I had planned to make a clean break into 2021 content after putting out my top ten list and Golden Stakes but then I realized I had one last bit of 2020 content left to tackle and that was my annual look at the Oscar nominated Live Action Shorts. Usually I try to catch these in theaters, and that makes the whole exercise a little more obvious but I’m stuck watching them in virtual cinema this year which is less enticing but, it felt wrong to just have a whole year’s worth of these missing so in the name of tradition I’m going to go ahead and watch these and do a write up.
The first of the shorts presented here is called The Present and is one of two films nominated here from the Israeli/Palestine region and is specifically from Palestine. It opens with its protagonist, a father of a cute little girl greeting his wife in the morning and given how happy everyone is you can’t help but wonder what horrors will befall these people over the course of the film. As it turns out the film is less about the more violent extremes of the Israeli/Palestine conflict so much as it’s about the day to day indignities of life in an occupied West Bank and specifically in regards to check points as it shows how what should be a pretty simple on foot shopping trip from one Palestinian neighborhood to another is disrupted by a pair of crossings through one of the IDF controlled stops, one of which starts to escalate to a dangerous place. The whole thing is a tad didactic and its protagonists are kind of set up to be these model minorities, but at the end of the day the short gets its point across effectively enough.
My Grade: C
Its Oscar Chances: Pretty low. I can see it pulling some heartstrings but not as aggressively as some other choices here and its expresses its politics in a way that’s really going to leave people with a burning desire to vote for it. Also, as of late shorts that aren’t in English have been at something of a disadvantage, especially when there are American alternatives to go with.
The second film here is set in New York and manages to deal with issues of disability, race, homelessness, and youth all in one, but the main focus is disability. It looks at a teenager named Tareek, who is out late one night when he runs into a man on the street named Artie who is both deaf and blind (and played by an actual DeafBlind actor) and finds himself helping this guy make his way onto a bus home, which ends up taking a while. A movie where a teenager connects with a disabled guy and finds their common humanity is certainly a recipe for sappiness and at points it sort of lives up to that, but the gritty New York setting offsets that a little and there is some general interest to be found in how these two people find ways to communicate despite not having met before and not really having a preset etiquette or communication method.
My Grade: B-
Its Oscar Chances: Probably on the higher end. It’s one of the less depressing options here and a movie about deafness called “The Silent Child” won this award recently and I can pretty easily see this getting the award for similar reasons, though I can’t be sure that this will necessarily stand out as the most memorable of all the options.
Two Distant Strangers
“Two Distant Strangers” is almost certainly the most high profile of the shorts featured here as it’s been available on Netflix, covers a hot-button issue, and stars the rapper Joey Bada$$, who plays a man who wakes up after a one-night-stand and begins to walk home before being accosted by a police officer over nothing and ends up being killed in a scuffle before waking up again in a time-loop ala Groundhog Day, being killed over and over again by this cop. This almost certainly has the highest production value of all the shorts here and feels more expansive despite having a similar running time as the rest. That said, it will likely be debated as to whether giving the Edge of Tomorrow treatment to police violence is in particularly good taste, especially when elements of full on comedy (the film was made by a former Daily Show writer) come into play. Despite gestures to the contrary I also found the film’s ultimate reduction of the cop in this scenario to being just hell bent on murder to be rather simplistic. I get not wanting to “both sides” the issue and that this guy was intended to be more of a stand-in for police as a whole than an individual person, but when you write law enforcement off as just evil personified you kind of cut off a lot of possible solutions to this issue. Another thing that kind of hurt the film in my eyes was that a similar “time loop to represent the inescapability of racialized violence” concept was used in an episode of Jordan Peele’s rebooted Twilight Zone not too long ago and I think that did it better.
My Grade: C+
Its Oscar Chances: Probably pretty high. From a simple production standpoint this definitely stands out and that’s probably going to go a long way, as will its focus on topical concerns. The message will probably meet the approval of more voters than it turns off, and given that these same voters were more than willing to give an Oscar to the highly dubious short “Skin” pretty recently (albeit in a strange year for the category) I suspect they’ll be willing to go for this.
“White Eye” is the second film from the Israel/Palestine area to be featured here, this one from Israel, though this one is not overtly about that particular conflict and instead tells a story about justice and injustice that could probably occur in most developed cities. It looks at a guy who finds a bike of his that was stolen a month earlier, but it’s locked to a pole so he calls the police. After they’ve arrived he finds the guy who appears to have stolen it or who bought it from whoever did steal it and things kind of escalate from there. I think the film largely plays out in a single shot (or is designed to look like it does), which is a trick that’s getting a touch old at this point, but you can kind of see how it works here to show how quickly things sort of went wrong in this situation. The whole situation is believably mundane and escalates in a way that rings true and doesn’t really go “too far,” at least until it’s ending where it finishes off on a slightly over the top bit of symbolism.
My Grade: B
Its Oscar Chances: Probably not too high. This seems more like the kind of film people come away from respecting than loving, which is not really the path to Oscar gold. Out of all the films here I’d say this one is probably the biggest longshot.
The Letter Room
“The Letter Room” is the only film nominated here that has a really high profile actor in it (depending on how famous Joey Bada$$ is to you) in that it actually stars Oscar Isaac. I’m not sure how they convinced someone as busy as Isaac to star in a thirty minute short but it seems to have been a strong casting decision as Isaac’s performance is probably the film’s strongest element. In it he plays a quirky but good hearted prison guard who gets re-assigned to a role where he reads and intercepts mail that’s sent to the prisoners and in reading through them he starts to get a better idea of what some of these prisoners’ lives are like. Out of the five films here this probably comes closest to feeling like a truncated feature, or maybe like a subplot that could have been on a show like “Orange is the New Black” or “Oz,” though its tonally closer to the former than the latter. I’m not sure it quite comes together entirely at the end, but it’s a pleasant enough watch with some heavier stuff beneath the surface.
My Grade: C+
Its Oscar Chances: Doesn’t seem too high, but maybe I’m underestimating it. Oscar Isaac is certainly going to stand out, but the presence of famous people isn’t always the asset you might think in this category. Hell, there was a short film directed by Pedro Almadovar and starring Tilda Swinton released this year and they didn’t even bother to nominate it. And if Isaac doesn’t jump out at people I’m not sure there’s a lot of novelty here that’s really going to stick with people.
All told this is a bit of an underwhelming year for the category; there wasn’t anything terrible but there also wasn’t anything that really jumped out at me as something overly great either. Interestingly there was a bit of a unifying theme this year as four of the five movies were about characters who were kind of at the mercy of authority figures whether it’s IDF soldiers in “The Present,” police in “Two Distant Strangers” and “White Eyes” or prison guards in “The Letter Room.” The films depict these authority figures with varying degrees of suspicion, and it’s probably not a coincidence that these are all nominated in the year of our lord 2020. “Feeling Through” is sort of the orange in the bag of apples, but I’m not too sure that will really help its prospects. I wouldn’t over-think this one, “Two Distant Strangers” is probably the front-runner, go with that one for your Oscar pools. As to my personal opinion I guess I like “White Eye” the most, but that’s partly because it takes less of a bold swing at the ball, so I can’t say I’m exactly “excited” by it.
I pretty distinctly remember when the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah dropped; it was August and we’d just spent the last four months worried enough about when the movies we already knew about would come out and there was something pretty exciting about the promise of something brand new coming down the line. What’s more, the protests and riots had just happened a month earlier and a movie about Fred Hampton stood the chance of being particularly topical in light of current events. But of course as with every movie released in this window there was always the question of if we would actually see the damn thing, and if so how? The trailer ended with that “Only in Theaters” tag that this year has made a mockery of over and over, but unlike other movies that ended up on streaming eventually this trailer came out when the studio knew things were uncertain. As it turns out, the movie would find its way to streaming, it got caught up in Warner’s larger plan to put their slate on HBO Max, which is how I saw it since I’m not going back to theaters until I’ve had the vaccine.
The “Judas” of the film’s title is Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a real historical figure who joined the Black Panthers and became a confidant of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in the years leading up to his death in late 1969 who was later discovered to have been an FBI informant the whole time and who likely acted as an agent provocateur and likely set Hampton up during that infamous raid. We meet Bill when he’s a two bit hustler trying to steal cars by impersonating a federal agent, but when he’s arrested for this he’s flipped to an undercover role for the FBI by an agent named Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) and joins the Chicago Black Panthers to provide him with information to undermine their operations. From there we get an on the ground look at Hampton and his work as an activist and what being part of his organization was like and also O’Neal’s highly conflicted feelings about what he’s doing.
The title and setup of this movie almost immediately reminded me of the 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which also looked at a legendary figure through the eyes of a hanger on who ends up betraying him. Of course the key difference is that Jesse James is not really a political figure, or at least isn’t one that anyone today would consider admirable, which certainly isn’t the case with Fred Hampton, who is one of the great “what ifs” in American history. Regardless of the “Judas” plotline there is a lot of value in just having a movie that looks at Hampton and the behind the scenes of the Black Panthers when they were at their height. Daniel Kaluuya gives you a good idea of how charismatic, if prickly, Hampton could be as a leader and we get a good idea of the work they did to endear themselves to the community and form alliances with other groups. The film does not, however, present the most hopeful picture of this activism since its premise is inherently fatalistic: they’re presented as a group that was sort of destined to be undermined and sabotaged at every turn by the powers that be and there’s an aura of dread over the whole movie and in a lot of ways it kind of makes being a Black Panther look kind of miserable, I think it could have maybe benefited from a better look at “the good times” and the promise of this movement before everything started to fall apart.
In some ways the movie struggles to divide itself between its two halfs; it’s essentially told from O’Neal’s point of view and begins with his involvement but it also wants to include a lot of Hampton material and as such O’Neal’s character is never quite as drawn out as he could have been. You don’t see much of his personal life and while it suggests there’s something motivating him beyond the mere threat of imprisonment you’re not really sure what; his FBI contact seems uniquely unlikable and it’s never particularly clear what his true feelings about Hampton are. The lack of historical record around O’Neal is part of the problem; there’s quite a bit of evidence that he was an informant but not much of a record as to why or what he was like when his “mask” was off, and the film didn’t seem to be particularly interested in inventing a potentially sympathetic or relatable persona for him. In a lot of ways it’s a movie that’s less interested in exploring either Judas or the Black Messiah fully and is more of an bitter lament about the government’s complicity in destroying the later and disposing of the former, and that is quite the downer.
In some ways I almost wish the move could have been something a bit more akin to a straight biopic about Hampton like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which was also a movie that was well aware of the many forces arrayed against its protagonist but doesn’t let them overwhelm the central figure, and if it doesn’t want to do that it could be a movie that really focuses in on O’Neal and his inner struggle, but it instead kind of tries to do both in a somewhat halfhearted fashion. In many ways it kind of reminds me of that movie Detroit, which tried to address American racism by just finding the most extreme injustice it could find and then dramatize them with a sort of primal scream that said “this happened here, be outraged.” That movie never really landed right; it basically just terrorized black audiences while presenting white audiences with an example of racism extreme enough that they probably weren’t going to see a lot of themselves in it. Judas and the Black Messiah is better than that, in part because it has a more direct target in the form of the FBI to go after and deals with historical figures and a movement that are worth seeing dramatized and it has some excellent performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield, but I’m not sure I was really left with much to chew on aside from how disturbing this whole span of history was.
*** out of Five
Well, it’s been a long year, and it’s far later than it should be for this, but I have completed the Golden Stakes and Top Ten for the year. There are some unique qualification things going on this year, I have a page outlining them, and I suspect this will make some things a bit odd when I do the year-end content next year and include some stuff they associate with the current award season, but I’m glad I stuck to my guns. Still, it’s not really going to feel like a normal year, so hopefully, some measure of normalcy will be there next year.