Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts (87th Academy Awards) review

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An extraordinary group of films concerned with corralling confusing and conflicting human experience at emotional borderlands.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

An extraordinary group of short documentaries has been nominated in this Oscar category this year, and perhaps the most striking thing about them is that none is very like what we might deem a traditional example of the genre. Instead, they share an unusual impressionism that is more concerned with corralling — or, really, attempting to corral — confusing and conflicting human experience at the emotional borderlands between life and death, between innocence and insight, and between hope and despair.

It’s tough to pick a best from among these five, but “Joanna” [IMDb], by Polish filmmaker Aneta Kopacz, is simple, beautiful, and very affecting. It’s a stunningly idyllic collage of a few months in the life of a woman coping with cancer treatments and making the most of her time with her husband and their five-year-old son. She’s a remarkable person, dedicated to living in the moment and with careful consideration, and in passing on her attitude to her son. A truly inspirational film in all possible ways, even in its darker moments.

“Our Curse” [IMDb], another Polish entry, is a sort of diary of life with filmmaker Tomasz Sliwinski’s newborn son, who suffers from a terrible disorder known as Ondine’s curse: his body “forgets” to breath while he is sleeping, and so he must rely on a ventilator. Sliwinski’s discussions with his wife about their expectations and fears for their fragile son is a powerfully intimate peek into the psyche of new parenthood — sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes joyous — that I suspect many people will see themselves in.

From Mexico comes “The Reaper” [IMDb], by Gabriel Serra, a portrait of a slaughterhouse worker that explores his struggle with the spirits of the animals he kills every day, and how he finds peace with himself. Gorgeously photographed even as it depicts a slice of human reality that some will find unpleasant, this film represents a provocative challenge to everyone along the carnivore-vegetarian spectrum to consider the relationship between human animals and the other creatures we rely on to survive.

The most traditional among the nominees is “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” [IMDb], by Ellen Goosenberg Kent (Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq). This HBO doc offers an almost unbearably intense look inside the operations of the 24/7/365 Veterans’ Crisis Line, where mental-health professionals, some of them veterans themselves, counsel despondent and suicidal military personnel, both retired and active-duty. It’s a horrifyingly necessary job, we learn, with the U.S. in the midst of an epidemic of veteran suicides. [In addition to the Oscars shorts theatrical presentation, this film is also available in the U.S. on HBO Go and HBO On Demand through March 9th.]

Finally, there’s “White Earth” [IMDb], from American filmmaker Christian Jensen, presenting a look at the oil boom in North Dakota from perspectives we haven’t seen before: not that of the oil workers but of those who depend on them. Two kids (not related to one another, that is) and one wife and mother consider how their lives have changed, and not much for the better, since they arrived in this desolate yet burgeoning place; another kid who has lived there her whole life laments the influx of strangers that now limits her freedom. The optimism they nevertheless all still exhibit feels poignantly strained.

See the official site for showtimes and locations across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

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