This year I was able to see four of the five Oscar Nominated short docs from the comfort of my couch; two on Netflix and two on my phone.
Extremis and The White Helmets are both available via Netflix and are both fantastic films. Extremis deals with end-of-life decisions using a well-polished fly-on-the-wall style in a hospital, while The White Helmets takes a non-narrative documentary style to cover first responders in Syria.
4.1 Miles is available from the New York Times and is about a Greek boat captain who rescues migrants from the choppy waters of the Aegean Sea. The video is as raw as its subject matter, and you feel every wave, just as you feel the weight of every life in the hands of the boat’s crew.
Joe's Violin is available from The New Yorker, and introduces us to a Holocaust survivor who donates his violin to a girls' school. It’s a very nice piece, but faces an uphill battle against the weight of the other films in the Oscar race.
Watani: My Homeland was not available to watch online, but the trailer looks promising. Filmed over three years, it follows a family who escapes Syria to find a new life in Germany.
All that said, my Oscar vote goes to The White Helmets.
Growing up in the 1980's I was well aware of “Russia.” But being a kid, my “knowledge” was only through hearsay in the hallways and movies like Rocky IV and Red Dawn. Words like defecting, KGB, and Siberia were on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn't have told you very much about any of them. All I knew is that they (Russia) were the villains, and we were the heroes.
Of course, I've learned a lot since then. But the opening credits of Red Army fed right into my nostalgia, as they feel just like an action movie. And the film itself has a sly sense of humor, as it shows us the Cold War from the other side, using playful graphics and archival footage that keeps us entertained, while showing us what it was like playing on the Red Army Hockey Club National Team for the Soviet Union.
Interviews with hockey great Slava Fetisov anchor the film, and we hear from other players, fans and experts as well as we follow the Red Army through the Miracle Game of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, to the modern day, as the players and team face wins, losses, tragedies struggles and success.
The end of Fetisov's story works as a surprise ending to the film – at least it did for me, since I know less about hockey today than I did about Russia in the 1980s.
Red Army is director Gabe Polsky’s first feature-length documentary, and with such an amazing debut, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I read The BFG to my kids at least once when we were going through Roald Dahl's oeuvre and I remembered only fragments of it. But what made me want to see the movie was the teaser trailer, which focuses on the BFG's first appearance to Sophie. And that’s the scene the film opens with. It’s a longer and very well-executed introduction to the BFG and his relationship with the young girl.
“It was the witching hour, when the boogeyman comes out; when people go missing.”
Watching the BFG hiding in plain sight throughout the city is really fun, and his bizarre spin on the English language is a treat to listen to.
“I can’t be helpin’ it if I be sayin things a bit sqiggly.”
The film takes place in both the real world and the magical (read: animated) world. Sophie is played by a real girl, so when she’s in Giant Country she’s the only real thing in it, and it’s obvious she’s been "green screened" in, which is a bit distracting. It made me wonder why she wasn’t just animated herself and the whole film animated along with it.
This double fish out of water story, first as Sophie is transported to the land of the giants, and later when the BFG comes to tea in the city, are both fun premises. But the film really sparkles when it’s the BFG who is out of his element, especially when we get to Buckingham Palace, which plays host to a scene that is worth the price of admission in itself.
I had some questions as to to the BFGs “job” as a “dream catcher,” but to properly think about that I’ll need to reread the book. The BFG hears all the “secret whispering of the world,” and it’s almost like Sophie is praying to him at the end, which felt like an odd way to end such a fanciful tale.