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This year's Oscar nominated short films are often excellent, depressing

Audiences can see them in theaters starting Friday

Joe Gross
"Detainment." [Contributed by Twelve-Media]

After watching a full slate of Oscar-nominated short features, animated shorts and short documentaries, one has the urge to buy each and every filmmaker an Edible Arrangement and a card that says, “Sorry about whatever you are going through right now and I hope you feel better soon.”

Rarely has the short film category, especially the features and animated films, been dominated so completely by children in extreme distress and mopey narratives about aging. Some of them are extremely good. Nevertheless — yikes.

Shorts programs are opening Feb. 8 at Alamo South Lamar, Regal Arbor 8, Austin Film Society and the Violet Crown.

Here is what you can expect to see from an impressively depressing (in good ways and bad) selection of shorts:

Short Features

You might have heard about the controversy surrounding the agonizing “Detainment,” Irish filmmaker Vincent Lambe's half-hour dramatization of the questioning of two 10-year-old boys regarding the death of a toddler. The film is based on transcripts from the actual questioning of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the children who were ultimately convicted of the 1993 murder of 2-year old James Bulger, a crime that horrified the world and shook Great Britain to the core. (Bulger's mother has been vocal in her objection to the existence of this movie at all.) Expertly directed, acted and edited, it is nonetheless an extremely difficult watch.

Almost as rough is the Spanish film “Madre,” wherein a mother (Marta Nieto) receives a call from her 6-year-old, who, while vacationing with his dad, is suddenly alone on a deserted beach. Rodrigo Sorogoyen's 17-minute film is nothing but tension, largely thanks to being shot virtually in one take.

The unfortunate “Skin,” directed by Guy Nattiv, stars a bunch of folks who should know better (Jonathan Tucker, Danielle Macdonald, the latter of whom was brilliant in “Patti Cakes$”) in a sub-Twilight Zone-ish story of a redneck family who severely beat a black man for no reason and then suffer some absurd, ironic consequences. Nattiv recently made a feature of the same name — let's hope it is better than this.

Québécois director Jérémy Comte’s “Fauve” looks at two teenage boys who play chicken with nature with disturbing (yet beautifully shot) results. Kids, don't play around abandoned mines, no matter how cool they look.

In Marianne Farley's gentle "Marguerite," a visiting nurse (Sandrine Bisson) and her aging patient (Beatrice Picard) bond when the latter reveals a secret from her past.

Animated Shorts

You might recall Domee Shi's weird and wonderful "Bao" when it played in front of "Incredibles 2" last summer. A Chinese woman reflects on motherhood when one of her dumplings comes to life. Lots of sniffling after this one. (Shi is also the first woman to direct a short film for Pixar.)

Actually, sniffling is all over this program. In Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas's heart-string grabbing “One Small Step,” a shoe repairman supports his daughter’s life-long dream of becoming an astronaut.

An elderly woman reflects on her past in the elegant and elegiac “Late Afternoon” by Louise Bagnall and Nuria Gonzalez Blanco. YET MORE SNIFFLING.

In Trevor Jimenez’s beautiful-looking "Weekends," a young boy experiences very different ideas of home as he moves between his divorced parents’ abodes in 1980s Toronto. (Excellent use of “Money For Nothing” in this one.)

Finally, “Animal Behavior,” by Alison Snowden and David Fine, examines a group therapy session between various animals. Yes, the pig loves truffles and the cat cannot stop licking itself. Things go downhill quickly.

Documentary Shorts

In case you wondered if all of America was on the same side during World War II, Marshall Curry's "A Night in the Garden" is seven minutes of archival footage of a “pro-America” 1939 gathering of 20,000 American Nazi supporters at Madison Square Garden. Yes, 20,000. Yes, they filled the Garden. We see: German accents, discussion of a Jewish controlled press and longing for a “white, Gentile controlled United States.” Sound familiar?

In "Lifeboat," Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser gives us a good look at Sea-Watch, an international volunteer organization based out of Germany that aids (well, rescues is more like it) North African migrants in their struggle to cross the Mediterranean. A riveting look at one of the great humanitarian crises of our time, I could have watched another hour.

“Black Sheep,” by Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn, chronicles the life of Cornelius Walker, a Nigerian-British young man whose family moved in 2000 from London (following a the racist murder of a kid like himself) to a small town in Essex when racism flourishes. Alternating between an contemporary interview with Walker and reenactments of his life in this nightmarish village, Walker unpacks the compromises he made to adapt to his surrounds. It’s wrenching stuff.

Warmly shot with a terrific, minimalist score, Rayka Zahtabchi and Melissa Berton’s "Period. End of Sentence" looks at the taboos surrounding menstruation in a small Indian village and the social changes that takes place in that village with the installation of a machine that distributes sanitary pads.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Times of Harvey Milk," "The Celluloid Closet") do their typically excellent job with “End Game,” a look at the extremely sensitive subject of palliative end-of-life care. In the 40-min doc that easily could have been feature length, they look at three subjects: the cutting-edge palliative care group at UCSF Medical Center, the Buddhism-based Zen Hospice Project, and Dr. B.J. Miller, a doctor who lost three limbs at a young age and works with both groups (he wisely describes suffering as “the gap between the world you want and the world you got”). Thoughtful, moving and inspiring.

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