This Year in Shorts: The 93rd Academy Awards
We’re less than two weeks away from the Oscars, and if you’re anything like me, you’re doing your damnedest to catch as many of the nominated films as you can. In years past I’ve only managed to watch a handful of the shorts being recognized beforehand, so I never really pay much attention to those categories. But thanks to the people at Eventive (and the Wichita Public Library), I was able to see every short film nominated at the 93rd Academy Awards before the ceremony for the first time in my life. And so to celebrate the occasion (and to coincide with our ongoing Year in Shorts), I thought I would give my loyal readers my two cents’ worth on all fifteen of them. And what better way to do that than with a ranked list?
All in all, 2020 a pretty good year for shorts. There aren't a whole lot of great shorts, but there aren't any really bad ones, and most of them are quite good! And of course, I should add the disclaimer that just because I feel one way about a short today doesn't mean my opinion on it won't change tomorrow. So don't be citing this as a source when The Great Oscar Baiter begins its inevitable Another Year in Shorts one day. Anyway, let's get to the discussion.
#15)- Hunger Ward
Hunger Ward is a short I have very mixed feelings about. On the one hand it tackles an undeniably important topic, and there are plenty of affectingly painful moments. But at the same time, the film feels exploitative and voyeuristic in a way that feels deeply uncomfortable. I suppose one could have similar issues with last year's Best Documentary Feature nominee For Sama, which tackles similar issues and has equally disturbing events shown on screen. But there was an autobiographical element to that film which ultimately felt as if its content was justified; Hunger Ward, being filmed by a documentarian from Portland, doesn't have that privilege. The ethics of documentary filmmaking are something of a tricky subject with no clear answers on what's right or wrong. But there's a line somewhere, and I can't help but feel that with Hunger Ward, Skye Fitzgerald crosses it.
#14)- White Eye
Filmed entirely in one take (or at least shot and edited in such a way to give the illusion), Tomer Shushon's White Eye certainly earns points for style. And the story at the heart of the film (something of a modern updated on the classic film Bicycle Thieves) is certainly dramatic and tragic in a way that feels genuine. But ultimately there's just a not a lot of story there, and too often it feels as if the film is spinning its wheels to justify its twenty-one minute runtime. It's an interesting film, but there was probably a better way to tell this story.
When it comes to the matter of actually winning the Oscar, Elvira Lind's The Letter Room has one distinct advantage over its competitors- a recognizable star. That's not a guarantee for a win, mind you, but it certainly doesn't hurt. And Oscar Isaac certainly brings more to the film than just his name; his sensitive, nuanced performance as a sympathetic (if a bit nosy) prison guard is the heart of this film. Unfortunately the rest of the film surrounding him is mostly just average, too often playing like an awkward dark comedy which forgot to add any jokes. It's an interesting film, but not a great one.
If Bill Maher thinks this year's Best Picture nominees are too depressing, he should check out the entries in the short categories, which are pretty unrelentingly grim across the board. So it's nice that the Animated Short category has a couple of nice and silly films here and there to help lighten the mood. Gisli Dari Halldorsson's Yes-People is just about as silly as it gets, and certainly won't be to everyone's taste. But if you're anything like me, you'll find yourself charmed by this goofy slice of Icelandic humor, which proves how much comic mileage there is to get out of a single word.
Speaking of refreshingly light-hearted shorts in a sea of sadness, it wouldn't be the Academy Award for Best Animated Short if Disney or Pixar weren't represented somewhere. This year it's another one of Pixar's SparkShorts, with Madeline Sharafian's Burrow getting the nod. While I personally don't see what the Academy saw in this film that led them to highlight it over Steven Hunter's vastly superior Out (which also had the added benefit of being About Something), there's definitely a lot to like here. The film might be a bit too cute for its own good, but it's beautifully animated and has a pleasant sense of humor. The whole thing plays out like a perfectly charming picture book brought to life, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
For aficionados of Oscar trivia, Colette should prove of interest to them. Its director, Anthony Giacchino, is the brother of Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino. And as it was produced as part of a series of documentaries for Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, Colette is the first film produced by a video game company to be nominated for an Oscar. But beyond its unique place in Oscar history, Colette is well worth watching in its own right. Holocaust documentaries have a somewhat notorious reputation in the Documentary Short category (they tend to get nominated a lot, and they tend to win), but it's important that as many of these stories get told for posterity as possible. And while Colette is not a great documentary (and at times it too feels a little voyeuristic), it's an undeniably powerful story that the world is better off having heard.
Of all the short films nominated this year, Two Distant Strangers has proven to be among the most controversial. It's not very hard to see why. Travon Free's film tackles a very serious subject in an interesting, if not entirely unique, way (the "Groundhog Day but about police shootings" premise has already been done by the most recent Twilight Zone revival), and one certainly guaranteed to ruffle some feathers. I'm of two minds about it- one the one hand I think it oversimplifies some aspects of the issue which risks ignoring the systemic problems underneath, and the often comedic tone the film takes can be shocking and certainly upsetting to some. But it's not really my place judge how a Black filmmaker tackles this topic, and the short is certainly provocative. Two Distant Strangers isn't the best short nominated this year, but it's certainly the one people will have the most to say about.
My only real issue with Do Not Split (Anders Hammer's film covering the ongoing protests in Hong Kong) is that it would work much better as a feature. On the one hand, that's hardly a complaint; any film that leaves you wanting more must be doing its job right. But at the same time, it feels as though the film really only scratches the surface of the story. While the on-the-ground footage of police brutality and protests is affecting, ultimately I think the film leaves a lot on the table. A good short, but with the potential to be a great feature.
#7)- The Present
The real trend with the Oscars this year seems to be an inclination towards low-key, realistic dramas, and that extends to the shorts categories as well. Farah Nabulsi's The Present is about as realistic and low-key as it gets, focusing on one Palestinian man's attempt to pick up a gift for his wife. While the film has its fair share of intense moments, they're all informed by the sad reality that such things are everyday occurrences for people living in Palestine. Roger Ebert famously once said that movies are empathy machines, designed to allow the viewer to walk in another person's shoes for a short period of time. And The Present does that beautifully.
#6)- A Concerto Is a Conversation
While bold and artistically daring films often get a lot of attention, sometimes the simplest way of telling a story is the most effective one. Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers' A Concerto Is a Conversation serves as a pretty good example of this. Taking the form of a conversation between composer Kris Bowers and his grandfather, interspersed with stock photos and concert footage, A Concerto Is a Conversation tells a multigenerational story about the complicated intersection between race and the American dream. It might be a bit sentimental for some people's tastes (and there's something undeniably self-congratulatory about the Academy nominating a film which includes a clip of Green Book winning Best Picture), but it's ultimately quite beautiful and very affecting in its simplicity.
#5)- A Love Song for Latasha
Netflix made a strong showing at the Oscars this year, producing a nominee in nearly every category. Sophia Nahli Allison's A Love Song for Latasha, Netflix's entry in the Documentary Short category, is one of their stronger films this year. Telling the story of Latasha Harlins via interviews with those who knew her best, A Love Song for Latasha paints a heartbreaking portrait about the woman she was and who she could have been if she had been allowed to be. Much like Do Not Split, the film feels like it could have been better served as a feature, but that's a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. I have no idea who the frontrunner is for Best Documentary Short this year, but I certainly know which short has my vote.
#4)- Feeling Through
Certainly the schmaltziest of the nominated shorts, Doug Roland's Feeling Through in some ways feels like a feel good e-mail your grandmother would forward to you. Of course, if those e-mails were as well-made and entertaining as this film is, you'd look forward to receiving them a lot more. The first film starring a DeafBlind actor to be nominated for an Oscar, Feeling Through is a funny and heartwarming short about unlikely friendships and the power of chance encounters. It may be a little sentimental, but there's really nothing wrong with that. In a world that seems to be growing more and more poisoned by irony, it's refreshing to see a film wear its heart so firmly on its sleeve. Or maybe I'm just growing sentimental myself in my old age. Either way, Feeling Through may just be the feel good film of the year.
More than any other short nominated this year (hell, perhaps more than any film nominated this year), Erick Oh's Opera feels somewhat hamstrung by the lack of a theatrical experience. (Any of you who got to see this in theaters are lucky, lucky bastards.) A film this visually rich and detailed really deserves to be seen on the big screen, or better yet, a wall of a museum; watching it on your television at home feels wrong somehow. Still, even without a big enough canvas to properly appreciate it, Opera is an undeniably impressive work. Judging it as a film is a bit tricky (it feels more like a piece of modern art than anything else), but as an experience it's simply stunning. This might not be my favorite short of the year, but it's certainly the one I most look forward to revisiting as many times as I can.
I'm still not entirely sure that I "get" this film. I'm not entirely sure this a film necessarily meant to be gotten. But while I may not understand Adrien Merigeau's Genius Loci, I certainly enjoyed the hell out of it. An almost overwhelming treat for the eyes, Merigeau's film effortlessly blends a number of different styles and techniques into a strange, beautiful and utterly unique film. Through a series of strange and beautiful vignettes, each of them making masterful use of color, abstract imagery and negative space, Merigeau has created a surreal landscape that is impressive on both a technical and artistic level. While ultimately the whole of Genius Loci might not be greater than the sum of its parts, those parts are so good it hardly feels fair to complain about that. Putting the word "Genius" in the title of your film might seen like hubris, but only if you don't have the talent to back it up. Here's to hoping we'll be seeing a lot more from Merigeau in the future.
#1)- If Anything Happens I Love You
While making ranked lists of films can be a lot of fun, it is (at heart) a rather arbitrary process. Film is subjective and what worked well for one viewer might not work as well for another, and what made one film work more for me is ultimately down to personal taste. This list (or any list like it) should not be mistaken for a barometer of objective quality or a judgment on which films are "worthier" than others. The arrangement of these fifteen films was based solely on how each of them affected me in the moment and how I felt about them immediately afterwards. And few films from the past year affected me quite as much as Will McCormack and Michael Govier's If Anything Happens I Love You. A heart wrenching portrait of the love and grief experienced by two parents of a child lost in a school shooting, If Anything Happens I Love You manages to express a remarkable amount of feeling in a short amount of time. Told entirely without dialogue and drawn in a fairly simple style, McCormack and Govier say more in just twelve minutes than many films could hope to do in twelve hours. Some might argue that the film is manipulative in its use of the sound of gunfire, or exploitative in its treatment of a serious subject. But all I know is that I've seen this film twice in an under a week, and it managed to get me to cry both times. Any film that does that must be doing something right.
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