The Academy Awards and their surrounding hype focus so much on big stars and major movies that the smaller nominees often get crowded out. Film fans should spare a little attention for the makers of short films, whose work can get their foot in Hollywood’s door. The best shorts aren’t just calling cards for making feature films, but pieces of art on their own economical terms.
“The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2018,” opening Friday at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, gives audiences the chance to appreciate the short nominees before the March 4 Oscar ceremony. With one program for the live-action contenders and one for the animated contenders, “The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2018” showcases international talent amid selections that range from good to great.
In the live-action program, Atlanta audiences will take particular interest in Reed Van Dyk’s “DeKalb Elementary,” based on a 911 call during a 2013 hostage situation at a local school. Set primarily in a school office and primarily performed by two actors (Tarra Riggs and Bo Mitchell), plus the voice of the 911 operator, the film’s 20-minute run time offers a master class in realistic, real-time suspense while finding room for genuine compassion.
The subtext of “DeKalb Elementary” calls for gun control and mental health care, and several of the other live-action shorts advocate for other social issues. The heartbreaking “The Silent Child” depicts a young therapist bonding with a neglected deaf girl while making an eloquent case for greater acceptance of sign language in school and at home.
“Watu Wote (All of Us)” adapts a true incident as a Christian woman takes a harrowing bus ride through the Kenyan countryside beset by Muslim terrorists. The sharply detailed German production makes the point that Islam should not be demonized, as the religion can include both misguided fanatics and selfless heroes.
“My Nephew Emmett” evokes the notorious 1955 lynching of Emmett Till by dramatizing the testimony of his uncle (played by L.B. Williams). Featuring Jasmine Guy as Till’s aunt, the film’s quiet farmhouse scenes build an atmosphere of dread that marks life under Jim Crow.
Frequently the short live-action nominees find room for a humorous entry amid the serious fare. Australia’s “The Eleven O’Clock” offers a little comic relief in its portrayal of a psychiatrist having an appointment with a patient — who thinks he’s the psychiatrist. “The Eleven O’Clock” crafts some clever wordplay but, even at 13 minutes, feels like an overinflated sketch.
The animated program features all five Oscar nominees as well as three additional shorts (“Lost Property Office,” “Weeds” and “Achoo”) to round out the running time.
Many viewers may already have seen Pixar’s “Lou,” which was attached to “Cars 3” last summer. A playground bully tries to puzzle out a mystery involving a lost and found bin, and while the story begins with some weird, silly slapstick, its heartwarming resolution proves oddly transcendent.
Animator Glen Keane collaborates with basketball star Kobe Bryant for “Dear Basketball,” which spans the player’s love of the game from childhood to his recent retirement from the L.A. Lakers. The pencil-style animation is fluid and evocative, but “Dear Basketball,” with its syrupy John Williams score, plays like a heavily sentimental sports commercial, and feels more like a tribute to Bryant himself than the game in general.
“Revolting Rhymes” adapts the book of the same name by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake. With a voice cast including such reliable English actors as Dominic West and Rob Brydon, the film offers revisionist takes on “Little Red Riding Hood” and other fairy tales, informed by Dahl’s trademark dark humor. The characters’ deadpan behavior makes a funny counterpoint to their whimsical designs.
France provides two excellent entries this year. “Garden Party” offers astonishingly lifelike animation of frogs slowly exploring a deserted rural home. The deliberate pace of “Garden Party” rewards patient viewers as the audience slowly deduces what happened to the house’s owner.
Finally, in “Negative Space,” a son reminisces over his father’s efficient method of packing suitcases. Realistic, relatable details can segue to surreal images, like the narrator imagining standing in a giant suitcase, and the clothes wash in like the surf.
As if emulating its protagonist, the film packs an enormous amount of feelings and visual ideas in a compact five minutes. By the end, you feel as connected to the characters as you would people you’ve met in real life. “Negative Space” may lack the star power of the other films, but may show the greatest mastery of the form.
“Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2018: Live Action and Animated”
Opens Friday, Feb. 9. $9-$11. Midtown Landmark Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta. 404-879-0160, landmarktheatres.com/atlanta.