It’s really tough for me to pick a single best film among the excellent crop of Oscar nominees for Best Live Action Short. They are all very personal, even when the backdrops of some are huge conflicts. That’s probably necessary when telling a story in a small space, but it helps to make all of them feel very intimate; even the ones most remote from my own experience instantly felt recognizable. If these five films — the longest of which is only 30 minutes, and most are much shorter — can be said to have a unifying theme, it’s this: We’re not alone. We’re never alone, even if it seems like we are. Sometimes we are very bad at recognizing that we are going about not being alone in the wrong way. Sometimes we fight too hard to not be alone when it wasn’t necessary, and sometimes we forget that everyone else is fighting their way through their own loneliness, too. But we are all in this big mess of a thing called life and the world together.
That is always a comforting thing to hear, and these five films all say that so well. So they’re all great, and picking a Best is tough. But picking a favorite is easy. It’s “Day One” [IMDb | official site], from former U.S. army paratrooper Henry Hughes — this film was part of his MFA in directing from the American Film Institute — about the really rough day a new interpreter has with a band of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Layla Alizada is absolutely marvelous as Feda, the “terp,” and though it is based on Hughes’ own experience with an interpreter in the field, it features touches of awareness into a woman’s experience that are unusually perceptive from a male filmmaker. (Dawn DeVoe contributed to the script, but it’s not just the words the actors are saying but how they are presented that is surprisingly shrewd.) This is a wartime drama the likes of which we have not seen before, one that acknowledges, among other often forgotten aspects of war, that battle is not exclusively the province of men, and that battle itself is no longer what it once was.
I hope that “Day One” wins the Oscar, and I suspect its odds are good, but a close competitor is “Ave Maria” [IMDb | official site], from British-Palestinian filmmaker Basil Khalil, a comedy of culture clash from a place not exactly known for humor: the West Bank. When Israeli settlers have a car accident just outside the convent of the Sisters of Mercy, Arab Christian nuns who have taken a vow of silence, the sisters have to find a way to work together to get their visitors on their way… because the Sabbath has just begun, and observant Jews aren’t supposed to use the telephone! This is a wonderful little film, and the sheer unexpectedness of it may give it a slight edge when it comes to the Oscars.
The other nominees are:
• “Everything Will Be Okay (Alles wird gut)” [IMDb | official site], from German filmmaker Patrick Vollrath. A divorced dad, Michael (Simon Schwarz), picks up his young daughter, Lea (Julia Pointner), for an overnight visit, and at first, his strange behavior, like letting her pick out expensive toys, seems like nothing more than a part-time father going overboard to make up for missed time with his kid. But by the time Lea realizes something is wrong, our grownup alarm bells having been ringing for quite a while. Things get very intense; Pointner is very good for someone so young at playing very scared and yet keeping it cagey so as not to annoy dad. And it’s clear by the end that it will be a very long time before Lea feels like everything is okay again.
• “Shok” [IMDb | official site], from British filmmaker Jamie Donoughue. In Serb-occupied Kosovo in the 1990s, teen pals Oki (Andi Bajgora) and Petrit (Lum Veseli) see their friendship strained when Petrit’s attempt to cozy up to the occupiers fails to placate them. Based on a true story, this is by turns harrowing and heart-warming, a coming-of-age tale about facing the horrors that humans can dish out, one with more profound implications than we’re used to seeing in stories about kids on the knife edge of adulthood.
• “Stutterer” [IMDb], from Irish filmmaker Benjamin Cleary. This may be the lightest of the five nominated live-action shorts, but it wouldn’t feel that way to Greenwood (Matthew Needham), a typographer in London whose severe speech impediment limits his social options. Or is he limiting himself needlessly? Greenwood’s inner dialogue, which we hear in voiceover, is articulate and expressive, and he’s a smooth talker online. But now his cute lady Facebook penpal wants to meet in person, and he panics. The lovely central performance and Cleary’s sensitive direction add up to a bittersweet portrait of self-conscious and self-imposed solitude that may, perhaps, be about to break.