drama directed by Timo von Gunten concerns a lonely but stubborn senior woman named Elise (Jane Birkin) who develops a bond with an  TGV conductor whose high speed train roars past her house twice a day.

And at each of those times, Elise ritually stakes out her position in her second story window and waves her Swiss flag to greet the passengers. Then one day, she finds a note in her yard, one thrown from the train by its conductor. His affectionate lines inform her how much he's touched by her friendly waving. They then become pen pals and start exchanging affectionate gifts with each other. He gives her cheese while she delivers sweet confections from her bakery.  

This is a very French love story, one tinged with loneliness and regret, and it’s marvelous to see acclaimed veteran actress Birkin cast in such a rich role. She’s played everything from Michelangelo Antonioni to Agatha Christie in her six-decade career, and she’s as luminous as ever. Equally bright is the whimsical score by Diego, Nora and Lionel Baldenweg. It's quite the confection altogether, yet the short's deeper message about the easy disposability of the elderly and tradition is touchingly profound. It could render this a sleeper with the Academy voters, particularly the older members. 

Lali Ayguade and Nicholas Riccini in TIMECODE.
TIMECODE already has accumulated a shelf full of international trophies, most notably the short film prize from the Cannes Film Festival jury this past year. Director Juanjo Gimenez’s mini-movie has plenty to say too about the modern world, criticizing the coldness of the technology we've all come to rely on. At the center of the story's critique are two parking lot security guards, Luna and Diego, who suffer through the loneliness of their dull, uneventful vocations. 

Diego works the night shift, while Luna covers days. They go through their mundane tasks each time and seem to sleep walk through it all. When they do meet, exchanging shifts in the office, they are barely two ships passing in the night. Then one day Luna discovers something unusual while checking a videotape for a reported accident. She discovers Diego dancing with abandon and it changes her perception of him forever. 

She soon decides to follow suit and ends up leaving him Post-It notes conveying just where on the time-coded tapes he can find her dancing in the parking lot. They start exchanging more and more dances for each other, but never utter a word about it when passing each other in the office.

It's droll fun, yet jubilant as well. And it's expertly choreographed too as the two leads are played by world-famous dancers. Nicholas Riccini, a dancer and choreographer who’s worked with the Akram Kha Company, plays Diego and Luna is played by the exquisite dancer/choreographer Lali Ayguade. You can see samples of her beautiful work here.

The message of TIMECODE is a ringing endorsement of creativity and the need for it no matter what your station is in life. Like the best song in LA LA LAND, it salutes "the dreamers who dream." And what Academy member isn't going to feel buoyed by that? 

Dorottya Hais and Dorka Gasparfalvi in SING (MINDENKI).
Finally, SING (MINDENKI), directed by Hungarian director Kristof Deak, is a charming little story with a strong and political ending that packs one dramatic wallop. It is perhaps the best ending of any of the shorts. The story concerns two junior high school girls who sing in their school’s award-winning choir, and how they fight the stifling conformity demanded by their choirmaster.  

This short, based on a true story, takes place in 1991 Budapest where Zsofi (Dorka Gasparfalvi), a Swedish girl, is the new kid in town. She wants to fit in and the best way to do so is by joining the middle school's award-winning choir. She makes a fast new friend in Liza (Dorottya Hais), but Zsofi also makes an enemy of sorts in her dictatorial choir instructor (Zsofia Szamosi). The teacher determines that Zsofi isn’t good enough to sing with the others and instructs Zsofi to merely mime singing during rehearsals and their upcoming contest. She literally takes away the girl's voice. 

Zsofia Szamosi in SING (MINDENKI).
What Academy member wouldn't find resonance in a theme like that, particularly after Meryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globes, as well as all the protests these past two weeks? Again, the exquisite timing of this short is truly astounding as it coincides with women's refusal to bend towards prejudicial will.


Thus, with five such prescient shorts, it will be interesting to see which way the Academy goes. Honestly, it's anyone's game and I don't remember a years as strong as this one in either the Live Action Short or the Animated Short categories. You owe it to yourself to see these wonderful works when they open nationally on Friday, February 10. 

Tune into the Oscars Sunday night, February 26, and be assured that there will be some suspense. Denzel vs. Casey, yep, as well as Best Live Action Short. It's just a shame that all five of these superlative mini-movies cannot take home the gold. They're that great.