It’s time to do your Oscar homework. As every awards nerd knows, it’s not your familiarity with the best-picture nominees, but with the shorts — animated, live-action and documentary — that can make or break your score in the office pool. Once again, Landmark Cinemas is making it easy to bone up, with three showcases of the nominated films.
This year’s live-action program should come with a parental advisory.
Not because the material is disturbing to children — although it certainly is — but to warn people who have children, or who are even thinking of having children. Four of the five entries involve kids engaged in situations or behaviors that will profoundly trigger the maternal and paternal instinct to worry.
Let’s start with the Spanish “Madre.” The entirety of this 19-minute gut-punch of a film takes place during a phone call that a single mother (Marta Nieto) receives from her 6-year-old son. Calling from a road trip with his father, the boy quickly informs Mom that Dad has mysteriously disappeared, and that he doesn’t know when — or whether — he’s coming back.
The rest of the short concerns the woman’s increasingly frantic efforts to ascertain where the child is geographically (he might be in France — or maybe Spain). It could all turn out to be needless fretting, but directors Rodrigo Sorogoyen and Maria del Puy Alvarado ratchet up the tension to unbearable.
The program also includes the story of a terrifying accident that occurs while two boys are playing in rural Quebec, “Fauve,” and a fable about American racism that involves a young boy with all-too-easy access to guns, “Skin.” But for sheer horror, watch out for “Detainment.” Based on the 1993 murder of 2-year-old James Bulger by a pair of 10-year-old English boys, and using actual interrogation transcripts for dialogue, the film — and its Oscar nomination — have generated much controversy in England for what has been described as the film’s sympathetic portrayal of the young killers.
For these reasons, I’m putting my money on “Marguerite” to win. It’s not just that this bittersweet French Canadian drama, about the relationship between a lonely senior (Béatrice Picard) and her home heath-care nurse (Sandrine Bisson), will leave the viewer without psychological scarring. It is also a powerfully moving portrait of unrequited love.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas. This program contains violence, crude language and disturbing thematic material. In English, Spanish and French with subtitles. 108 minutes.
Domee Shi’s “Bao” — the first film to be directed by a woman for Pixar, which debuted the short as an accompaniment to the studio’s animated-feature nominee “Incredibles 2” — is the big dog in this year’s race of animated shorts and will probably win. The film, a metaphor for maternal love that anthropomorphizes a Chinese dumpling as a coddled son struggling to escape his mother’s clinginess, is a clever charmer.
The rest of the field — all hand-drawn this year, in stark contrast to Pixar’s trademark CGI, and often wordless, or nearly so — also leans heavily on the parent-child theme: “Weekends” features a young boy navigating his parents’ divorce and shuttling between residences. “One Small Step” tells the story of a proud father and his aspiring-astronaut daughter. And “Late Afternoon” centers on an elderly woman (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) and her daughter.
For pure yuks, there’s “Animal Behavior.” Set in the office of a group therapist who happens to be a dog, this wry Canadian comedy explores several patients: a bird with guilt; a pig with an eating disorder; a cat with OCD; a praying mantis with relationship troubles; a gorilla with an anger management problem; and a leech with separation anxiety. If each of these types is an easy caricature, and the comedy is on the facile side, it’s still great to have the directors, Alison Snowden and David Fine — who haven’t made a short film since their 1994 film “Bob’s Birthday” won the animated-short Oscar — back in the game.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas. This program contains some rude humor and a brief allusion to sex. 75 minutes.
Viewers who have been following the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts over the years may experience a sense of deja vu this year. Two current nominees have uncanny echoes of short films that were nominated two years ago: “End Game” — a look at the wrenching end-of-life decisions faced by terminal patients, their families and their doctors — is very similar to “Extremis,” a 2017 nominee about the same subject. And “Lifeboat” — which follows a group of humanitarians who are rescuing refugees fleeing Africa for Europe in unseaworthy boats — feels like almost the same movie as “4.1 Miles.”
I’m not sure what’s going on here, other than the still-raging refugee crisis. More important, both films are quite good, and moving.
Then again, so are “A Night at the Garden,” which revisits a 1939 rally at Madison Square Garden by American Nazis, and “Period, End of Sentence,” which follows a group of female entrepreneurs who are trying to make sanitary napkins available to Indian schoolgirls. “Night” has scary echoes of today’s culture wars, and “Period” is an inspirational testament to the power of simple actions that change lives, in profound ways.
But “Black Sheep” is both compelling and deeply, unsettlingly original. Anchored by first-person narration and supplemented by staged reenactments with actors, the film by Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn tells the story of Cornelius Walker. A young English man of Nigerian ancestry, Walker befriended — and was ultimately befriended by — the white racists who initially tormented him after his family moved from London to a predominantly white neighborhood in Essex to escape the violence of the city.
The story is a strange one. To fit in, Walker wore blue contact lenses, lightened his skin, and adopted the patois and behavior of those who seemed to hate people who looked like him — even joining in on their assaults. It’s an eye-opening examination of extreme assimilation and complicity, one that I think deserves our attention — and a prize.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. This program contains violence, crude language, drug use and mature thematic material, including racism. 137 minutes.