The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live Action (Various, 2017-2018)

Detainment (Lambe, 2018)

Good Lord, how am I supposed to review this thing? Tasteless as it is aesthetically, it also seems callous to force people to relive a national tragedy as the Jamie Bulger killing all over again. I get there are still unanswered questions and all, but is that really enough reason to reenact those interviews with the child killers? Are there audiences who dig that sort of thing? I can only guess that it would be for people who have absolutely zero knowledge of this crime. And even then they should feel at least a little uneasy at the ethics of this production. It’s basically asking us to consider whether the detainment of Venables and Thompson was handled correctly and whether they were given a fair shake. There’s no reason to litigate any of these details after all this time, but for some reason, Lambe wants to. Instead of leaving this terrible event alone, he’s keen on reopening old wounds and making the Bulger family suffer through hell once more. Last I checked, no one gave him the right.

Don’t know what else to say, really. It’s the kind of irresponsible filmmaking we don’t need to encourage. Nominating this and putting it into serious contention to win an Oscar sends the wrong message.

Fauve (Comte, 2018)

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This is heartbreaking. Childhoods stolen away by uncompromising Nature and its deceptive wonders. I love how Comte films the first part with the same energy and abandon as his little stars exude in their roughhousing, and then completely transforms his style when the climax hits. It becomes a fever dream—one which lingers on the landscape’s austerity, meditating on how quickly our innocence can be swept away when we least expect it. In that moment, we are directionless, and our sense of perspective is irrevocably altered. I appreciate the way Comte portrays all of this, and how effectively he does it within sixteen minutes.

Since I’m a killjoy, I don’t think the ending is entirely satisfactory. I feel like I’ve seen variations of it too often now to be truly moved by this one, and you can almost telegraph it about fifty seconds before it happens (maybe even sooner if you can translate the French title into English). Félix Grenier nails it, though. It’s a commanding child performance if ever I’ve seen one, and if he chooses to stay on this path, we could very well be hearing his name again in the future.

Marguerite (Farley, 2017)

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A graceful and ever-patient study of two generations being there for each other. I liked how Farley takes her time to establish the rituals set between Marguerite and Rachel as the latter looks after her. Dosage sheets, bathtubs, massages and leg moisturizing can all seem humdrum, but here every activity is positioned from Marguerite’s vantage, and we get to see her reactions to all that is said and done. She doesn’t say very much, but we can sense that nothing is going unappreciated. There is tenderness and concern on both sides, as Rachel shows how much she cares for her patient in several brief moments. It makes the final few minutes hit home beautifully, because we already understand their relationship and how much their presence is felt.

This can either be read as a platonic love story or a lesson in how to show empathy to the aged, and both are equally valid. I wouldn’t call it extraordinary (it takes quite a lot for me to call any short film extraordinary), but I’m proud that the films coming out of my country can be so perceptive and touching. Let’s keep them coming, shall we?

Mother (Sorogoyen, 2017)

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I’ll give Mother this: Marta Nieto’s performance as a distressed parent is very believable, and everything about this film rests on her shoulders. If they gave Oscars for performances in short films, she’d win one with ease. Alas, I wish I had nice things to say about everything else. This felt like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s worst tendencies (self-indulgent cinematography, a voyeuristic fixation on individual suffering, and so on) all wrapped up in twenty minutes of anxiety-inducing terror related to child imperilment that doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than to raise some cheap thrills. I’m not a parent myself, and even I feel like I’ve been manipulated for no good reason. I can’t imagine actual parents watching this appreciated seeing their worst nightmare play right before their eyes.

Oddly, I wouldn’t deem this to be grossly irresponsible or anything. It’s ultimately an inconsequential horror story in miniature that ends with a whimper. A minor nothing of a film that’s not worth getting angry about. I think if it were a feature film, the manipulation and triggering distress would be far more abhorrent. Speaking of a feature film, it appears Sorogoyan really is expanding it using the same cast. On one hand, I’m curious to see more of Nieto’s character (because, again, she’s the best thing about this); on the other hand, I’m dreading what kind of trauma porn is going to result. If it’s going to be in the same tenor as this, but amplified tenfold, then no thanks. I’ll turn to Iñárritu if I want to sit through something like that.

Skin (Nattiv, 2018)

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Some variation of this story—terrible person gets their comeuppance at the unwitting hands of their own loved ones—has been told before. I can’t exactly remember how many times I’ve seen it done, but I know it’s been done enough not to seem shocking or interesting anymore. Skin takes it, runs with it, and then trips over itself in trying to be subversive. In reality it’s kind of stupid. Why on earth is this kind of revenge porn needed in times like these when it can give ammunition for racists to say, “Well, the other side is just as bad?” Nattiv probably just wanted to be oh so cool and make a Nazi skinhead pay for his ugly hatred so that we can cheer on his efforts, but the way he goes about it is misguided to say the least.

At least it’s well-shot, unlike Detainment. Nattiv ain’t half-bad behind the camera. If he had reconfigured the outcome and made it less offensive, then it probably would have been okay. But because he takes the dumbest way out imaginable, it can’t be salvaged.

In Conclusion

Rumours swirled that this lineup would be tough-going, and they were right. With Marguerite as the exception, these films seem to revel in the suffering of children, with abduction, abandonment, accidents and murder all cropping up in one form or another. It’s such a dreary, cynical and misanthropic collection when taken as a whole that not even the tender grace of Marguerite can offset the gloom. The only other film I’d salvage would be Fauve, which at least has the decency to spur different interpretations of its shocking events. Because it’s also the most stunningly photographed of the bunch, I’d probably call it the best, though that’s not really a high bar to cross.

Take it from me: watch the documentary and animated shorts and leave most of these alone. This is unquestionably an off year for this category and certainly not representative of its greatest abilities.