For six years running I’ve made something of a tradition of going to see the Oscar Nominated Shorts program toured by ShortsTV and doing a write up, but man, I’m conflicted this year. Hopefully this gets reversed and undone by the time this posts, but four days before this round of shorts opened theatrically the Academy announced that they were planning to cut the live presentation of eight major categories from their broadcast including all three shorts categories. I don’t have the time or space here to express how outraged I am about this, I’ve probably tested the patience of my Twitter followers with the sheer volume of anger I’ve tweeted and retweeted as a result of this. To me it’s an absolute betrayal of everything The Academy claimed it stood for and I’m almost embarrassed to spent as much time talking about them as I have and if they go through with this I may well make a concerted effort to stop giving them as much free press going forward. Still, hope springs eternal that they come to their senses in the next month, and of course it would be a bit odd to give these shorts less coverage to punish the Academy for giving them less coverage so for the time being I will continue this little tradition.
As always, 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.
On My Mind
The first, and by far lightest short on the program is the Danish short On My Mind, and given that it deals with a grieving man turning to alcohol to ease the pain that’s perhaps saying something about what’s to come. The film begins with a large bearded man walking into a mostly empty bar shortly after it opens and ordering a triple whiskey which he gulps down. The bar tender and the owner aren’t quite sure what to make of him and as he’s stumbling out he notices the bar has a karaoke machine and asks them to turn it on even though it’s not karaoke night. The owner, who’s trying to do the books at that time, doesn’t want to but is convinced when the man hands him a 500 Krone note. The guy then asks the bartender to film him with a cell phone as he does a recitation of the pop standard “You Were Always on My Mind” but keeps getting interrupted. The guy is not much of a singer but you come to realize that what he’s doing is very meaningful to him and is for a pretty serious purpose. The song at the center of all this is well chosen and is a pretty good reminder of how great a song it is even if this dude is no Elvis, but obviously the emotional story here is supposed to be the important thing here rather than the music. I do think the movie takes a step a bit too far into the mawkish with its very final image, but otherwise this is a nice if perhaps not overly memorable little short.
Its Oscar Chances: Quite low. Interestingly this was directed by a guy named Martin Strange-Hansen, who actually won in this category way back in 2002 for a short called This Charming Man (also named after a song?) but this year his short just doesn’t have the flash or memorability to really stand out and is the only of the five to not address some sort of social or political issue.
The second short is one of two English language shorts in this package and the sole American nominee. It presents a dystopian science fiction vision of a fully privatized and largely automated criminal justice system. It begins with a man named Mateo having a police drone fly up to him and tell him he’s under arrest (it instructs him to put handcuffs on himself and says “non-lethal force” will be applied if he doesn’t. It then sends an automated car to take him to an isolated prison cell with a computer monitor and touchscreen. The computer never once tells him what he’s charged with, instead only providing him an A.I. public defender that’s completely useless and a variety of ads for expensive non-A.I. lawyers who are presented to him in the form of advertisements. I won’t give away too much more, but clearly the film is trying to present some of the unfair aspects of the modern criminal justice system and extended them to absurd Kafkaesque scale while also skewering several of the most annoying aspects of technological automation like fine print in terms of service agreements and automated interfaces that have all the hallmarks of terrible customer service lines. Of course there’s a lot about this vision that is not reflective of the current system. For one, the principal of habeas corpus does not seem to be present at all in this system: there’s not speedy arraignment and there isn’t even discussion of cash bail, both of which would solve a lot of this guy’s problems and which are both shortcomings that the current system is not really guilty of exactly. Still, as a cautionary tale about what’s at stake with dehumanizing technology and as a reflection of how unfair the system can be in the abstract the film does have some pretty blunt allegorical power.
It’s Oscar Chances: I’d say very high. The film is fairly comparable to last year’s winner Two Distant Strangers, which also took a somewhat high concept and darkly satirical approach to a pretty serious set of issues, though that one had Netflix behind it and was made by people with deeper industry connections.
The third short hails from Poland and from a filmmaking and concept perspective it’s probably the one I found the least interesting. The film follows a woman in her early thirties named Julka who’s afflicted with dwarfism and who works at a cheap motel/truckstop and who generally seems to be having a rough go at life. A glimmer of hope does shine through, however, when she gets a date with a truck driver who seems interesting. In anticipation Julka looks for a dress to wear to this meeting, but getting attractive clothing that comes in her size is always a challenge. The eventual date goes well, until it very much doesn’t. Ultimately this isn’t really a romance so much as a character study, but I’m not sure it ever really probes this character as much as it thinks it does. The film does a good job of establishing setting as working for this hotel does indeed look miserable but despite being a thirty minute short I feel like a good five minutes could have been cut from this thing, which is a sixth of its running time, and it also doesn’t really know how to begin or end.
Its Oscar Chances: Can’t see this happening. It’s a rather depressing short and not in a good way and it doesn’t have any kind of real filmmaking hook to make it stand out outside of Anna Dzieduszycka’s performance in the lead. The deck is definitely stacked against this one.
The Long Goodbye
The fourth short is by far the one that’s been given the most press simply for the fact that it features a legit movie star: Riz Ahmed. Ahmed apparently has a side hustle as a UK rapper and put out an album called “The Long Goodbye” last year which is a rather angry piece of work about Brexit and the rise of the far right in the UK and uses a divorce metaphor to express a feeling that the country no longer wants its immigrant population. This short film was essentially made as a thirteen minute promotional clip for the album, which would have been nice to know before I watched it. In the short Ahmed plays a typical UK citizen (maybe himself?) as they go through a routine suburban morning when suddenly they see vans pull up outside their home and then brownshirt types working with the police burst into their house, round up the whole family, then summarily execute them in the street… then after they’ve left Ahmed stands up and starts angrily rapping a Capella directly to the camera. That song being recited at the end is called “Where You From,” the tenth track from the “The Long Goodbye” album that acts as something of a monologue about how disrespectful it is to ask a brown person where they’re “really from.” I don’t think it’s the same recording that’s on the album, it’s recited with more anger and intensity here, but both are around two minutes and recited without musical accompaniment and have a certain slam poetry element to them. Knowing now about Ahmed’s rap career and the context of that album this short makes a little more sense to me but I would say I was pretty confused watching it as the fourth film in a program of what are otherwise longer narrative pieces while this is kind of a music video. As a piece unto itself, I would say that the intensity and fear of this raid is well executed in the video but it does seem a little odd to pair straight up genocide imagery with a song that’s essentially commenting on a micro-aggression and the whole thing is slightly derivative of M.I.A.’s “Born Free” video, which features a similar if slightly more metaphorical concept.
It’s Oscar Chances: Very high, but not as high as I thought before watching it. The celebrity connection is no small thing and if Ahmed has a lot of connections that alone could be enough to sway the race. However, if people actually watch the shorts they may find this as jarring as I did and its status as a music video of sorts could well work against it.
Ala Kachuu – Take and Run
The final short in this package is the longest at thirty eight minutes, which is just two minutes below the forty minute threshold for what can be considered a short, but I think it earns that extra time. Officially this movie is Swiss, but it’s actually set entirely in the West Asian country of Kyrgyzstan and does not paint a terribly flattering portrait of that nation. The film focuses on a woman named Sezim who has just passed an SAT type exam and is learning to drive in hopes of getting a scholarship to study in the capital. Then she’s kidnapped by three men, driven out to a remote village and forced to marry her kidnapper. From there she’s essentially meant to be his housewife despite her strenuous objections and when her parents learn what’s happened they do nothing to save her and tacitly approve. This is a cultural practice called bridal kidnapping or as it’s called in Kyrgyzstan “Ala Kachuu” which translates to “take and run,” and the extent of how common it is today appears to be a matter of much controversy, but few people dispute that it does exist to at least some extent. I’ll admit that I had no real knowledge of this, so if the film’s goal is to spread awareness, mission accomplished. The film appears to have been made with unknowledgeable people like myself in mind and really wants to give you a certain sense of shock value for the audience once this kidnapping happens and it really puts you into this woman’s mindset as she finds herself stuck in this situation. I will say there is probably always some reason to be slightly weary about white people making art about “backwards” foreign practices, so I would not necessarily watch this as a documentary on this subject unto itself, however, as a human story it is very affecting and uses the short film timespan perfectly.
Its Oscar Chances: Probably lower than I want. In my eyes this is the best of the five but it’s become increasingly clear to me as of late that English language shorts have a massive advantage in this category. I will say that if “Please Hold” and “The Long Goodbye” somehow cancel each other out this one more than likely has the best shot of the three alternatives.
Final Thoughts: Kind of an odd assortment overall. In terms of quality I’d say this is about on par with what I normally expect year to year, certainly an improvement over last year’s rather underwhelming roster. Lots of grim material, but that’s somewhat expected from this category and compared to the legendarily grim 2018 lineup this is almost sunny (somehow it’s the animated shorts that are “shocking” this year). In terms of predictions I’ve come to be rather cynical about this category as I often watch them and get it in my head that they’ll go with whatever my favorite was only to see them just go for the one that’s in English. There are two of those this year and most people are predicting The Long Goodbye because of Riz Ahmed, though I do wonder how many of them have actually watched it. Celebrity actors aren’t always everything in this (one of the losing shorts last year starred Oscar Isaac, and Riz Ahmed is no Oscar Isaac) but it might matter more here. If they actually watch the two shorts I think Please Hold would actually have the edge… then again if they actually watch them I’d think Ala Kachuu – Take and Run would win and I’m not going to trick myself into thinking that will actually happen.