Still from Boogaloo and Graham

Live-action short films ask a lot of the viewer; There is little context, and character arcs move quickly. The trade-off, in the best short films, is a tight story that leaves the viewer feeling satisfied, and asking questions about the characters. They also allow for the filmmakers to tinker with the structure, to use less plot, or to otherwise move away from traditional filmmaking strategies. The Bell Lightbox presented the five Academy-Award nominated live-action short films in one sitting recently, and in the interest of making some educated Oscar pool picks, here are my thoughts on each film.

Parvaneh – The title character, a teenaged Afghani girl, lives in an immigrant commune in Switzerland. She sets off on a journey to send money to her mother back home. In the big bad city (Zurich, maybe?) she is turned away from the Western Union for not having ID, and in desperation, turns to a local teen girl for help. The two become fast friends, and find a few moments of mutual understanding, despite their radically different life situations. Written and directed by first-timer Talkhon Hamzavi, Parvaneh was originally made in 2012, which in film feels like an eternity ago. It had some genuinely pleasant scenes, but is largely forgettable, and in my view is the least likely of the five films to take home the statuette on Sunday.

The Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak) – Easily the funniest short film I’ve ever seen, and the furthest from traditional. Directed by Hu Wei, a Chinese-French director, the short film follows the apparently popular cultural phenomenon of a travelling photographer and his assistant. The two men have set up their backdrop screens in a Tibetan village, and various families come to have their photos taken. The photo backdrops all feature Chinese cultural landmarks; The Beijing Olympics and the Great Wall of China for example.  The viewer learns, through the motorcycle-riding, sunglass-wearing mayor, that big changes are coming to the village. A starkly beautiful final shot clarifies that, and in true short-film fashion, leaves the viewer with plenty of questions. This is my favourite film of the five, but the lack of real “acting” and the way the film balances between fiction and documentary places some real hurdles for Academy Award success.

The Phone Call – England’s Mat Kirby directs Sally Hawkins as Heather, a British crisis hotline worker who receives a phone call from a sad, lonely man named Stan (Jim Broadbent) on the precipice of suicide. He talks of his dead wife and the loneliness he has been living with since her death. After what feels like an eternity, to the credit of the actors and director, Stan admits he has taken too many sleeping pills and is waiting to die. Paramedics are rushed to his house. To say much more would give away too much, but this film packs a powerful emotional punch, and while the final song choice might be a bit overwrought, this film has won several short film awards already, and is the closest thing to a sure bet to win the Oscar on Sunday.

Aya – Co-directed by Jerusalem film studies graduates Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun, Aya tells the story of an Israeli woman who picks up a Norwegian musician at the airport, pretending to be his driver. Intrigued by the chance encounter, she drives him to his destination, while exploring the possibilities, sexual and otherwise. Their conversation weaves through topics both superficial and deep, and at times there is no conversation at all. Clocking in at a lengthy 40 minutes, the upper limit of a “short film”, Aya never quite grasps hold of a theme and could have been just as effective in ten fewer minutes. The filmmakers are working on making a feature-length version of the film, which might be a richer film and allow for more developed characters.

Boogaloo and Graham – Northern Irish director Michael Lennox nails this adorable little family story, set amidst the “Troubles” of Belfast in 1978. A soft-hearted father buys two pet chickens for his boys, Jamesy and Malachy. The boys, foul-mouthed and whip-smart, walk their chickens, the eponymous title characters, around the neighbourhood and treat them like prize-winning dogs. The film turns on two moments of change, one in the family, and one involving the roaming groups of soldiers in their neighbourhood. In the end, the father must consider making a sacrifice to live in peace.  In 2011, the Academy Award for live-action short film was awarded to another Northern Irish, “The Shore”, and this could likely be the second in four years for the small, burgeoning NI film industry.

The short film categories are often a no-man’s land of the Academy Awards broadcast. These films deserve recognition, and if you haven’t done so yet, your patronage. Hopefully for the Oscar pool crowd, there are fewer questions about them now than when you arrived.

Article by Chris Dagonas: Chris is a Toronto based teacher and writer who also writes for  Same Page Team, a sports and pop culture website with a Toronto focus.