Brittany Snow in “Red, White and Blue.” Courtesy of The Collective

With movies, sometimes less is better.

That might sound counterintuitive, especially coming from a movie fan who’s on record applauding the recent Sight and Sound critics poll choice of Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” as the greatest film ever. (For those not into three-and-a-half hour French dramas where you watch a woman make potatoes in real time, you don’t know what you’re missing.)

Still, sometimes a story outstays its welcome. The length of the average Hollywood blockbuster generally tops out at over two hours and, as much as I love sitting in the theater/a good bargain for my buck, sometimes I spend the latter half of a predictable movie counting down the minutes. Economy of storytelling is an art, and a rare one.

Which brings us to PMA Films’ recent presentation of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. This week sees The Portland Museum of Art capping off its annual public service of screening the always hard-to-find short features in advance of March 10’s big awards night with a weeklong showing of the five live-action short films competing for Oscar glory. It’s a great way to catch some perpetually underrepresented cinematic goodness, discover some gifted filmmakers on the way up and, if it’s your thing, pad your odds of winning this year’s Oscar party pool. (Hint: actually doing a little research on the shorts and technical award nominees gives you a serious edge.)

Of the five live-action shorts up for Oscar gold this year, I’ve managed to watch all but Nazrin Choudhury’s “Red, White and Blue,” but it took some doing. (As noted, the market for short films, even at the highest level, is not a lucrative or readily watchable one.) That film is about a single parent (Brittany Snow) attempting to navigate the perilous landscape of post-Roe America in order to attain a much-needed abortion. It’s the sort of story fraught, powerful and timely enough to sustain a feature film, but Choudhury’s approach appears to focus on its central character to the exclusion of extraneous plot, giving the talented Snow (“X,” “Pitch Perfect”) an opportunity to shine. Same goes for the French Canadian “Invincible,” where a troubled young man on furlough from a youth detention center determined never to return there. In both films, there is incident aplenty, but the real story is written in the protagonists’ often wordless faces as they confront desperate decisions.

Short stories (on the page or screen) generally focus on a single event that expands in our imagination to encompass something bigger than itself. Both the Swedish/Danish “Knight of Fortune” (from Lasse Lyskjær Noer and Christian Norlyk) and British “The After” (Misan Harriman and Nicky Bentham) examine the ubiquitous phenomenon of grief. In the former, an old man is unable to make himself open the casket of his dead wife until he meets a strange man in the morgue bathroom with unexpected secrets. In “The After,” the great David Oyelowo (“Selma,” the Phippsburg-shot “Five Nights in Maine”) is a cab driver reeling from a pair of unimaginable tragedies until a simple act of kindness smashes through his protective wall of silence. They’re very different movies that mine a single, short space of time in one man’s life to say more about the process of mourning than any two hours of high-minded speechifying. The best short stories are like that – stripped to a single moment in life, they somehow say all that needs to be said.


And then there are stories like “The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar.” Adapted by master stylist Wes Anderson, this Roald Dahl story is a fantastical fairy tale packed with incident and yet ultimately focused on the mind of one man, the titular rich wastrel who uses extraordinary means to unexpectedly change the world for the better. Dahl, who everybody knows from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach,” was a veritable fountain of weird and wondrous ideas, his short stories capturing readers until his often darkly, horribly funny imagination releases them. Here, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayoade (all popping up the in the four Dahl adaptations Anderson did for Netflix) people a mesmerizing, magical story of greed turned to all-encompassing beneficence, all with a dapper Ralph Fiennes presiding as Dahl and suggesting that the world is a much stranger place than we think. The film’s visual and narrative sprawl is condensed into a pure cinematic gem by Anderson and is my pick to win the Oscar race, for what such a thing is worth.

Short films are Maine filmmakers’ bread and butter, of course. Whether as a lark, an ambitious “proof of concept” for a later expanded feature or as the concise and complete thing they are, a short is what a lot of local moviemakers begin with. The annual Halloween-time Damnationland festival courts Mainers’ punchiest dark horror and fantasy films, while events like the Maine Film Association’s yearly Winter Film Challenge (taking place this week all around the state) sets a stopwatch on teams of filmmakers determined to catch short film greatness in a bottle.

Short films encourage brevity, clarity and sharp storytelling, all essential skills for any filmmaker or writer. (And skills too often lost amidst big-budget, focus-tested Hollywood bloat.) A great short film targets viewers’ minds and hearts with pinpoint accuracy, leaving an impression so precise and pristine that it sticks, forever. In writing this column (and working on my own brevity and conciseness) for some 14 years now, the best Maine-made shorts have indeed stuck.

I’m talking about short, Maine-made films like Billy Hanson’s 2013 Stephen King adaptation “Survivor Type,” which still lives in my head in all its gruesome glory. I’m still rooting for the little malformed hero of Alexander Lewis and Kaitlyn Schwalje’s “Snowy.” (He’s a particularly tough little turtle.) The evocative strangeness of Nancy Andrews’ sci-fi short “I Like Tomorrow” comes back to me at odd times. And I still maintain that Mainer Derek Kimball’s 2011 short “Are You the Walkers?” remains not only one of the best Maine-made shorts ever, but one of the most skillfully terrifying things I’ve ever seen. (Apologies if your short isn’t included here – I have been doing this for a long time.)

Check out this year’s Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts at PMA Films from Friday through Sunday. Tickets are $10/$7 for PMA members and students. Visit for details.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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