Scott Carlton returns to Lights.Camera.Binge to review the contenders for 2017’s best live action short.

This year’s Oscar-nominated live action shorts contain plenty to relish. Stories of immigrant experiences and racism are intermixed with those of loneliness, unlikely human connection, romance, and more. As to be expected from the Academy, the nominated shorts are largely crowd-pleasers that don’t deviate too far from the norm in terms of narrative and style. More surprisingly, though, this year the live action shorts are far more hopeful and funny than the animated shorts. Despite these commonalities, the live action program is relatively varied in subject matter and occasionally style, with selections from around the world (not including the US). With that said, one characteristic that all the shorts in this category share is that they consistently range from good to excellent. This means there will be a tight Oscar race for Best Live Action Short, and that the winner won’t be so easy to predict.

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Sing

The 2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action program, as packaged for theatrical distribution, kicks off especially strong with Sing, a Hungarian short directed by Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy. Sing tells the story of an approximately 11-year-old girl who’s transferred to a new school, where she eagerly joins the top-notch competitive choir. Without giving too much away, the film deals in large part with children’s discovery of the foibles and folly of adults. With muted colors to suit its somewhat decrepit school setting, the film is nonetheless lively in its portrayal of friendship and playfulness among young girls. It’s emotionally engaging and funny, with a conventional, unbelievable, and oh-so-satisfying climax. This is my pick for the Oscar win.

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Probably not coincidentally, two of the nominated films deal with immigrant experiences. Silent Nights, directed by Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson from Denmark, chronicles the romance between a young Danish woman who volunteers at a homeless shelter and an undocumented immigrant from Ghana. The film at times feels overambitious, spanning across several dramatic events and a long span of story time with comparatively little screen time, but it’s unpredictable and depicts the stakes and plight of both central characters with great empathy.

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Ennemis Interieurs takes a very different approach to topics of immigration and xenophobia. This French film from Selim Azzazi is primarily comprised of an interrogation between a French immigration officer and a French-born Algerian man who seeks French citizenship, but may have connections to terrorist networks. Now, in my work for film festivals, I’ve screened many terrible short films built around an interrogation situation much like this one, in which tension and backstory gradually build through dialogue. Ennemis Interieurs is far more successful in its execution, with cinematography that’s varied enough to keep the rather theatrical set-up interesting. It does still drag a bit, though, and I sensed some restlessness in the theater during this film.

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The last two films on the program concern lonely female protagonists who forge connections with other people in surprising and comic ways. In La Femme et le TGV, a Swiss-French film from Timo von Gunten and Giacun Caduff that’s supposedly based on a true story, a grouchy older woman who lives beside train tracks begins a correspondence with a train conductor who regularly passes by. The story itself –a bitter elderly person discovers life anew—is familiar and sometimes sentimental. Still, La Femme et le TGV is probably the sleekest of the live-action shorts, with wonderful production design and a decidedly French, Amelie-like charm that helps mitigate the story’s deficiencies.

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Timecode, a Spanish short by Juanjo Gimenez, is also sleek and concerned with the formation of an unorthodox bond between two lonely people. Luna is a parking garage security guard who unexpectedly becomes better acquainted with a coworker via the garage’s CCTV footage. Timecode is the most original and funny of the nominees. I like it just as much as Sing, but with a considerably shorter running time and a silliness that might be mistaken for slightness, I suspect it has less chance of winning.

I highly recommend checking out any of these films, though. It’s great to see strong work, selected from around the globe, depicting developed characters and serious issues with humor and pathos.