'Tis the season to get short, as Maitland's Enzian Theater and similar cinemas around the country screen the Academy Award nominees for animated, live-action narrative and documentary shorts.
To be eligible for nomination, films must either complete a seven-day theatrical run in New York City or Los Angeles; win a "qualifying award" at one of only about 100 Oscar-accredited festivals, the Florida Film Festival being one; or win a top prize at the Student Academy Awards. (These shortlisted films are then winnowed down to five for each category.)
It's an odd, unpredictable, hoop-jumping competition dependent on just a few judges, but it's still the closest thing to a "best of the year" collection, and it's always a pleasure to behold.
The animated block is often the audience favorite, as it's the most visually imaginative. Even better, you get more than just the five nominees, as the Academy adds three "highly commended" films to round out the program.
The one animated revelation this year is the French-language Mémorable (5 stars out of 5), which offers a unique, surreal view of dementia. Like all of this year's animated selections, it eschews cookie-cutter, hyper-realistic CGI for a more organic look. Indeed, stop-motion is the medium of choice, as five of the eight films employ or digitally mimic this technique, with the other three embracing a hand-drawn look.
Thematic similarities abound too, with Daughter (4 stars), Hair Love (3 stars) and Sister (4 stars) exploring familial issues. (The latter, which played last year's Florida Film Festival, excoriates China's one-child policy.) And, as usual, the "highly commended" offerings are just as good if not better than a couple of the nominees. Henrietta Bulkowski (4 stars) is particularly memorable for its affirmation that our perceived flaw can be our strength, while the deceptively simple The Bird & the Whale (4 stars) offers a beautiful metaphor on friendship and spirituality.
The live-action narratives require more patience, but each film, though flawed, posits something powerful. Surprisingly, the one that starts the weakest ends the strongest. The Neighbors' Window (4 stars) is the anecdotal story of busy parents enamored of the carefree lifestyle of the young couple in a neighboring apartment. It's an existential, metatheatrical reminder that the greener grass on the other side of the fence might just be your own.
The rest of the films (all 3 stars) showcase a variety of cultures, traditions and stories but are similarly gritty, realistic and tense, with refreshingly unpredictable narratives. Regrettably, those narratives don't conclude with as much emotional punch as the directors probably intended, but the program is still worth watching. (I just regret that This Time Away, starring Timothy Spall, didn't make the cut, as it's better than all the nominees.)
Though the documentary shorts are usually the toughest to take, this year's group isn't as brutal as in the past, with each of the five concluding with a sense of hope and positivity. The most serene, at least stylistically, is Life Overtakes Me (5 stars), a Swedish doc about refugee children with a mysterious illness called Resignation Syndrome. This eye-opening look, literally, at the consequences of childhood trauma is the best of the bunch. The rest of the docs – except the contrived Walk Run Cha-Cha (2 stars) – are also socially and politically essential, and a reminder of the power of short filmmaking.
– This story appears in the Jan. 29, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.