Monday, February 27, 2023

I saw ten Academy Award-nominated movies

I spent five hours in a movie theater, with nought but two restroom breaks, watching this year's nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject and Best Animated Short Film, five of each. I'd say that four of the documentaries but only two of the animateds were worth watching. Here's my pocket-sized reviews for each category, arranged from my most to least favorite. Spoiler alert.

Best Documentary Short Subject

1. The Elephant Whisperers. An elderly couple in southern India are assigned - I guess they volunteered for this, but that isn't clear - to take care of an orphaned baby elephant. They do so well with it they're given a second one. They love their elephants, and the elephants love them back. Really touching. Lots of footage of elephants being cute, with brief appearances by tigers, monkeys, birds, and other animals. In Tamil, the principal language around there, with subtitles.

2. How Do You Measure a Year? There was once a movie called Boyhood, which was filmed over 12 years and tracked a boy growing up. This is an even more extended but concentrated version of the same thing, and nonfiction too. A man interviews his daughter on her birthday every year from 2 to 18, and films it. He asks her the same questions each time, but fortunately the excerpts given are not repetitious. Very funny when she's small. She sings, too, including the song from Rent which provides the movie title. Amazingly, 18-year-old Ella likes the ritual and doesn't object to it being preserved. I suspect she hasn't seen the films.

3. The Martha Mitchell Effect. Very condensed history, mostly archival newscasts, of the brief fame of the woman who, I realized when listening to Slate's podcast on the topic, very few people too young to remember Watergate are likely to have heard of. The Mitchell effect is being brushed off as crazy but turning out to have been correct, and she was warning against Watergate before anyone else was. But the story is too pulverized here to prove the case, and is unlikely to interest anyone beyond Watergate junkies and fans of historical outspoken women.

4. Stranger at the Gate. Retired Marine develops, post-9/11, a raging hatred for Muslims. To prove that they're all terrorists, he visits the local Islamic community center to gather evidence. Just what he thought he was going to find is not explored, but he is welcomed with such warmth that, within two months, he's ready to convert, and later becomes the center president. He's not a loner: he's married and has a stepdaughter; it's learning that she has a Muslim classmate that set him off. The movie is mostly interviews; near the end his wife, who says that conversion was "not for me," reveals that they're no longer married, but doesn't say why. Though this isn't the only story I've read of a reflexive bigot being cured by love, I suspect there's more to this story than we're being told. The degree to which he's impressionable - in both directions - is rather alarming.

5. Haulout. No explanation as to what's going on here until some captions at the end of the movie, so I don't rate this one highly. What it actually is: Russian marine biologist visits the northern Siberia coast every fall to wait for the annual walrus invasion of the beach (called a haulout). After they leave he counts the bodies of walruses trampled in the rush or otherwise dead. The captions say the number is worse every year, due to global warming. The one human speaks in Russian, not that there's anyone to talk to but his pocket recorder; with subtitles.

Best Animated Short Film

1. My Year of Dicks. Teenage girl tries to figure out which, if any, of the boys she knows is worthy of giving up her virginity for. Quite raunchy, but extremely amusing. The problem with most dirty jokes is that they're not actually funny. This is funny, especially the scene where the girl wants to tear her ears off in agony (this is animation, so she can) as her father gives her a hideously embarrassing talk about sex. There's no frontal nudity in this movie; you have to go to The Flying Sailor for that.

2. An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It. Man in a stop-motion animated world realizes he's living in a stop-motion animated world. Very meta. Depiction of bleakly boring office life also wry.

3. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. The four titular characters can all talk, but all they say is moral platitudes. The boy appears from nowhere in the snowy wilderness and acquires these companions; when he finally gets the chance to go inside he decides he'd rather stay with them: huddled in the snow, with no food, no shelter, but they're happy. Where The Elephant Whisperers is about love, this movie is about nauseating virtue-signalling. And it also has one of the stupidest plot twists of all time. Yet at least it has a full storyline, so it's not the worst of the animated films.

4. Ice Merchants. No dialogue. This is wacky, but not in a good way. A man and a boy live in a house pinned halfway up a sheer vertical wall of ice several miles high. They harvest ice not by chipping off chunks from the wall, but by pouring water into a small tray and letting it freeze outside overnight. In the morning they chip out the ice and parachute (yes, parachute) to the city in the valley far below, their caps blowing off in the wind every time. Then they use a pulley system to get back up. They do this day after day. Then one night the water doesn't freeze. The house starts to come loose, and they jump without their parachute, which had already fallen off the balcony. They land safely - in a huge pile of their missing caps. Oh, come on.

5. The Flying Sailor. No dialogue. Based on a true story from an explosion in Halifax in 1917. A sailor is walking along the boardwalk and stops to light a cigarette as two ships nearby in the harbor crash into each other. One is loaded with dynamite, so it explodes. This sends the sailor hurling through the air and strips off his clothes. What happens after that is not clear. His life passes before his eyes, perhaps?

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