As is awards season tradition, ShortsHD will be releasing this year’s short film Oscar nominees — including live-action, animated and documentary — into theaters around the country this week, all in hopes that cinephiles will spark to the idea of checking out a big batch of contenders they most likely haven’t yet had the chance to watch. This year’s live-action batch includes a number of intriguing foreign entries — and not an American offering in the bunch — all of which are loosely unified around such timely concepts as connection (emotional and physical) and the current political climate.
From stories about children’s choirs gone wild, unexpected romances and even a gut-churning immigration story that couldn’t be more prescient, this year’s live-action nominees fit together into a satisfying, smart little package.
“Ennemis Interieurs,” France (28 minutes)
This year’s live-action contenders might be packed with timely offerings, but none of them can beat the unequivocal power of Sélim Azzazi’s “Ennemis Interieurs,” a French production that takes place almost entirely inside the literally dim innards of an immigration office. Confining the majority of the action to one location keeps Azzazi’s film neatly focused and tightly framed, and allows the strength of performances from leads Hassam Ghancy and Najib Oudghiri to truly stand out.
As the unnamed Algerian-born Frenchman hoping to procure official citizenship, Ghancy blends together both indignation and fear into a potent mix that could easily keep an entire feature moving right along, and one that keeps the short working on a consistently high level. Oudghiri’s interrogator — also purposely unnamed — toes a tough line between aggressor and a guy just doing his job. Pushed together, the pair are exceedingly well-matched.
But Azzazi’s film has some tricks up its sleeve beyond its compelling face-off, and the filmmaker metes them out with ease over the course of the film’s 28-minute runtime. It lands squarely.
“Sing,” Hungary (25 minutes)
Reportedly based on a true story — children’s choirs are wild — Kristóf Deák’s short isn’t just for kids, despite screening around the world at a starry batch of children-focused film festivals. While “Sing” is set in a competitive Hungarian elementary school and includes more than a few (often quite funny) touches ripped right out of “Mean Girls,” its message about power and corruption transcends location and plot.
The film follows young Zsofi (a refreshingly skilled Dóra Gáspárvalvi) after she enrolls in a new school best known for its lauded children’s choir. Zsofi loves singing, and is encouraged by her mother, the kindly principal and the uber-popular Liza (Dorka Hais) to join the troupe, just weeks away from their biggest competition ever. Initially, the film seems to be focused on the fast friendship between the shy Zsofi and the cool Liza — and Deák nails young female friendship in a charming, universal way — but gives way to much bigger issues when Zsofi uncovers the dark secret that has allowed the choir to rack up so many awards.
No, the secret isn’t that dark, but it’s one that wounds Zsofi and threatens to do the same to the rest of the choir (including the truly talented Liza). Eventually, it turns in to a startling allegory about the price of leadership — and how to battle an unkind leader who only cares about their own glory.
“Silent Nights,” Denmark (30 minutes)
Aske Bang’s third short has plenty to recommend it, including a compelling start to its plot and a stellar performance from leading lady Malene Beltoft, but Bang’s insistence on back-loading the short with significantly more drama than is necessary robs the simple story of its initial power.
Inger (Beltoft) is a kindhearted homeless shelter worker whose sweet nature and ease with her work masks some serious personal problems, most of which stem from her alcoholic mother (a thinly drawn caricature of a drunk, the passed-out-on-the bar type). After a few run-ins with a Ghanaian immigrant named Kwame (an appealing Prince Yaw Appiah) who often stays at her shelter, the pair strike up a romance that appears to fit both their needs. Yet Inger ignores signs that Kwame is not all he claims to be, a choice that puts not just her happiness on the line, but also her livelihood.
Beltoft and Appiah make a dynamite pair, and Bang’s film benefits immensely from their chemistry. The short’s first half makes Kwame’s plight — and that of many immigrants searching for a better life elsewhere — feel believable and timely without dissolving into cliche, but there’s no such grace in its final act. Bang piles on twists, turns and tragedy that diminish both characters, throwing in a couple of last gasp shocks just to keep the clock running down. It’s a disappointing end to a very strong start and a pair of rising stars to watch.
“Timecode,” Spain (15 minutes)
Juanjo Giménez Peña’s Palme d’Or-winning short is a graceful little meditation on the value of work and the possibility of human connection. Bonus: really excellent dancing.
Luna (Lali Ayguadé) and Diego (Nicolas Ricchini) split shifts at bizarrely clean parking garage, with Luna clocking in for 12 hours during the day and Diego pulling up the nighttime hours. Their interactions are friendly but limited — one’s coming in just as the other is leaving, and that’s it — but that fragile peace is upended when Luna discovers that Diego engages in an unexpected (and, we promise, not creepy) hobby during his work hours. The two soon start swapping video of their apparently shared passion (thanks to the garage’s wide-ranging video surveillance system, which makes it oh so easy to pull up, yup, different time-coded segments) and the short blossoms into pure delight.
But Peña is stretching here, and even its slim 15-minute running time is often padded with repetitive visuals, when it could stand even a touch more character work. But bolstered by a delightfully open ending, “Timecode” concludes on a high note, one with some nice kick to it.
“La Femme et la TGV,” Switzerland (30 minutes)
Timo von Guten’s good-hearted short features Jane Birkin in the titular role (as femme, not la TGV, naturally), a downbeat baker in a tiny French town who has nearly given up on the possibility that life has anything to offer her. That’s all upended when a train conductor sends her a note — tossed off the speeding train, landing square in her yard — thanking her for her daily waves she’s aimed at the train for many years. A correspondence is struck up between the pair, one built on more tossed packages (stuffed with plenty of cheese) and carefully written letters in which Elise comes to terms with some of her biggest fears.
Birkin’s Elise finds her entire life changed by her new friendship, and von Guten taps into that with mostly over-the-top whimsical dribs and drabs that never quite square with Birkin’s restrained performance. A subplot about her failing bakery — those shades of Wes Anderson simply don’t abate — is pushed well to the side until it’s time to add one last dollop of lightness. A confusing conclusion doesn’t add to the short’s charm, but a prickly Birkin is good enough to help it all go down.
“2017 Oscar Nominated Live-Action Shorts” will hit theaters on Friday, February 10.