There is no shortage of variety in the Academy Award nominated short films playing at the Michigan Theater; even within each of the three categories – live action, documentary and animation. There is plenty to like in each.
Growing up is complicated and full of change. “How Do You Measure A Year?” is an intimate short where a father asks his daughter a series of questions every birthday from when she is ages two to 18. Her evolution and relationship with her father, Jay, is revealing, intimate, funny, heartwarming, brutally honest, and relatable.
Also heartwarming is “The Elephant Whispers”, which follows a couple who fell in love while bonding doing their job. The likable, down to Earth main subjects take care of elephants orphaned in India.
Barely a word is spoken in “Haulot,” which follows a man living in a cabin on the Siberian coast. The marine biologist documents and studies how walrus populations are being affected by climate change. The intense quiet, nearly omnipresent wind, and ambient noises makes for a surprisingly rapt soundtrack, complementing the moody and visually rich shots.
We are living in an era where we often spend more time talking about how societies are deeply polarized than we do talking about what polarizes us. The “Martha Mitchell Effect” is a refreshing and illuminating documentary of another highly polarized era, Watergate. It tells the story of the wife of President Richard Nixon’s first attorney general and her experience during the scandal which, in many ways, is similar to the polarization that we’re going through right now.
“Stranger At The Gate” tells the story of a Marine veteran in Muncie, Indiana. One day, he walks into the local mosque with the intention of using an improvised explosive device – a homemade bomb just like the ones used in Iraq and Afghanistan against American and NATO soldiers – to kill as many American Muslims as he possibly can.
The twist is: he doesn’t do it.
Not only did he not kill anyone, he became friends with them, cooperated with law enforcement, and ultimately converted to Islam. This would-be terrorists’ journey is winding, complicated, and full of nuance. It is a breath of fresh air for anyone who needs to be reminded that tolerance, forgiveness, emotional healing, diversity, inclusion, community and above all religious liberty aren’t just possible, but are still really happening in this country.
The most understated and upsetting live action nominee is “IVALU.” In this Greenlandic entry, a girl narrates her search for her missing sister with a series of flashbacks as she remembers the various puzzle pieces of the story of sexual abuse and surviving childhood trauma. While not for the faint of heart, it’s a compelling and impeccably made film that is worth braving your way through.
“The Red Suitcase” is also terrifying, and almost without dialogue, especially from the 16 year old main character. She arrives at Luxembourg Airport unable to speak German, Luxembourgish, or French. It quickly becomes apparent that she is there against her will, to be married off to a complete stranger, who she has to try to escape.
“Le Pupille” is on the other end of the spectrum. At a Catholic orphanage in northern Italy towards the end of World War II, it is a family-friendly story about relationships between people, and the motivation behind why adults do things that children think of as unfair.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing shorts is Norway’s “Night Ride.” A woman waiting for an interurban trolley one night accidentally finds herself driving the vehicle through a series of accidents and impulsive decisions. She finds herself confronting a passenger harassing a trans woman on the vehicle she just stole with a funny result that feels like it came out of a folktale.
“An Irish Goodbye” perfectly meshes dark humor with heartbreaking tenderness. When their mother dies, one of two brothers is intent on selling the farm they grew up on and moving his brother, who is disabled, in with an aunt. The story of their subsequent loud arguments, reconciliation, and processing of their grief is realistic, not always kind, but full of good intentions.
The trippiest movie of the three series is “An Ostrich Told Me The World Is Fake And I Think I Believe It.” This Australian film breaks the fourth wall from the very first frame, because it isn’t showing the animation of the main character in his office. It is showing you a monitor, showing you the live camera footage of the set. You can see the hands of the filmmaker moving in the background of almost every shot, manipulating the models as they go out of their way to show you how this is a work of fiction.
Two of the animated shorts are bereft of dialogue. “The Flying Sailor” tells the true story of an accident involving dynamite in the harbor of World War One-era Halifax.
“Ice Merchants” is an intriguing story about a skydiving ice seller and hisson, who have to escape a metaphor for climate change once the ice of their mountaintop home starts to melt.
“The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and the Horse” is a beautifully stylized film with impeccable production values. But this British short is not nearly as deep, entertaining, cute, or profound as it thinks that it is. The meandering plot, paper thin characters, meaninglessly trite moments, lack of imagination, and aimlessness makes it a slog to get through.
The most not-for-children animated nomination is “My Year of Dicks.” This story is told by a teenage girl intent on losing her virginity, who has to navigate an all-too-familiar world of flirting, avoiding assault, figuring out consent, and finding the right people to date, rather than the most convenient. It’s complicated, funny, uncomfortable, and realistic.
The films run at the Michigan Theater until February 28. Tickets range from $8.50 to $10.50.