Every year at the Academy Awards, there’s a lull, one even more numbing than the Oscar for special effects or the latest garish train-wreck of a dance number. It’s when the awards for short films roll around, and it’s a damn shame. The winners are starstruck and elated and you have to feel thrilled for their tremendous spirited breakthrough, but nobody’s seen the film. Or any of them. Shorts have such restricted windows, watching them can be tough. They circulate on the festival circuit, which bars them from appearing on TV and often the internet. This year if you’re in or around Toronto, TIFF’s got you covered, with two separate programs, one for the Oscar-nominated live-action shorts, the other for the animated ones. If you’re in the States, you can also find screenings for the next few weeks all over the country here. They’re the cream of the crop, a handful on each side chosen from all over the world.
Having written and worked on a few shorts over the years, I assure you it’s a herculean effort. Their emotional economy can be a real challenge, but the best ones are often surprisingly moving. This year’s got some strong contenders in that vein. Aya, an Israeli entry directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, follows a strangely impulsive woman waiting at the airport who assumes the identity of a chauffeur and ends up driving a music professor to Jerusalem where he is judging a contest. The two strike up an awkward but warming acquaintance, though she withholds her ruse from the reticent judge. They brush against intimacy but her motivations remain a mystery until the very end. Aya‘s wonderfully acted and an engaging look at a woman out of sorts, looking for the spark of connection for reasons entirely her own.
The comic Boogaloo and Graham is lighter fare, a charming tale of an Irishman in Belfast who gives his two sons a pair of chickens as pets, much to the chagrin of his wife. The wry story is set against the backdrop of the Troubles in 1978, but directors Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney use a light touch.
Butter Lamp from directors Hu Wei and Julien Féret is a curious but fascinating look at a photographer taking a series of portraits of Tibetan nomads against backdrops of famous landmarks and Disney characters. It’s almost plotless but an interesting window into the ways modern Western culture and tech impact even rural Asian life.
From directors Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger comes Parvaneh, the story of a young Afghan woman who comes to work in Zurich. Needing to send money to her ill father back home and lacking the proper ID for Western Union, she enlists an opportunistic punk to help, and the two women strike up an unlikely friendship. The story nearly veers into tragedy several times over its short duration, but thankfully pulls back each time. Plenty of people suck, but not all of them, not all of the time.
Lastly from England comes The Phone Call by directors Mat Kirby and James Lucas. Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky) works at a crisis call centre. The call she gets is a rough one, from an older man in the midst of a suicide attempt. Voiced by an unseen Jim Broadbent (Professor Slughorn in the Harry Potter movies, and countless others), the depth of his sadness is crushing, and the film is quietly gripping as she attempts to win his confidence and pull him back from the brink. It veers a little too far into sentimentality at the end, but The Phone Call memorably captures a powerful encounter.
If you’re betting in an Oscar pool, I’d probably pick Aya for the win, although the comic Boogaloo and Graham might play well with Academy voters. It’s a strong bunch of contenders, and the Academy is as inscrutable with their short picks as any of the rest.
Tomorrow I’ll post about the slate of animated shorts, which are superb fun.
TIFF’s programs for the Oscar Shorts runs from Saturday, January 31st to at least Thursday, February 5th. For screenings and more info about both the Live Action and Animated programs, see here.