Last year, for the first time, I went to see a screening of the five live action films nominated for the Academy Award that year. A company called ShortsTV (formerly known as ShortsHD) has been putting these shorts into theaters every year for a while but that was the first time I went and I thought it was a moderately rewarding experience. I don’t know that I want to make it an annual tradition but clearly I found it worthwhile enough to come again this year. This roster of shorts was in many ways different from last year’s. For one thing these shorts are a bit shorter, with all but one being around twenty minutes long where last year most were pushing the thirty minute mark. These films also hued closer to the Anglosphere with four of the five nominated films being in English compared to last year’s set where all five of the films were from continental Europe. Those films also often tended to be made by older filmmakers whereas three of the nominees this year appear to have started out as student films which rose above what is normally expected from such films.
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.
The first documentary in ShortsTV’s presentation is something of a topical standout as it deals with the issue of school shootings. Inspired by an actual incident which happened in Atlanta (at a school called McNair Discovery Academy) the film shows a man with clear mental health issues walk into a school office and pull out an assault rifle. From there we get a tense standoff as the man doesn’t simply proceed to open fire and the secretary begins to try talking him down. Actress Tarra Riggs does a great job of bringing this secretary to life and making her sensitive courage believable and Bo Mitchell is also decent as the disturbed young man causing all the trouble. The film was directed by a guy named Reed Van Dyke as his final thesis film while getting his MFA in film directing from UCLA and it does a good job of showing his skill at building tension and in painting portraits of characters with minimal exposition. I’m not sure the film really has all that much to say about the topic of school shootings as this incident was not terribly representative of most active shooters (most of whom are not going to be made to stop with any amount of love and understanding) but it does remain a pretty solid portrait of a small act of heroism and is also notably the only of the four non-comedic shorts here that doesn’t bog itself down in title cards at the end.
My Grade: B+
Its Oscar Chances: It’s most likely the frontrunner. The film’s humanism combined with its tense nature will jump out to most voters immediately. If it has any weakness it’s that it basically takes place in real time and doesn’t need to contend with the challenges of its short format the way some of the other films do. That said, the fact that the Parkland shooting in Florida is in the news leading up to the voting period can only help this
The Silent Child
The second film on this docket is a film from the UK called The Silent Child focuses on issues of deafness and disability. The film was not directed by a film student but buy a guy named Chris Overton, who appears to primarily be an actor rather than a director and has worked primarily in British television, and it was written by a woman named Rachel Shenton who was inspired to write it by the life of her deaf father. The film looks at a teacher for the deaf who is hired to tutor a young deaf child before she goes to school, but it quickly becomes clear that her parents are not going to be overly amenable to some of these lessons. This is the only of the five shorts here that is set over the course of months rather than days or minutes, and probably tells the most complete story of all of them. In terms of pure storytelling I’d say that it’s the best one here but it does suffer a bit from being a bit didactic. The family holding their deaf daughter back here can’t simply be slow to understand what’s best for their daughter, they also need to be yuppie assholes who cheat on each other and actively neglect their child and the teacher can’t simply be someone who understands these issues but must also be a saint-like tutor who seems to straight-up love this kid more than her parents. Twenty minutes isn’t a long time but it is enough time to draw lines a little more realistically than that and the PSA like text that fills the screen at the end doesn’t help matters.
My Grade: B-
Its Oscar Chances: Were it not for DeKalb Elementary I’d probably say this had the best shot. There’s kind of a history of movies about kids doing well in this category and the way it builds empathy is clearly impressive. Voters looking for something a little bit lighter but not too light would probably go for this one.
My Nephew Emmett
The one short this year that I’d really call a big of a misfire is this one, which recreates the last day in the life of Emmett Till from the perspective of his uncle Mose Wright. This short, directed by NYU grad Kevin Wilson Jr, in some ways falls into the same trap as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit in that it seems content to simply show an unfortunate incident in America’s racial history, more or less without comment beyond trying to put you in the middle of the victim’s terror. Bigelow’s movie, however, was at least bringing attention to a moment that has been rather under-reported while this one is simply recounting a story that pretty much any remotely well educated person should be fairly familiar with. The decision to tell the story from the uncle’s perspective, while useful in some ways, doesn’t exactly shine a particularly new light on the story either and we don’t get to know much about him outside of a surface level overview. That said the kidnapping scene is really tense and disturbing and in some ways that does give the exercise some value.
My Grade: C-
Its Oscar Chances: Probably low. The film did win a Student Academy Award, which would seem to be a good sign, but DeKalb Elementary pretty clearly beats it as its own game of “suspenseful recreation of real events” and there are also plenty of other choices for those looking to reward movies about marginalized people.
The Eleven O’Clock
The fourth film here is in some ways the odd one out, firstly because it’s the only comedy here and secondly because it’s the shortest of the shorts, coming in at just 13 minutes. The film was made by an Australian named Derin Seale, who is the son of the legendary cinematographer Jon Seale (of Mad Max: Fury Road fame). This connection led him to get second unit work on Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain but he hardly has any other credits at all on IMDB so I’m guessing a lot of his work has been in the field of commercials or music videos. This short looks at a two guys who are both claiming to be a psychiatrist who believes the other is a patient has a delusional belief that he’s the psychiatrist (this confusion is aided by the normal receptionist being gone that day) and a lot of “who’s on first” style confusion entails. The big weakness of this is that, at the end of the day, it feels less like a film and more like a segment from a sketch comedy show. In fact the basic concept appears to have been lifted from a 90s British sketch show called “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” but this version is sped up a lot and generally done with a bigger budget and has more going on. It’s hard to dislike this short but it’s also hard to really get excited about it after its done.
My Grade: B
Its Oscar Chances: Low. The film did win at the Australian Academy Awards (AACTA), but I’m not sure how much competition it had there. It’s always possible that the simple fact that this is an orange in a basket of apples will appear to a certain voter block but otherwise I’m not seeing a whole lot of reasons to vote for it. The people dedicated enough to look into the short categories on their Oscar ballots seem like they’d be the types to take themselves a little more seriously than this.
Watu Wote (All of Us)
The final film in this program is the only of the five not in English and while it was made by German film students from the Hamburg Media School it set on the Kenya/Somali border and is in the Swahili and Somalian languages. This border is apparently a very tense location with a great deal of conflict because of terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab on Christian Kenyans and resulting animosity directed back on innocent Muslims by Christians as a result. Specifically the film focuses on a Christian woman as she takes a bus trip through dangerous territory and clearly has a lot of hostility towards the Muslims on the bus. It doesn’t take a lot of predictive powers to guess what happens to this bus, especially after the buses police escort fails to show up, and it also isn’t hard to guess what lesson this Christian woman will learn over the course of this experience. The film’s rather banal moral that we all bleed when pricked is what holds the film back, but on the positive side it probably best production values of the five films here and an attack set-piece late in the film is one of the best moments of pure cinema across the five films.
My Grade: B
Its Oscar Chances: Not great. I guess this could be seen as a dark horse of sorts given its clear production value and relevance to modern times, but this just isn’t the most memorable short here and it’s also likely that the voters are going to be more interested in supporting home grown talent.
All in all I think this roster of shorts is probably a little weaker than last year’s although it’s not a dramatic drop-off. DeKalb Elementary is clearly the standout although it didn’t necessarily overwhelm me with greatness, although it might have stood out to me more if it had played last instead of first. I’m still pretty inexperienced when it comes to modern short films in general so I’m really not sure how representative these are of short films in general or if there’s better work out there but so far after two years of watching Oscar nominated live action shorts I’m getting the impression that they tend to sit in this kind of B/B- range.