2017's nominated shorts mainly focused on refugees and romance. This year's crop are even more unrelentingly grim, both live action and documentary shorts featuring young girls shunned by their mothers and racial injustice at the hands of police. There are moments of hope in the humanity shown an anti-Muslim Christian, victims of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia and ex-cons looking for a new lease on life, but even the animated shorts are darker than usual.
"Dear Basketball" is an adaptation of Kobe Bryant's ruminations on retiring from basketball. The animation, black and white chalk drawings with splashes of purple and gold, is nice, but this is a vanity project in which Bryant equates his career with a sentimental love affair carried on with great hardships, complete with an 'inspirational' John Williams score. In a year when such greats as Don Hertzfeldt were overlooked, one can only surmise there are a lot of Lakers fans voting or that new rules implemented this year have skewed results. This one not only shouldn't be here, it's kept far more interesting work from being recognized. C-
A French student film from Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon and Lucas Navarro, "Garden Party" is one heck of a twisty ride. Using stunningly photorealistic CGI, a swimming female frog catches the attention of a large toad. As we begin to notice their surroundings, the film takes on a dark, foreboding atmosphere. These are but two denizens of what appears to be a crime scene, an abandoned estate with shot out security cameras, a kitchen drawing flies and a front door and interior safe pried open. The amphibians are unaware, though, a large bullfrog gorging himself on caviar before getting caught in a jar holding macarons, others crawling up glass surfaces. When one small frog leaps onto an entertainment console, the place lights up, music turns on, fountains burble and the jets in the swimming pool bring a disturbing sight to light. A ghoulish delight. B+
Pixar animator Dave Mullins makes his directorial debut with "Lou." When recess ends, a couple of baseballs with button eyes wearing a red hoodie scurries about retrieving misplaced toys, putting them back into the Lost & Found chest where it lives. The next day, this guardian is infuriated as it watches a schoolyard bully (a less evil successor to "Toy Story's" Sid) snatch every toy being played with away, stuffing them all into his backpack. But Lou (the creature's name is derived from the unfaded letters of 'Lost & Found') has a plan to make things right for everyone... This charming but slight effort from Pixar is most notable for the animation of Lou's constant reconfiguration, the creature absorbing and discarding various items to achieve its goal (and momentarily paying homage to "E.T."). B
Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata's "Negative Space" is the most ingenious of the nominees. This French stop motion features a man's remembrance of his father as he prepares to attend his funeral, their only true bond the packing of luggage. The son dutifully follows dad's rules, pants on top, socks rolled and stuffed into crevices, a piece of plastic separating shoe soles from fabric contents. When dad has no time to pack for himself, his son takes over, proud when a single word, 'Perfect,' is texted back from father's destination. The filmmakers imagine clothing as an incoming tide, an automobile on the road, a zipper. Everything takes on a more profound meaning as the son notes the negative space surrounding his father in his casket. A-
While the previous four nominees run 5-7 minutes, the UK nominee "Revolting Rhymes," an adaptation of a Roald Dahl poem collection reimagining popular fairly tales, is the 29 minute Part One of a two parter made for British television. Directed by prior category nominees Jakob Schuh ("The Gruffalo") and Jan Lachauer ("Room on the Broom"), the film is a darkly humorous mix of Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Three Little Pigs. An intimidating wolf (voice of Dominic West) joins a kindly looking nanny (voice of Tamsin Greig) in a cafe, noting her book of fairy tales. When he spies Riding Hood (voice of Rose Leslie), he tells the nervous woman that he hates her because of what happened to his nephews Rolf (voice of Rob Brydon) and Rex (voice of David Walliams). Snow White (voice of Gemma Chan) ends up using her nemesis's Magic Mirror (voice of Bertie Carvel) to foretell horse racing results for the seven jockeys she ends up keeping house for while Riding Hood is fleeced by a Banker Pig (voice of Rob Brydon) when she isn't 'whipping a pistol from her knickers.' The delightfully bonkers black comedy wraps with a delightfully dire ending. Animation wise though, this one isn't as creative as some of the other entries, its humans rendered with "Davey and Goliath" simplicity. The Wolf, however, is one deliciously devilish creation. B+
The animated program also includes three additional shorts. "Lost Property Office" should not only have been one of the nominees, it's arguably better than at least four that are. This sepia-toned, stop motion retro WWII/steampunk short features the employee of an underground transit system's dusty lost and found department who hopefully puts out 'Ring bell for service' and 'Queue starts here' signs every day. His only 'customer' delivers a redundancy notice. At first we think the man is going to take a tragic path, only to reveal just how he's spent his spare time all these years. A-
"Weeds," like the nominated "Negative Space," makes a powerful point in under three minutes as a determined dandelion from a deserted property tries to reach the water coming from a sprinkler next door. "Achoo" tells a cute story about a young dragon suffering from a cold in ancient China inventing fireworks.
95 year-old Eddie, a white man, met 96 year-old Edith, a black woman, while they were buying lottery tickets. It was love at first sight. Laura Checkoway's "Edith & Eddie" begins as a heartwarming senior interracial romance, but quickly turns tragic. The couple, wed by a local reverend, live in Edith's Virginia home, attended to by her daughter Rebecca, but another sister, Patricia, uses legal means and an appointed guardian Edith's never met to remove her from the home Patricia wishes to sell while moving her to Florida without her husband. The film is like a modern day, true life retelling of Leo McCarey's "Make Way for Tomorrow," but despite its emotional pull, the film leaves us with too many questions. B
Frank Stiefel's "Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405" enjoys the snappiest title of the five nominees, but it is far from stuck in place. 56 year-old Mindy Alper tells us that as long as she's not late for something or has to pee, she finds sitting in traffic heaven. Mindy isn't your average middle-aged woman, however. She doesn't like to touch or be touched, afraid of transferring cooties only her mother was without. Her father seemed to be enraged by her very existence and, we'll learn from her mother that she was physically repulsed by the child who picked up on this despite her efforts to hide it. Mindy, whose speech resembles how a dyslexic sees print, reels off her daily prescriptions for anxiety, migraines, mood stabilization and psychotic breaks. But Mindy has an incredible outlet for all this pain, the art she discovered as a child. Her pen and ink drawings are amazing visualizations of her emotional states, the work of a true talent. Her papier-mâché sculptures capture real people with incredible sensitivity. Stiefel recreates Mindy's perspective on everyday horrors using sound and visual tricks, but leaves us with a woman rightly celebrated at an art gallery show, overcome - in a good way - by positive attention and love. A-
Huntington, West Virginia experiences overdoses by a factor of ten times the national average, just one alarming fact we learn in Netflix's "Heroin(e)." Elaine McMillion Sheldon's work is the crispest, cleanest treatment of subject matter among the nominees, one that serves up despair and hope in equal measure. The title refers to not only the drug many opioid addicts turn to, but three women who are trying to turn things around against a growing tide. Deputy Fire Chief Jan Rader spends most of her time responding to OD calls and dispensing Naloxone, one firefighter expressing the common gripe that administering the drug just prolongs the inevitable (Rader says she'd save someone fifty times). Drug court Judge Patricia Keller displays compassion and empathy to those who come before her, doling out tough love when required, encouragement always. Brown Bag Ministry's Necia Freeman drives around on Wednesday nights giving food and religion to women peddling themselves on the streets, single-handedly changing our perspective of the 'church lady.' Her nonjudgmental warmth results in numerous success stories. The statistics may be horrifying (Rader posits that if continued unabated, this crisis will bankrupt the country), but these three women prove that dedication plus empathy works. A
Look up Edwins restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio on Yelp and all you'll see is raves for their classic French cuisine and knowledgeable service. But Edwins is more than a fine dining destination. In "Knife Skills," director Thomas Lennon follows the launch of this restaurant where the bulk of the staff will be comprised of men and women just out of prison. They'll have about two months of training under French Executive Chef Gilbert and founder Brandon, himself an ex-con with some issues of his own. Many drop out and some, like Marley, end up back in jail (she serves her time, returns to the school and completes her training). Alan struggles with French pronunciations, but his slow and steady approach sees him through. Daudi becomes a cheese expert while others learn all about wine. Lennon's film encourages unique approaches to rehabilitation while delighting foodies. B+
Kate Davis's "Traffic Stop," about Breaion King, a 26-year-old school teacher from Austin, TX who was charged with resisting arrest (dashcam footage evinces police brutality, suggesting only fear on King's part), may not result in death as so many of these stories have, but it still has the power to shock. The HBO short begins with Officer Brian Richter's dashcam footage of him speeding up in pursuit of a car far ahead of him. We have no idea what the problem is (speeding), and King herself asks questions after pulling into the parking lot that was her destination. Perhaps one too many for Richter, who eventually lunges into her vehicle (her terrified request to see a badge is ignored), drags her out and slams her into a truck and the ground. Two more officers are dispatched to the scene, (we hear Richter's version of events which present King as a 'firecracker' who 'swung a haymaker' at him) one of whom transports King to the station, engaging in conversation about what just happened. He sounds reasonable until he answers her question about why white people are afraid of black people. Davis cross cuts between the incident and King's life as a beloved math teacher and dancer, the type of things which King tells us were the only prior results of a Google search on her name. What she never comes across as is someone whose face should be on a mug shot. B+Robin:
Over the years, I have become a huge fan of documentary films and their ability to educate and enlighten, though, often-times, painfully, too. This year’s selection for best documentary short does these things, and more.
“Edith + Eddie”
What starts out as a sweet and charming (my nana would have called it cunnin’) true-life romance of two people, one 96 years old, the other 95, who find each other over a lottery ticket and it is love at first sight for “Edith + Eddie.”
What should be an idyllic life together in the final days for this lovely old couple turns into, for them, a nightmare of forced separation because of family greed. It is a sobering look at elder rights, or the lack thereof. Grade: B+
“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405”
Mindy Apler suffers from acute anxiety, debilitating depression and a litany of mental disorders and conditions. She is also an astonishingly talented artist whose works have been shown at the primo galleries in LA. Mindy tells us about her life and its pains and pleasures in “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405.”
I do not know which is more compelling: Mindy’s story about overcoming life long mental illnesses and making a life; or, the genesis of an artist who mental demons are the inspiration for her deeply psychological and often disturbing art. Grade: B+
With the news trumpeting the dangers of the opioid crisis gripping the country and the horrors of overdoses running rampant, three women in the unofficial Opioid Capital of America, Huntington, Kentucky, try to change that – one person and one life at a time - in “Heroin(e).”
Huntington, we are told, has 10 times the national rate for opioid overdoses and this statistic, alone, should be cause for city-wide dismay. Elaine McMillion Sheldon follows three prominent women in the community – Jan Rader, the deputy chief of police, Judge Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman with the Brown Bag Mission – as they take on the task of managing the crisis in their own, positive ways.
What these women, and people like them across the country, do is to try to put an end to the epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of people, mostly young, annually. What should be a depressing subject, because of the three ladies, is one of hope and humanity. Grade: B+
Like the opioid crisis in America, there is another, different crisis that strikes a significant number of our citizens: the rehabilitation and gainful employment for those who have served their time in prison. One man in Cleveland, Ohio, Brendan, faces the crisis with an innovative and, hopefully, successful idea. He plans to open “Edwin’s” to be the best traditional French restaurant in the country – with former convicts as chefs, servers and managers in “Knife Skills.”
This positive and hopeful documentary follows Brendan and, initially, the 80 applicants who came on board to train for the various jobs and skills needed to open and successfully run a fine foods establishment. The vetting process is a tough one and the dropout rate reaches nearly half. Those that stay and tow the line, though, get a real chance at a career that did not exist before. Grade: B
This is an indictment, by documentary filmmaker Kate Davis, against racism and police misconduct as it hones in on one young woman, 26-year old schoolteacher Braeion King. She is the victim of an aggressive and overly physical, even brutal, policeman in what starts out as a simple “Traffic Stop.”
The film, while showing the titular traffic stop on the police officer’s dashboard camera, brings us into the life of Braeion, showing her as an intelligent, educated law-abiding citizen whose only crime is being a black woman behind the wheel of a car.
The dash cam footage is startling as things begin with a routine pull-over. The escalation of violence as the much larger police officer body slams the diminutive King against a car and wrestles her to the ground. Kate Davis runs the footage of the stop with an up close look into Braeoin’s life. I wonder which side to viewer will take. Grade: B
Reed Van Dyk's "DeKalb Elementary" is an examination of grace under (literal) fire. When a distraught, pudgy white kid (Bo Mitchell, "Palo Alto") walks into a school's front office holding a semi automatic rifle declaring 'This is not a joke' and 'We're all going to die today,' people scatter and classroom doors slam shut. But one woman ("Ballast's" Tarra Riggs, phenomenal) remains calm despite the fear she cannot hide, looking beyond the weapon at the child brandishing it. Acting as his intermediary with law enforcement, she defuses a catastrophe. Van Dyk never lets up on the tension, but leans on cinematic implication more than once to keep us guessing, choices I had a hard time deciding were cheap tricks or the reality of fear. B+
"My Nephew Emmett" is a student film from NYU's Kevin Wilson, Jr. imagining the hours spent by a Mississippi preacher (L.B. Williams, "Juice") waiting for the inevitable retaliation against his innocent nephew. Sent by his wife (Jasmine Guy) to fetch bath water, Preacher runs into a friend who mentions meeting the man's nephews from Chicago in town that day. It's an agreeable exchange until Emmett's talent for whistling is mentioned (and we realize who the boy is), but when the happy boys return to his humble home, Uncle Mose cannot bring himself to bust the boy's bubble. When a car quietly pulls up in the dead of night, Mose's shotgun is no match for a sheriff who promises to teach the boy a lesson about how to interact with white women in the South and bring him home. Wilson, Jr.'s only misstep is to include the actual interview footage of Mose Wright at film's end, its matter-of-fact tone not in keeping with Williams' acted anguish. B
From Australia, "The Eleven O'Clock" is a comedy about a psychiatrist treating a new patient who believes he is a psychiatrist. Derin Seale's movie is amusing, but it is essentially a 13 minute riff on 'Who's on first?' with a conclusion one can see coming a mile away. The film's three leads carry the joke farther than the material itself does. B-
Written by Rachel Shenton and directed by Chris Overton, "The Silent Child" is a British appeal for the support of sign language in schools (we learn most deaf children in the UK attend mainstream schools with no special attention). But this twenty minute film is also a searing drama, one which underlines the isolation of four year-old Libby (deaf actress Maisy Sly) within her busy, middle class family. When a new social worker, Joanne, arrives, she diplomatically observes her new charge's interaction with her impatient mother Sue (Rachel Fielding). Joanne successfully pulls the little girl out of her shell by teaching her sign language. An older brother notes Libby's progress at the breakfast table, but Sue appears to regard Libby's response to Joanne with jealousy and insists the family has no time to learn signing. When we last see Libby, she is once again stranded in her own reality, a classroom of hearing kids engaging all around her. Beautifully acted and shot, "The Silent Child" is my pick to win. A-
Like "Dekalb Elementary" and "My Nephew Emmett," Germany and Kenya's "Watu Wote (All of Us)" is based on a true story from 2015 when Kenyan Muslims shielded Christians during an Al-Shabaab attack on a bus. A Christian woman eyes the Muslim majority boarding a bus with hostile suspicion, ensures the 31 hour journey will include a police escort, then wraps a rosary around her hand after taking her seat. She's not pleased when a gentleman asks her to move so that a Muslim woman may sit with her child in her allotted seat, later verbally attacking him at a rest stop ('You killed my husband and child. You Muslims.'), but when the police car is disabled and the bus is later halted by terrorists, those she's disdained come to her aid at great peril to themselves. Katja Benrath's film is a trenchant reminder that judging the whole by the actions of a few breeds only blind hatred. B
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