For the fourth year straight I decided to go to the ShortsTV theatrical presentation of the Oscar Nominated live action shorts and while I was non-commital in the past I think it’s safe to say that this is going to be an annual tradition at this point. Whereas four of the five documentary short nominees are available online and three of the five animated shorts are available, you usually do need to go to theaters to see any of the live action shorts and they’re usually the only ones I do this for. This year is a little different, firstly because the shortened Oscar season means that these things are only going to be in theaters for about a week before the Academy Awards ceremony. Additionally we’re coming off of a live action shorts slate from last year which, for whatever reason, was oddly grim and largely featured short films that involved child endangerment. It isn’t all sunshine and roses with this year’s crop either but for the most part this is kind of a return to normal for the category with a field of nominees that are not unlike what you’d expect in a given year.
Please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.
A Sister (Une soeur)
Last year’s short program opened with a Spanish short called “Mother,” which was essentially a short thiller built around a tense phone call where someone on one end of the call is in grave danger. I was instantly reminded of that short when I saw this year’s opener, the Belgian short “A Sister,” which plays out from the perspective of a 911 operator who gets a call from a woman who talks like she’s calling to coordinate childcare with her sister. Quickly the operator realizes that this caller is actually being kidnapped and is trying to make this call in such a way that her captor doesn’t realize who she’s really calling. So there’s a pretty clear conceit here and the film’s director, Delphine Girard, does a pretty good job of cutting between the operator and what’s going on in the car while keeping the tension up. That said, the sheer length of this call does start to push credulity and it also eventually reaches a bit of an anti-climax as it isn’t quite able to as one last twist to the situation.
My Grade: B
Its Oscar Chances: Nil. Of the five films this is the one I’d be most surprised to see win on Sunday. It’s not so much that there’s anything inherently “bad” or off-putting about the movie but compared to some of the weighty places that the other films go to this might feel a bit simplistic. It’s too grim to be a crowd pleaser but too slight to really get major respect from the voters.
“Brotherhood” is the first of two shorts this year to be set in Tunisia of all places and to my mind it’s probably the stronger of the two. The film looks at a family living in a fairly remote area who find themselves upended when their eldest son returns to them after having run off to join ISIS with a burka wearing wife in tow. The mother is happy to see him and wants to welcome him as a prodigal son and to put his actions in the past but the father is gruff and suspicious. This is probably the most interesting aspect of the film: under any other circumstances this father would seem to be a sort of archetypal closed-minded male grump, but given that he’s having this reaction to a literal terrorist here he would seem to be the one who’s in the right. The film certainly finds an interesting world to immerse itself in and these characters who are befreckled ginger Muslims just straight-up interesting to look at. I was not, however, thrilled with the decision to film this in the Academy ratio, which looks kind of bad on modern film screens and just generally is becoming a bit of an annoying stylistic trend in world cinema. I also wasn’t completely sold on the film’s ending, which seemed to turn things around a little too quickly and maybe raised a few questions about how a certain character was choosing to present himself earlier in the film.
My Grade: B
Its Oscar Chances: Kind of hard to tell. I am seeing it predicted on some of the major betting markets and prediction aggregates, but there’s kind of an infamous trend of live action shorts having their odds over-calculated when their titles come early in the alphabet. If the voters want to be very substanative in their choice this is probably the one they’ll go with.
The Neighbors’ Window
Marshall Curry is not a well-known name but he’s someone who has actually earned four Oscar nominations over the course of his career, all in unconventional categories. His first nomination was for the documentary feature Street Fight, which followed Corey Booker’s first mayoral campaign long before he became a national figure, and he was also nominated for the documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. Curry was also nominated just last year for the documentary short “A Night at the Garden” and now he’s nominated for a scripted live action short called “The Neighbors’ Window.” This is the only English language and only American set short and it begins as this rather comedic take on the “Rear Window” idea of watching people from out your window as it follows a pair of yuppies in a high rise apartment who notice that the young couple across the way have a habit of leaving their blinds wide open, making it so that our central couple can easily see everything they do and mostly what they do is screw. So this plainly starts out feeling like a sort of indie comedy but it does take a turn for the more serious as it goes as the young couple starts to go through some more serious issues. I don’t know that the ending this leads to is terribly profound, but there’s only so much meaning you really expect from a twenty minute short like this.
My Grade: B+
Its Oscar Chances: This one is kind of tough to call. This is plainly the most accessible of the shorts here and the one that Academy members are most likely to relate to. This could be a double edged sword though because sitting next to these other four shorts this could come off as a little “first world problems.”
The fourth film here is “Saria,” which is technically being listed as an American film but is entirely in Spanish and is set in Guatemala. The film was directed by a guy named Bryan Buckley, who is probably best known for directing a movie called The Bronze, which sold for a very high dollar amount at Sundance and then bombed spectacularly in theaters. This short is probably the most stylish of the five films here and I’m going to guess had the highest budget out of all of them. This is based on the true story of events that happened at an orphanage in Guatemala and focuses primarily on two teenage girls who are thinking about ways to escape from the facility and organize a sort of decoy riot that will allow them to do that. Spoilers. They almost get away but are then recaptured… and then they all die in a fire. That last little bit is clearly meant to be a sucker punch at the end to make you angry about these young lives being cut short, but I found this rather manipulative, in part because the rest of the film isn’t exactly building to a message about fire safety and in some ways it just feels kind of disconnected from the institutional conditions that were highlighted earlier. It might have more impact for people who were aware of the situation that was being covered and knew what was coming, but I can’t really speak to that.
My Grade: C-
Its Oscar Chances: This one is a bit of a wildcard as I’m not sure how the average Academy member is going to react to that ending. Some might find it touching and will also respond to the craft and style employed elsewhere in the film, others might find it manipulative like I did. It’s also unclear how much of a known name Bryan Buckley is in Hollywood and whether that will have any influence on the vote.
Nefta Football Club
Much as the opening film this year had a certain kinship with last year’s opener, the closer had at least one key thing in common with last year’s closer “Skin,” namely that both films have big sight gags at the end that they’re kind of building toward. That’s pretty much where the similarities end though given that “Skin” was a highly questionable parable about race in America and “Nefta Football Club” is… not that. This is actually the second of these shorts to be set in Tunisia and is a largely comedic short about two kids who stumble upon a donkey wearing headphones and come to learn that this donkey is part of a drug smuggling scheme and the kids get into the middle of it, but in a way that ultimately has comedic results.
My Grade: B
Its Oscar Chances: This is probably the one I’d put my money on if I was a betting man simply because it’s probably the most audience pleasing, which is usually a safe metric to assume the Academy will use. That said its lightness and brevity could be more of a handicap than I’m assuming.
There really isn’t a whole lot to say about this roster of shorts besides “they’re fine.” Last year’s shorts were a lot darker and more variable in quality, but they were nothing if not memorable, and I wouldn’t say the same about this year’s roster. “Nefta Football Club” and “The Neighbors’ Window” are almost certainly the frontrunners for the award and the other three are varying degrees of interesting and well made. I wouldn’t say any of these are really high art though and I have to imagine there’s better short-form cinema out there than what got assembled by the Academy this year.