Well, I made my way through the movie Mank, how about you? Did you, like me, hit pause, take a nap and return to it with steely determination to go on? It was all very Beckett-ian - “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
On Sunday night, I gave up on the Academy Awards after what felt like five hours. But it was only two. So I went off to read a long piece about Jacques Derrida’s insights into literature, law, film theory and theology. Then I read the obituaries of people I never liked anyway. A fun evening.
Anyway: The 93rd Academy Awards drew 9.85 million viewers in the U.S., a 58-per-cent decline in total viewers. To give context, that’s about half the number of viewers for Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
You could conclude that an issue is the sheer numbing length of it. You could conclude brevity has gone missing in the movie racket and in the award season. So here’s a tip: Several excellent short films were nominated for an Oscar and their brevity is what gives them power. Two are easily available to stream, and a third mentioned here is even more of a triumph.
Two Distant Strangers (Netflix) was the winner for best live-action short film, and it sure packs a punch. Unsubtle but beautifully done, this 32-minute drama sticks with you more than most nominated full-length movies. Call it a time-loop drama or a riff on the Groundhog Day template; it has an air of menace that sets in after a few minutes and never evaporates.
A young Black man named Carter (Joey Bada$$) wakes up next to a woman he met the night before, Perri (Zaria Simone), and they have cute but awkward morning-after banter before he departs to get home to his dog. On leaving he encounters a surly cop, Officer Merk (Andrew Howard). Things escalate quickly and Carter is dead on the street. Next, he wakes up again next to Perri. The repetition of the drama then expands until it seems the cycle is broken. Watch until the very last frame.
If Anything Happens I Love You (Netflix) won the Oscar for best animated short film and it is as spare and restrained as Two Distant Strangers is robustly uncompromising. Using a sylphlike 2-D animation, this short – written and directed by Will McCormack and Michael Govier – is about memory, loss and rectitude.
Two parents are seen as remote from each other and we sense it’s about the death of their preteen daughter, but we don’t know exactly what happened. There’s an accidental movement in the home: A soccer ball falls and as it rolls along it opens more than a door that happens to be ajar. There is a distinct sense of shadows looming and in the shadows are the past and the daughter. Only when the mother and father face up to the shadows do they begin to truly remember and, in remembering, find solace.
The Trader (Netflix) is, visually and emotionally, the most stunning of the bunch. In 23 minutes, filmmaker Tamta Gabrichidze’s short documentary paints a portrait as rich as it is elegiac. It simply follows Gela, a middle-aged man who roams the countryside in the country of Georgia to sell secondhand clothing, toys and other banal items from the back of his van. Almost everything he sells is paid for in potatoes by the locals. Literally. “Potatoes are money for us,” an elderly man on a remote farm says. The euro, the dollar, even the local currency, the lari, are irrelevant. It’s the potatoes that matter.
This world – the film is in Georgian with English subtitles – might look like the 19th century come back to life, but it is entirely contemporary, a vignette from Eastern Europe that is utterly authentic, from the gloomy skies to the joy of children playing with whatever is at hand and being enchanted when Gela blows soap bubbles for them. We hear the joshing of women as they pick potatoes in the fields and see their pleasure in buying a scarf from the trader. A work of astonishing beauty – it won the Short Film Jury Award for Nonfiction at the Sundance Film Festival – it has a genteel quietism that hides a heartrending power.
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