"Short" is right. Most of these films run fewer than 10 minutes with one longer than a half-hour. And "sweet" is right, too, in a way, if "sweet" stretches to mournful. These Oscar-nominated short films advance the concept of brevity as good and worthy.
In "Pearl" in about five minutes, Patrick Osborne tells the story of a girl and her father, of their music, their life in a car), their cries for grace. "Pearl" was made in the US. So was "Borrowed Time," a Western directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj about a father/son lawman team.
Canada offers a few minutes with "Blind Vaysha," made by Theodore Ushev and based in folklore of Eastern Europe. This short, unlike the first two, includes a narrator, and its mythic theme is hopelessness. The images are woodcuts.
The longest of the set is a heart-breaker from Canada: "Pear Cider and Cigarettes." Robert Valley, the director, voices over the story of his childhood friend, Techno Stypes. Techno's dad sends Valley to China to save Techno, whose kidney no longer supports his habits. First, Valley has to dry out his friend before surgery, and then he has to nurse his friend, a most unbidden help. The animation is all angles, and for all its sadness, "Pear Cider and Cigarettes" stays longer than it plays; however, it is not for children, unlike the littler films.
One of those is the last film, "Piper." This little film, only six minutes long, comes from the Pixar studio, now sheltered by Disney. "Piper" was directed by Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer, and like most things Pixar, it is a triumph. Feathers and foam surround a fledgling piper, who's cute as a button as it learns the ways of fearsome water. Such a treat!
There's not a bad seed in this barrel of apples. All five, mostly a half-hour each, offer resounding stories -- well told, acted and filmed. They come from France, Hungary, Switzerland, Denmark, and Spain. Two of them swirl around the predicament of refugees in Europe.
"Internal Enemies," directed by Sélim Azzazi, centers on an interview -- or investigation or interrogation, depending on the point of view -- between two Arab-Frenchmen in 1998. Their conversation considers terrorism, fatherland, and religion and could not be more pertinent, and the filming includes backgrounds of history. It's chilling.
"Silent Nights" is a story about compassion and tenderness in the face of foreignness. Directed by Aske Bang, "Silent Nights" tells a complicated love story of a Danish woman, Inger, and a Ghanian man, Kwame, who meet at a homeless shelter.
The Swiss offering stars the luminous Jane Birkin as a woman who waves a Swiss flag at the passing train, the TGV. She lives in a blue-shuttered house by the tracks and her life is dwindling. The music is mawkish, but the story is kind of sweet.
"Timecode," a Spanish film directed by Juanjo Pena, is a dancer's delight. Two security guards, who know each other only in passing, that is, as the one leaves his shift and the other assumes hers. But they find each other on the video tapes of the various garages they monitor, and they find each other in dance.
The girls in "Sing," the Hungarian short directed by Kristof Deak, find each other in song. "Sing" is largely about the warmth and wealth of girls' friendships, as the new girl is befriended by Liza. They are warned about singing, but they persist.
So many movies go on for far too long, but these shorts prove that length is not necessary for brilliance.
In Toni Erdmann, Ines enjoys a relatively successful career as a German management consultant based in Bucharest, Romania. Her demanding job, to which Ines commits her time and energy, leaves no room for her father Winfried who repeatedly shows up unexpectedly and weasels his way into meetings and receptions, formal and informal, to Ines' dismay.
He clearly doesn't conform with his ugly black wig, false buck teeth, and embarrassing antics that surprisingly win over some colleagues with their honesty. Adopting Toni Erdmann as his fictitious identity, Winfried means well -- to jolt Ines from her capitalist treadmill existence to a more joyful, childish, if not childlike, exuberance. By film's end, Ines has, quite predictably, become sympathetic, if reluctantly so. A reception Ines hosts late in the film for company team building spectacularly signals her evolution as it becomes a party au natural, no clothes allowed with full nudity.
German writer/director Maren Ade's droll and at times challenging sense of humor won't appeal to everyone nor will the film's two hour 42-minute running time. In press notes, Ade says that in fact Winfried must resort to humor as his only weapon to reach Ines who is, to quote, "a tough cookie herself" in this "conflict between generations."
Anchored in this father-daughter interaction between Ines and Toni, a great deal of the film's appeal and credit for its success go to Sandra Hüller as Ines and Peter Simonischek as Toni. They flawlessly and unselfconsciously register a diverse range of emotions from amusement to irritation, resentment to appreciation, even within the same extended scene. Moreover, her fragile, petite presence contrasts humorously just visually with Toni's bulky bearing, heightening their conflicting emotional postures. They're a bit Laurel and Hardy.
Toni Erdmann is a film that surprises with its offbeat approach and its refusal to conform in its subject matter, its length, or its style. It won over critics at Cannes, the Golden Globes, the European Film Awards, appears on several prestigious top-10 lists, and is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Feature Film Oscar. Full female and male nudity make this for mature audiences only. In German and Romanian with English subtitles with some English as well. At Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.
Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi blends personal and political drama suffused with metaphoric commentary in his intricately constructed The Salesman. The Tehran theater group for which Rana and Emad perform is staging Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. As Farhadi says in an NPR interview, Willy Loman's dreams turned to nightmare parallels what will follow for Rana and Emad.
In the opening scene, the partial collapse of Rana's and Emad's apartment building suggests their physical and emotional trouble to come. The heretofore happy couple must find another place to live, and thus begins their tragedy. Unaware of the previous female tenant's sexual activity and thinking her husband returns home, Rana buzzes in an unknown man, leading to head injuries for her after an incident in the shower never fully explained. It is clear that the ripple effects reach to neighbors, colleagues, and, with staggering impact, Rana and Emad whose desire for revenge drives his actions.
Except for the theater scenes, cinematographer Hossein Jafarian shot this superbly constructed film almost entirely on location, handheld, lending an unstable feel to events. He used cooler lighting in the abandoned apartment, while for the theater he relied on reds and blues since, as he says in January's American Cinematographer, "I thought they were very American colors" for Miller's play.
This mesmerizing, two-hour film subtly but surely indicts what Farhadi calls Iranian theocracy, that is, the government prescribes behavior replete with oppressive gender and class inequities. It is clear why Emad dismisses involving the police as a bad idea, and, adding education as an area for implicit indictment, Emad teaches teenagers, all male. A song was taken out by censors, since that's forbidden. Further, in its staging and lighting, a long concluding scene blends real life with stage performance, expanding social criticism by suggesting that in such a society everyone performs all the time.
The Salesman won this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. But, in his own political statement, the Iranian Farhadi, whose "A Separation" won 2012's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, refuses to attend the ceremony even if granted the waiver he'd require. In Persian with English subtitles, showing in an exclusive engagement at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.
This is a vital time for director Fred Peabody's documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone. This preeminent investigative journalist spoke truth to power, that is, he refused to channel mainstream media, practicing instead adversarial, fearless journalism. Most notably, his newsletter, I.F. Stone's Weekly, gleaned information from his own research not from press releases.
I.F. Stone (1907 to 1989) published his Weekly from 1953 to 1971, typed with two fingers on his typewriter. Throughout his work, ranked as second in importance for all-time among print journalism, he scrutinized and challenged prevailing policy and ideas. While I.F. Stone is the touchstone, Peabody throws his net much wider. Michael Moore, who speaks several times in the documentary, says he can draw a straight line from I.F. Stone to himself. Other esteemed individuals who speak include Amy Goodman, John Carlos Frey, Matt Taibbi, Noam Chomsky, and Sharif Abdel Kouddous, among others. Their comments enliven the loosely stitched together patchwork quilt of stories largely ignored by the mainstream media. The refugee camps, the mass graves of unidentified migrants crossing the U.S. southern border, the weapons of mass destruction, and the Vietnam bombings: all needed much sharper coverage to reveal the lies and erroneous presentations by those in power.
Peabody takes Stone's iconoclastic approach and highlights the exceptional reporters and programs still keeping the faith, so to speak. Democracy, Now!, Rolling Stone contributor Taibbi, The Intercept co-founders Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras, Tom Engelhardt's TomDispatch blog, Mother Jones, and more: all receive their due, with archival footage providing historical records. As Peabody touches on diverse topics over decades in a loosely organized presentation, what emerges is how much a healthy society needs reporters following the model of I.F. Stone.
All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, February 10 through Sunday, February 12 at 7:30 each evening.