A welcome run-up to the Feb. 24 Academy Awards, the Oscar-nominated shorts open at the M.V. Film Center on Friday, Feb. 8. Viewers will be able to vote over the weekend and up to Oscar night for their pick in each of the three shorts categories: Animation, Live Action, and Documentary.
The animated shorts combine good storytelling and, most important, innovative use of a medium that can offer visual flights of fancy. In “Boa,” a Chinese mother suffers from empty-nest syndrome. While she’s making dumplings, one of them comes alive (“boa” is Chinese for dumpling). She’s happy to raise the dumpling as a little boy, and the viewer watches the changes to their relationship as he grows up. “Late Afternoon” narrates how an elderly woman literally floats back and forth between the past and the present, reinventing herself as a girl through a cup of tea.
A comic short, “Animal Behavior,” describes how a group of animals participate in a therapy session. Each, from a little bird and a pig to an oversize gorilla, suffers from a characteristic animal issue that they hope can be cured. In “Weekends,” a little boy is shuttled between his divorced parents. The film shows what happens when he spends weekdays with his mom and weekends with his dad. The theme for “One Small Step” is a girl’s dream of becoming an astronaut. Living with her shoemaker dad, Luna grows up, and the viewer watches as her ambition evolves.
The most powerful shorts are those in the Live Action category. Viewers may remember seeing “Fauve” last fall, when it played at the Film Center as part of the Manhattan Short Festival. The French word for the film’s title means “wild” or “uninhibited,” an apt description of the two boys in this chilling story. Sundance winner of a Special Jury Prize, “Fauve” tracks the boys’ misadventures in an abandoned surface mine. “Madre” is a Spanish-language short that opens ironically with shots of a beautiful beach. A mother grows increasingly anxious about phone calls from her 6-year-old son, who is staying with his father at the beach. The elderly woman of the title and her caregiver, Rachel, are the subject of “Marguerite.” When Marguerite learns that Rachel has a female lover, she begins to explore events from her past.
The most powerful and controversial of all the shorts is “Detention.” In 1993, two 10-year-old boys were arrested and tried for abducting and killing a toddler. The film is based on the transcripts and records of a horrifying true story. “Skin” is another powerful tale, this time about a redneck family that encounters a black man with violent results. A group of black men take revenge against the whites.
In the Documentary category comes “A Night in the Garden,” with black-and-white footage of a 1939 event. Held at Madison Square Garden, this unexpected gathering precedes Hitler’s invasion of Poland the same year. Daniel Taylor, the subject of “Black Sheep,” describes what happens when his Nigerian family moves from London to Essex. At their new home in an all-white community, he struggles to fit in. What happens when life ends is the subject of “End Game.” Viewers will see a series of hospital patients who must decide how to spend their last days. The most relevant documentary in terms of current political issues is “Lifeboat,” about the harrowing efforts of refugees to escape violence, rape, and imprisonment in Libya. The nonprofit organization Sea-Watch rescues as many as possible of the thousands of refugees involved from overcrowded boats on the Mediterranean. The film reinforces this terrible dilemma by displaying images of the ocean that are neither beautiful nor safe. This reviewer’s choices are the animated short “One Small Step,” the live-action film “Skin,” and the documentary “Lifeboat.” Viewers will learn whether they have picked the winners at the Feb. 24 Oscar ceremony.
Information and tickets for the Oscar-nominated shorts and other films playing at the Film Center are available at mvfilmsociety.com.