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Review: The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Five brutally honest films that put Hollywood 'message' movies to shame.

The Academy Award nominees in the documentary categories are usually “message” films, and this year is no different. All the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts tackle very serious issues, or at least desperate parts of the shared life experience, and do so with such directness, and such honesty, that practically every studio film with a social agenda on its mind feels crass in comparison.

That said, these films could be rough to get through. Though many of them end hopefully, or at least without outright tragedy, these tales of homelessness, old age, cancer, dying children and poverty aren’t (as you can imagine) meant to be consumed as entertainment. They’re confrontational, but also – to a one, this year – very powerful.

The Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are playing this week at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills, CA.
 

Inocente (dirs. Sean Fine & Andrea Nix Fine)

All of these documentary shorts deal with heavy subject matter, but Inocente is probably the biggest crowd pleaser. The story of a homeless art prodigy, moving away from her troubled, possibly dangerous mother while preparing for her first art show – at age 15, no less – is told with a fair and involving combination of real-world relevance and individual triumph. It helps that, as an artist, Inocente herself is actually very good, with confident, broad brush strokes and dynamic color arrangements; the Pollock-like depiction of her process has a tactile quality that’s nothing short of inspiring. Inocente illustrates a larger problem by focusing on a single, involving figure whom you really want to succeed. It’s an excellent film.


 

Kings Point (dir. Sari Gilman)

New Yorkers descended on Kings Point, FL decades ago, and now dwell there in their twilight years, searching for love and, in a way, waiting for death. The casual filmmaking style of Kings Point does an excellent job of capturing the daily lives of a group of interesting, lovable people whose age is having a major impact on the way they conduct their relationships, with otherwise excellent couples undone by the fear of having to bury each other. And yet… life goes on, and the days have to be filled with companionship of one kind or the other. Kings Point is slight, but very sensitive.


 

Mondays at Racine (dir. Cynthia Wade)

Steel Magnolias it’s not. This documentary about a hair salon that operates for free one day a month, for cancer patients, spends most of its time delving into the patrons’ personal lives, finding fear, heroism and even humor. But always there is the shadow of tragedy, with an emphasis on the loss of identity that stems from hair loss and mastectomies, as well as the difficulties involved in sustaining a marriage through such horrible times. Mondays at Racine is hopeful but heartrendingly honest about the effect cancer has on both the individual and their families, and may be the most emotional short film nominated this year.


 

Open Heart (dir. Kief Davidson)

A Rwandan man takes his child to the doctor, where he’s informed that her life-saving heart surgery can be performed for free in Sudan, but he’s not allowed to go with her, and if she dies on the operating table, her body can’t come home for burial. Damn, that’s a hell of a set-up. Open Heart follows a group of children with heart conditions traveling to Sudan, where the gruff doctors assess their life expectancy with grim resolve, and struggle with the corrupt government to keep going after the devaluation of Sudanese currency endangers the lives of their patients. Open Heart ends more happily than you’d expect, although getting through the explicit surgery sequences can be very difficult. The message is clear, but it’s dramatized so effectively that preachiness never rears its ugly head.

If you’re betting on the Oscars, Open Heart may be the one to beat in this category. It hits all the right buttons, and it’s a great film in the process.


 

Redemption (dirs. Jon Alpert & Matthew O’Neill)

You’ve probably seen them, these people gathering bottles and cans out of the trash, piling them six feet high on their shopping carts, and living off the money they make from recycling them. Redemption tells their story, and slides from person to person, discovering how they came to depend on “canning” to survive, the ins and outs of this unusual profession, and their relationships with other canners, who could be friends, allies or outright enemies. Redemption doesn’t come to any dramatic conclusion for any of its subjects, because there is none. This is how life is for some people. So don’t take your life, or even that job you complain about so much, for granted. A very impressive and affecting film.


 


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the co-star of The Trailer Hitch. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.