Oscar Gold 2019 – Live Action Short

For the record, the fact that two of the four categories that were temporarily relegated to commercial breaks were saved until the last week should in no way be interpreted as me endorsing such a stupid move. You could have made a case for Cinematography, but that’s only because it’s very likely Alfonso Cuarón will win, and since he’ll almost certainly win Best Director as well, he’d still get his moment on stage. Even then, it’s a batshit insane proposition to put actual awards out of the show in favor of more filler material no one cares about.

That’s why I’m so glad the move was rescinded, because it’s bad enough to even have the mindset that people would rather see montages than awards while watching an AWARDS SHOW, but the categories that initially got the shaft are not the high profile ones, and as such you’d be denying people their only moment in the spotlight.

This is especially true for a category like Live Action Short. This field, like the other Short categories, is often so full of quality submissions that it’s an insane achievement to be nominated more than once, to say nothing of the 20 nominations Gordon Hollingshead earned in his lifetime (including five wins). Walt Disney holds the record with six wins from 12 nominations. But you have to bear in mind that these were all before 1965, when a) there were two sets of nominees, one for a one-reel short and another for a two-reel film, and b) short films were part of the regular movie-going experience, giving audiences one or two shorts before the feature presentation. In today’s film business, you won’t see either of those factors still in play that could lead to multiple nominations and awards. So to even threaten to steal the moment of triumph for these creative filmmakers is an insult.

But let’s not focus on the negative. Let’s celebrate the positive, because this year’s field is one of the strongest I’ve seen. Usually there’s one or two films that I recognize artistically, but just don’t care for overall. This year? No such case. All five films are brilliant in their own way, and it’s a matter of degrees between my absolute favorite and the one that gets ranked fifth here. But really, you can’t go wrong. Any of these films would be a well-deserved winner.

And just like the other two Short categories, this one has four nominees with a common bond, while the fifth does not. Honestly, I think it was just an odd coincidence, but if there was method behind the madness for the respective nominating branches, I’d love to know. This time around, similar to Animated Short, we have four films that have child leads. We’re not necessarily dealing with parent-child dynamics, but for all but one nominee, the narrative is carried by strong performances from child actors.

This year’s nominees for Live Action Short are:

Detainment – Vincent Lambe and Darren Mahon
In 1993, two 10-year-old boys in Liverpool, England abducted, tortured, and murdered a three-year-old, dubbed “Baby James.” I remember reading about it in school, because it was a shockingly horrifying case that was practically unprecedented in society, and because the two boys who carried out the attack, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were tried as adults, making them the youngest convicted murderers in western civilization, raising questions about how children should be tried for heinous crimes.

Produced in Ireland, Detainment is a dramatization of the police interrogations of the two boys, and it’s heartbreaking to watch. The two young leads make the fear, confusion, and ultimate reality of what they’d done achingly palpable. Jon cries throughout the proceedings, more concerned that his stunned parents won’t love him anymore if they know the truth, while Robert is defiant to the point of coming off like a sociopath. The two performances are on polar opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, which makes the creative editing and evolution (and eventual crumbling) of their alibis all the more compelling. As soon as I saw Jon Venables’ name I remembered the case, and it shook me to my very core as I had to brace for what was coming, wondering just how much graphic detail we were about to go into.

Fauve – Jérémy Comte and Marcia Gracia Turgeon
The first of two French Canadian entries, Fauve follows two adolescent boys who play around at abandoned industrial sites (first an disused train car, then a quarry), daring and one-upping each other to perform dangerous stunts, and keeping score against each other for some reason. Later, after being chased by a dump truck, the boys get stuck in what appears to be quicksand, or something similar. One is able to extricate himself and go for help, but the other is not, and he pleads for his friend not to leave him as he clings to life.

When translated to English, the French word, “fauve” means “wildcat.” I’m guessing in this context it’s used as Quebecois slang for a fox, as the animal plays a major symbolic part. On the way to the quarry, one of the boys says he sees a fox, but the other doesn’t believe him, unwilling to turn around in case the claim is an attempt to psych him out. When he later gets picked up the road, nearly catatonic from his trauma, he sees a fox on the side of the road. If there’s a flaw to be had, it’s moments like this, that are left intentionally ambiguous in the name of artistic temperament. It works, certainly, but for such a short film, I think a more direct resolution was needed.

Marguerite – Marianne Farley and Marie-Hélène Panisset
The second French Canadian nominee is also the outlier of the group, in that there are no child actors. In this film, an elderly woman is visited daily by a nurse, who takes care of basic medical needs and gives her sponge baths and such. The nurse suggests that the woman go on dialysis, as her kidneys are failing, but the woman is content with her life, and feels no need to prolong her existence with machines. During one particular visit, the nurse gets a phone call, and the woman asks if it is her boyfriend. When the nurse confesses that she’s in a lesbian relationship, the old woman becomes initially distant, then wistful, confessing that she too was once in love with a woman, but it was back in the days when it was the love that dare not speak its name. The film ends with a beautiful gesture of platonic love between the two.

The rapport between the two actresses is superb, both performances flowing with grace and empathy. Not only is there genuine affection between the two of them, but as they come to an understanding with one another, a larger appreciation grows on the nurse’s end. It’s like a fable about how you should always respect your elders, but in a modern romantic context that causes the nurse to truly admire the sacrifices of those before her so she could love whomever she chooses. It’s really very sweet.

Madre (Mother) – Rodrigo Sorogoyen and María del Puy Alvarado
Coming from Spain, this entry does contain a compelling performance from a child, but it’s completely off screen. Opening and closing like Best Picture winner Birdman with shots of a beach, the main action of the film takes place in a single, continuous shot. A woman and her mother stop by her apartment to change before an evening out, when the woman is called by her son, who’s spending the weekend with his father. They were supposed to go to a beach in France, and they did, but then the dad left him there. It’s not clear whether the boy was abandoned, or if something more sinister had occurred, as the boy later describes a strange man on the otherwise deserted beach walking towards him, prompting him to run and hide in the nearby woods.

There are only four speaking characters in the film. The woman and her mother in the apartment, and the boy and a police officer over the phone. Time is short, the distance is long, and the boy’s cell phone battery is running low. The ultimately failed attempt to remain emotionally balanced enough to come up with a plan while still reassuring this terrified child on the other end of the phone is nothing short of amazing. And again, it’s all the more impressive when you realize this is all one single shot. It’s an absolutely masterful bit of performance art, as well as some great camera and lighting work to be able to migrate around this apartment to make sure the shot never cuts.

Skin – Guy Nattiv and Jamie Ray Newman
There’s apparently a feature-length version of this movie that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last September, also directed by Guy Nattiv, but there hasn’t been a wide release yet. If the short is any indication, I’ll be chomping at the bit to see it if and when it does go wide, because the short is absolute genius. It also helps that this is the only American nominee.

A man named Jeffrey (Jonathan Tucker) is married to a woman named Christa (Danielle Macdonald from Dumplin’) and has a son named Troy (Jackson Robert Scott, aka Georgie from It). Jeffrey is a neo-Nazi, and so are all of his redneck friends. He takes genuine pride and love in Troy, training him how to shoot high-powered rifles. At a grocery store, Jeffrey notices a black man looking at Troy, and proceeds to beat him within an inch of his life with the help of his friends. Days later, Jeffrey is abducted in front of Troy and taken to a suburban home where he receives poetic justice of the highest order. I don’t want to spoil too much, because you all need to see how great this is. Think of the ending of Freaks and that’ll get you started. The comeuppance is pure fantasy wish fulfillment in this day and age, but there’s a part of me that was cheering at the end, because I wish every skinhead could go through what Jeffrey does, though maybe not the whole way. This is not only the most complete story of the list, it contains the most character development, the largest cast, and some of the best camera and makeup work I’ve ever seen in a short.

* * * * *

My Rankings:
1) Skin
2) Madre
3) Detainment
4) Marguerite
5) Fauve

Next up: It’s all been leading up to this. After 23 categorical breakdowns, there’s only one left, and it’s the one we’ve all been waiting for. It’s Best Picture!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film gets your vote? Are there other short films you’ve seen that you’d recommend? Would you try a child for murder, and if not, what crime would you try? I mean, there’s got to be some way to make those stupid little scooters and having a Justin Bieber haircut a felony, right? Let me know!

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