The lesser-name awards on the upcoming Oscar lists always provide some of the most interesting topics and, sometimes, the trickiest handicapping on ballots.
Among the best of the best live-action shorts is DeKalb Elementary, featured at last year’s Windrider Film Festival. Director Reed Van Dyk’s stunner concerns a mentally impaired shooter (Bo Mitchell from Eastbound and Down) and the elementary school receptionist (Tarra Riggs, of The Help) who talks him out of his rampage. The acting is excellentMitchell has the true vacant gaze of those mass shooters who haunt our nightmares, and Riggs underplays the reactions of a brave woman whose good Christian qualities help her in this lethal situation. It’s based on a real-life 911 call taken in Atlanta.
Best animated short contenders can be anything from twee to uproarious, and Negative Space (about the science of packing a suitcase) is on the Wes Anderson side of that lineit’s precious. Far better is the Roald Dahl-sourced Revolting Rhymes, beginning with a chance meeting between a raincoat-wearing wolf and a dear little old lady at a dreary 1950s café, with the wolf revising the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” (“Didn’t like her,” he sighs.)
Dear Basketball, produced by, written by and starring Kobe Bryant, is basically an inspirational TV commercial for the sport, with CalArts-style animation and John Williams poured over the soundtrack like artificially sweetened syrup. Disney/Pixar’s Lou probably will snake the Oscar. If there is justice, their imaginative and gentle tale of the taming of a schoolyard discipline problem will be bypassed in favor of Garden Party. This short, by a six-person team from Lyon, is a brilliant paradox: completely cute and yet as morbid as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. We focus on adorable 3D-animated froggies. As we go wider, we see their habitat is an abandoned Florida mansion where the swimming pool is filling with algae; all the rot is attracting delicious insects. Garden Party is staged like an unauthorized sequel to Scarface (1983) andjust perhapsit may be a Resistance document. Does the bulky, orange-haired former master of the place, glimpsed in a portrait in his garish living room, remind you of anyone?
Among the best documentary shorts, a favorite might be Knife Skills by Thomas Lennon. It profiles Edwins, a sort of haute-cuisine academy/working French restaurant in Cleveland’s Shaker Heights. Students are recruited from the ranks of some of the 650,000 convicts released every year in the U.S. The program isn’t for everyoneone class’ success rate was 35 out of 120. Unfortunately, the equation that hard work builds self-esteem always has some variables in it.
Edith and Eddie focuses on a 90-ish couple separated by relatives who are convinced that they’re unable to care for each other. This is a subject that’s informed masterpieces like Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story. But it kept the eyes dry, even as it flaunted its sadness.
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on 405 gives us the privilege of meeting Los Angeles artist Mindy Alper, whose ink drawings and paper-mache sculptures astonisheven more so when we hear her lifelong struggle with mental illnesses.
The one to beat at the Oscars is Heroin(e), a knockout short funded by the Center for Investigative Reporting. In Huntington, West Virginia, a post-industrial port on the Ohio River, the overdose rate is 10 times what it is in the rest of America. Here are three individuals fighting against the crisis, all women: Necia Freeman, a volunteer bringing food to the street prostitutes trying to earn money for junk; Judge Patricia Keller, whose drug court is as much NA meeting as place for punishment, and, lastly, Jan Rader, a compassionate fire chief who makes history in her state.
Director and co-producer Elaine McMillion Sheldon, a local, was extended a great deal of trust. But she has far too many good interviews here to write this off as the work of a lucky observer who was in the right place at the right time. McMillion displays a probing sensitivity that credits the best traditions of documentary filmmaking.
Oscar Shorts Programs
The Guild, Menlo Park
3Below, San Jose