What makes Oscar’s short film categories difficult to predict isn’t always the lack of exposure most of the nominees have prior to being nominated (though it certainly doesn’t help the Oscar bloggers who don’t bother to do their homework). What really turns them into a round of Final Jeopardy is that, unlike with most other categories where you can either rely on political Hollywood narratives or fall back on the escapism of craft, these races embody the fuzzy in-between, and as such are more vulnerable to outside trends. For instance, we can’t help but notice how the most recent handful of winners in this category—after years of jaded, recession-era snarkfests taking the gold—have drifted toward a benign generosity and lighter touch perfectly in tune with the complacency of Barack Obama’s lame-duck years.
Such is the foul mood of the moment that we can’t discount the possibility of this year’s award going to what my conspirator Ed Gonzalez referred to as “the worst film ever nominated for the Oscar,” Aske Bang’s Silent Nights, which is nothing short of clickbait in film form. A well-meaning Danish girl with a racist, alcoholic, bed-shitting mother meets a handsome but shifty undocumented immigrant from Ghana just before Christmas, and you’ll never guess what happens next! The film is careful enough to slot scenes depicting the displaced vagrant love interest getting rolled by both young Arab men and white nationalists, so as not to alienate anyone who finds rhetorical value in the phrase “all lives matter.” But, to echo my own assessment of a 2013 loser in this category, it’s “this lineup’s most obnoxiously self-satisfied case of well-heeled white-savior guilt run amok.” Or, as Ed more crisply pointed out, “a fucking Shrinky Dinks version of a Paul Haggis film.”
Making this category hard to predict isn’t always the lack of exposure most of the films have prior to being nominated.
If the two most recent category trends of boho narcissism and world-sheltered gentility hold strong, and didn’t peak with last year’s Stutterer, then neither The Railroad Lady nor Timecode can be ruled out, but so far as hipster-friendly entertainments go, both are far more generically friendly than memorably hipster. Juanjo Giménez’s charming Timecode, in particular, lacks the residue of ironic contempt directed inward that has marked such past winners as The New Tenants and Curfew, and is all the better for it. Building unpretentiously toward a “Dancing with the Guards” finale, it’s downright loving in its tribute to the clock-punchers of the world (the “fools who dream,” as you prefer), which can only partially be said for Timo von Gunten’s The Railroad Lady, or A Crusty But Benign Old Baker Can Be Amélie Too as directed by Wes Anderson in a jaunty beret. Star power has sometimes tipped the scales in this category, so Jane Birkin’s presence doesn’t hurt, but her film plays out like exactly what most trailers at Landmark Cinemas promise. It’s old-world cinema, and the AMPAS just purged many of those who, like Birkin’s railroad lady, only recently just “sent” their “first Internet.”
As it may be with virtually any category that doesn’t resolve in favor of La La Land, Oscar seems primed to rally behind everything that macro- or micro-aggressively congratulates the Academy’s anti-Trump sentiments. And here we have both: Sélim Azzazi’s grim Enemies Within, a sturdily made, claustrophobic two-hander set in 1990s France amid the Algerian civil war, and Kristof Deák’s dainty Sing, which takes place in 1991 Hungary as Soviet troops are withdrawing. Both films depict the struggles of those fighting to retain their sense of identity in environments that insist, in fact subsist, on compromise. Both the Algerian man attempting to secure French citizenship when his nation seemed willing to shed his kind (an attitude, we hasten to point out, France may be on the cusp of reasserting) and the chorines told by their dictatorial choirmaster to mime singing rather than risk polluting the concert hall with their vocals share our current sense of indignation.
But Sing, for all its beautifully observed moments of bonhomie between the off-key heroine and her main conspirator, registers only through metaphor. RuPaul’s Drag Race superfans though we may be here at Slant Magazine, “category is” realness this year. Those chanteuses aren’t lip syncing for their lives, and what may or may not pass through the lips of Enemies Within’s Algerian interrogee could put his own constituencies up for elimination.
Will Win: Enemies Within
Could Win: Sing
Should Win: Sing