Strong characters help Oscar-nominated shorts shine

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Short films are short for a reason. They are to cinema what poetry is to literature; rather than delving into a complex narrative, they explore a simple concept in depth. This year’s Academy Award nominations for the Live Action Short category represent the best fictional films under 40 minutes from 2014.

The British short film “The Phone Call” portrays one of the most captivating stories in this category. The film focuses on Heather (Sally Hawkins), a suicide helpline call center employee who receives a call from Stan (Jim Broadbent), a man who has taken a fatal dose of sleeping pills and requests her company as he fades away.

The most striking thing about this short is its simplicity. The story hinges on a man who wants comfort in his dying moments and the woman desperately trying to save his life; that is the film in its entirety. Rather than leaving the audience wanting more, the short’s narrow scope gives one five- to ten-minute interaction monumental weight.

“The Phone Call’s” success is largely due to director Mat Kirkby and screenwriter James Lucas’ remarkably concise script, which explains the setting at the beginning and uses the rest of its brief run time to develop the characters. The result is that, by the time the credits roll, the viewer feels like they have known Heather and Stan for two hours.

And, on top of that, the film’s visuals are stunning. Bright lights and carefully colored interiors please the eye and highlight important plot points without distracting the viewer. It is a remarkable short and, if I had to pick, the likely winner of the Live Action Short award.

“The Phone Call” does have some stiff competition. “Aya,” an Israeli short, is a phenomenal story centered around a woman (Sarah Adler) waiting in an airport who is mistaken for a driver by a Danish music researcher named Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen) on his way to judge a piano competition in Jerusalem. She decides to go along with it and see where the road takes them rather than tell him that she is not his driver.

Aya and Overby are set up as a binary; Aya is a woman, Overby is a man; she is from Israel, he is from Europe; she is a romantic, he goes about his business. But over the course of the drive, the dividing line between their two very different personalities begins to blur. At its core, “Aya” is a human film about longing and complication; it is soul crushing, dramatic, cute and funny, all in the course of 40 minutes.

“Aya” runs nearly twice as long as “The Phone Call” and is in many ways its opposite. Time is the enemy in “The Phone Call,” whereas the length of “Aya” allows the relationship between Aya and Overby to blossom.

“Butter Lamp” is the Chinese/French joint-produced short that deserves recognition but will not likely win the Oscar because of how strange it is. The short centers on a Chinese photographer who photographs Tibetan villagers in front of a variety of backgrounds, from the Forbidden City to Disneyland.

The film is exceedingly rudimentary. It is shot from one spot—the presumed location of the photographer’s camera on a tripod—and is comprised of a few long shots of the photographer getting his subjects set up for a picture, cut by the closure of the shutter.

The film’s basic set-up makes it extremely powerful. As it moves forward, the audience realizes that the subjects won’t see any of the places printed on the backdrop they stand in front of; they are entirely isolated in the Tibetan mountains. The premise may not sound like anything special on paper, but it has an effect on screen that cannot be accurately put into words.

Two other shorts, “Parvaneh” and “Boogaloo and Graham,” are nominated for Oscars as well. “Parvaneh” is a story about an Afghan immigrant in Switzerland who befriends a local to help her send money back to her family in Afghanistan. “Boogaloo and Graham” is about two boys living in British-occupied Belfast at the height of the Irish Republican Army tensions, and the chickens their father gave them to distract them from their situation. Both shorts are enjoyable and heartwarming, but neither can compete with “The Phone Call,” “Aya” or “Butter Lamp” in terms of story, character or overall novelty.

For movie lovers, the Oscar-nominated shorts are a compelling departure from the full-length films usually featured in theaters. Both the live-action and animated shorts are playing at the Laemmle Playhouse in Pasadena and discount tickets are available in the Johnson Student Center.

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