This Year in Shorts: The 94th Academy Awards

Once again, I find myself asking you to forgive me for my extended absence. I’ve been rather busy with schoolwork, and- if I’m being perfectly honest- I just haven’t really had a whole lot of thoughts which were worth writing down. I can’t really imagine a worse time for an Oscar blogger to have writer’s block than during Oscar season, but there you are. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve had a lot of thoughts about, it’s the Academy’s bone-headed decision to present eight categories before the ceremony, off the air- including all three short categories. 

(via Wikipedia)

Every category more than deserves its proper due on Oscar night, but few films benefit from that air time more than the shorts. Excepting the animated shorts that might get played before a family film, the Oscars are easily the biggest audience these shorts get. It’s a chance for people to get a look at them and check out a film they might not otherwise be interested in. It’s for this same reason I was against the Oscars not showing clips from the shorts during last year’s ceremony. 

Nevertheless, if there’s one thing we know how to do at The Great Oscar Baiter, it’s celebrate shorts! And what better way to celebrate fifteen unique and interesting films than to pit them against one another and assign them arbitrary, always subject to change rankings? (Hey, isn’t that what the Oscars are all about?) So let’s give these films their due and look at the nominated shorts for the 94th Academy Awards!

#15)- When We Were Bullies

Content Warning: Bullying, Suicide

When We Were Bullies might not be the worst film nominated this year (Four Good Days was pretty dire, and it's entirely possible one of the many films I've yet to see is even worse), but it's hard to imagine a film whose nomination is more downright baffling. It tells the story of a director who, years after making a film about an act of childhood bullying he participated in without the consent of the victim.... decides to make yet another film about the same act of childhood bullying without the consent of the victim. If that sounds like a great idea for a bleakly hilarious comedy, I regret to inform you that this film is, in fact, a documentary, produced by someone who doesn't even seem to be familiar with the concept of self-awareness. A staggeringly tone deaf film, director Jay Rosenblatt tries desperately to find meaning in his half-formed observations on trauma, masculinity and bullying, before finally deciding to acquit himself of any wrongdoing in a rather nasty and self-serving closing monologue.

All of this might be easier to look past- if not forgive- if the film were well made. Plenty of great films have been made by raging narcissists, and this might at least be a fascinating insight into a truly self-absorbed individual. But aside from some cutesy animatics sprinkled throughout, Rosenblatt can't even manage to do that much, relying on cheap stock footage and hilariously unilluminating interviews to pad out the film to an interminable thirty-six minute runtime. Near the end of the film, Rosenblatt manages to track down his teacher, who provides the film with its sole saving grace. When asked if she thinks his project sounds like something people would watch, she tells him no. "It could be very tedious," she warns, in the best example of a movie reviewing itself since Birdman quoted Macbeth's "Sound and Fury" soliloquy. We've covered worse short films on this blog, but few have been this mean-spirited or spiritually perverse.

#14)- The Windshield Wiper

Content Warning: Suicide

After a film like that, it's almost a relief to focus on something that's just a normal kind of bad. And make no mistake- this one is bad. Through a series of vaguely connected vignettes, writer/director Alberto Mielgo hopes to answer the question "What is love?" It's a big question, and one he proves ill-equipped to answer, resorting to old cliches, cheaply exploitative shocks and anti-technology screeds Charlie Brooker would reject for being too ham-fisted as a substitute for real wit or profundity. Combine all that with some garish and cheap-looking animation and you wind up with a recipe for a pretty bad time. The word "pretentious" is an overused one in the world of amateur criticism, but it's hard to think of one that better applies to this particular film.

#13)- The Dress

Films about disability are once again at the forefront of the Oscars conversation this year, with CODA proving to be a reliable player across the season's precursors. Disability is also a theme in two nominated shorts, to both good and bad results. As you can guess from its placement on the list, The Dress lands squarely in the "bad" camp. In spite of a powerful performance from lead actress Anna Dzieduszycka, Tadeusz Lysiak's thesis film-turned-Oscar nominee falls into far too many of the narrative pitfalls that have plagued portrayals of disability on film across the years. Thirty punishing minutes of misery porn, it's difficult to see what Lysiak was trying to say with this film, or what message the Academy hopes to send by recognizing it. Lysiak made The Dress as his thesis for film school, and it certainly works as a showcase for his respectable level of technical skill. One can't help but wish he'd found a way to fit a class on Disability Studies somewhere into his curriculum as well.

#12)- Three Songs for Benazir

Netflix has three nominees in the category for Best Documentary short this year, and two of them can be summed up more or less the same way: Well-intentioned, but hopelessly unfocused. Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei's Three Songs for Benazir suffers from this issue particularly harshly, trying to tell the story of a young man living in a refugee camp in Kabul, but lacking any direction on how to tell it. The short simply lurches from scene to scene with no clear purpose, eventually culminating in an absurdly large time jump which seems to come straight out of left field. I almost get the impression that the filmmakers simply had very little to work with, and they just threw something together out of what they have. If that is the case, then I suppose it's rather impressive that they managed to create something as coherent as it is. But that doesn't make for an Oscar-worthy short.

#11)- Lead Me Home

If Three Songs for Benazir suffers from seemingly too little footage, Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk's Lead Me Home seems to suffer from having far too much. A humane look at the homelessness across several U.S. cities, Lead Me Home deserves credit for treating its subject with a level of dignity you don't often see in the media. The people featured in the film are given an opportunity to speak for themselves, free of judgment or condemnation from the filmmakers. Unfortunately, the film simply has too much to say for its own good, and in trying to include everything, nothing is given the time it needs to develop. The result is an overstuffed, over-edited mess that never comes together in a way that it should. Surely an issue of this magnitude could have merited a feature?

#10)- On My Mind

It seems like the shorts get longer every year, and that's especially true this time around, with only one short clocking in at under fifteen minutes, and just barely. A lot of these shorts could stand to shave off some of their runtime (aside from the shorts which should probably be longer), and no short exemplifies this better than Martin Strange-Hansen's On My Mind. It's a perfectly fine film; lead actor Rasmus Hammerich gives a soulful performance, and it tugs at your heartstrings much in the same way a viral e-mail from your grandmother might. But nothing about it justifies the eighteen minute runtime, with much of the film padded out by unnecessary character moments for the side players and faux-profound observations on the human soul. At five minutes long, this short would have been an effective bit of schmaltz. But the way it is, it's mostly just schmaltz.

#9)- The Queen of Basketball

Ben Proudfoot's documentary The Queen of Basketball is a bit of a mixed bag. A profile of basketball legend Lusia Harris, who won Silver at the 1976 Olympics and nearly got drafted to play in the NBA, the film largely works as an introduction to a more obscure figure in sports history. I'd never heard of Lusia Harris before, so the fact that I know about her now means that the film is successful in that regard. It's considerably less successful, however, as a look into what it meant to be Lusia Harris in the 70s. The film briefly touches on the issues of racism, sexism and all other number of institutional and societal hurdles she had to overcome, but doesn't go in depth on any of them. That is a rather big problem for a documentary to have, and probably should be a bigger mark against the film than it is. But I couldn't help but be won over by it, which I chalk up entirely to the presence of Lusia Harris herself, who proves to be an incredibly charming subject for a documentary. So let that be a lesson for any aspiring documentarians out there- if you're not planning on giving an in depth look at anything, compensate by focusing on an incredibly charismatic figure.

#8)- Please Hold

The only American nominee in the category for Best Live Action Short this year (and, as of this writing, the only short from the year without a Wikipedia page, annoyingly), K.D. Davila's Please Hold offers us an alternately horrifying and humorous look at a potential future in which even the criminal justice system is automated. For those of you looking for something to scratch your Black Mirror itch, this is definitely the short for you. If I had one complaint, it'd be that for a satire, it's not particularly funny (a problem plaguing many satires these days), but that might only be because there's so little to exaggerate. A few science fiction trapping aside, Please Hold might as well be a documentary, and if it delivers its message with all the subtlety of a brick to the face, that's only because it's so important. Besides, I can't really hold too much ill will towards any film that stars Erick Lopez, or really any cast member from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Take note, Hollywood!

#7)- Affairs of the Art

Content Warning: Animal Cruelty, Graphic Nudity

If the Academy gave out an award for "Weirdest Fucking Movie of the Year", Joanna Quinn's Affairs of the Art would probably be the front runner. This film (which is actually the third in a series of shorts which started back in 1987) throws you right into the action and the chaotic world of Beryl (Menna Trussler), without slowing down to let you catch your breath. And I admit, it can be a lot, especially in the beginning. But if you're willing to let yourself get swept up in the movie's gonzo energy, you might find yourself falling for its idiosyncratic charms. Yes, it's very loud and very busy. And yes, there is an above average amount of old man genitals and violence towards animals. And sure, that sketch book style of animation isn't for everyone. But I, for one, am heartened by the Academy's willingness to recognize something this offbeat and unique. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you've got the stomach for it, you may find it surprisingly satisfying.

#6)- Bestia

By far the darkest of the animated shorts, Hugo Covarrubias's Bestia is also one of the most difficult films I've watched this year. Part of that is due to the content, with Covarrubias choosing to tell the story of Ingrid Olderöck, an agent of DINA, the secret police of the Chilean military dictatorship in the 1970s. Part of the film's difficulty comes from its lack of context, throwing the viewer into the story with very little explanation. I don't really hold this against the film- I have to assume Covarrubias made it primarily with a Chilean audience in mind, and that's just one of those concessions that comes with international cinema- but know that you might have to do some research on this one. And an even greater difficulty with the film comes from its abstract imagery, which runs throughout the short and occasionally threatens to overwhelm it. In spite all of that, however, I ultimately found Bestia to be a haunting, tense experience, quite unlike anything I'd ever seen. I might not want to watch it again any time soon, but I'm glad I watched it all the same.

#5)- The Long Goodbye

Content Warning: Racial Violence

It almost seems like a requirement to have an actor be nominated in the shorts category these days, and this year that slot is filled by Riz Ahmed. Teaming up with director Aneil Karia to create a tie-in film for the album of the same name, Ahmed has created in The Long Goodbye another uniquely haunting experience. This is another film that throws you right into the action (the shortest of the nominees, it doesn't waste a whole lot of time on setup), and it can admittedly be a little hectic at times. Still, the depiction of a community's worst fears come to life is undeniably harrowing, as a gang of white supremacists swarms a neighborhood and rounds up all the Pakistani residents. (This particular film also checks off the Academy's quota for nominating films involving child endangerment, although it feels far less cheap here.) All of this culminates in the film's powerful closing scene, a searing hip hop monologue expressing years of pent up anxiety and anger. Having a character directly state the theme of the film might not seem like the most graceful way to end things, but it is in this moment when the film is most effective. The Long Goodbye is a challenging and occasionally uneasy marriage of music and cinema, but when all the elements work in harmony, it results in an unforgettable experience.

#4)- Robin Robin

It's crazy to think that, in a category so often dominated by the likes of Disney and Pixar, there is only child-friendly nominee for Best Animated Short this year. Still, if you had to recognize only studio for family animation, you might as well make it Aardman! Dan Ojari and Mikey Please's Robin Robin might lack some of the more grown up wit we've come to expect from the studio (and is certainly lacking in the Aardman style, swapping plasticine for puppetry), but it maintains the same level of charm and technical sophistication that has made them so beloved the world over. Telling the story of a young bird (Bronte Carmichael) raised by a family of mice, Robin Robin boasts an all-star cast (rounded out by Adeel Akhtar, Gillian Anderson and Richard E. Grant), stunning visuals and even some toe-tapping musical numbers. Netflix seems to be trying to corner the heartwarming Christmas movie market, and between this and Klaus, they may be succeeding. 

While a nomination for Aardman Animation is certainly nothing out of the ordinary, it's nevertheless heartening to know the Academy appreciates quality when they see it. The film's nomination not only recognizes it as a quality piece of family entertainment, but as a signifier that Aardman is still willing to evolve and experiment after all these years. It would be easy for them to rest on their laurels and never branch out, so the fact that they are still trying new things is worthy of celebration. And the fact that said new things includes a movie as lovely as Robin Robin is just icing on the cake.

#3)- Ala Kachuu- Take and Run

Another seeming prerequisite for the short categories (most often Live Action Short) is the Topical Film, a short that seeks to call attention to an overlooked or underrepresented issue in the world. This year that title belongs to Maria Brendle's Ala Kachuu, which focuses on the problem of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. As you can imagine, films like this are very easy to screw up. Sometimes they can feel tacky and exploitative, as if the filmmaker wants to do nothing more than wallow in misery. This is especially tricky when the film is made by a Western director making a film about issues in Eastern cultures, as is the case here. And of course, there are countless films out there which rely on being topical to make up for the fact that they're just not very good.

But for the most part, Brendle tactfully avoids these problems by approaching her subject with sensitivity and skill, resulting in a film which is both illuminating and engaging. It certainly helps that Brendle doesn't come from a place of condemnation; it's clear that she has strong moral objections to the practice of ala kachuu, but she doesn't demonize the people who practice it either. All of the characters in the film feel complex and fully realized, even as they commit some pretty heinous acts. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that, as far as I can tell, the majority of the short's actors are making their film debuts here. Especially great is Alina Turdumatova in the lead role of Selim, who gives a performance that would give any of this year's acting nominees a run for their money.

If I had any complaints about the film, it would be that the last act sacrifices some of the story's authenticity, throwing in some contrivances that don't feel quite earned in order to reach its conclusion. Perhaps if the film had been a feature it could have built up to some of these moments (Ala Kachuu is the longest of the shorts, but could easily have been a feature), but as is it doesn't quite come together. Still, that's a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, and can't ruin a film this well put together.

#) 2- Boxballet

If we were ranking the shorts purely based on aesthetic, Boxballet would take it in a landslide. Anton Dyakov's animation style is simple but beautiful, combining cartoonishly exaggerated features and gorgeous painted backgrounds to create a sumptuous feast for the eyes. That on its own would be enough for a good short, but what elevates Boxballet to its spot on this list is the narrative which carries its animation. A touching love story between a surly boxer and a naïve ballerina, all told without a bit of dialogue, Boxballet effortlessly warms the heart with effective characterization and gentle sense of humor. Which isn't to say it's fifteen minutes of fluff; this short takes some dramatic turns, and some of the short's darker moments might not land for all viewers. Still, in spite of its disparate tones, the film never feels disjointed, with Dyakov maintaining complete control over everything he does. In a just world, Boxballet would take home the Oscar next week. We can only hope that the Academy doesn't needlessly punish a Russian animator for the actions of his leader come Oscar night.

#1)- Audible

One thing about me that people are always surprised to learn is that Friday Night Lights is one of my favorite shows. As someone who is largely apathetic to the concepts of football, high school and Texas in general, the idea of me loving a television show about Texas high school football doesn't seem to add up. Of course, Friday Night Lights is a show about a lot more than football; it's about community, family, friendship and how much we love Jesse Plemons, among other things. All of this to say, when I tell you Matthew Ogens' Audible gave me strong Friday Night Lights vibes, know that I mean it as the ultimate compliment.

Telling the story of Amaree McKenstry-Hall, a football player for the Maryland School of the Deaf, as he navigates his senior year of high school, Audible is a film which wears many hats- teen drama, sports movie, a familial reconciliation story. There's a lot of ground being covered here, to the point where it sometimes feels like too much for it's thirty-nine minute run time. I certainly think this could have easily been expanded into a feature; hell, I'd have watched a whole TV series.

Still, despite being so packed with story, the film never feels rushed or unfocused like so many short documentaries can be. A large part of this comes down to the skill of the filmmakers, most notably the tight editing by Darrin Roberts, which keeps the whole thing fleet on its feet while still giving the more powerful moments room to breathe. But ultimately is the film's subject, and the way Ogens chooses to talk about it, which makes the film so refreshing. Amaree and his friends are not treated as objects of pity, nor sources of inspiration for the hearing members of the film's audience. They are simply shown as people, given the space to tell their story. And what an engaging story it is! As Troy Kotsur seems poised to make Oscar history (and CODA winds up being a surprising contender for the top prize), I hope the Academy doesn't neglect to recognize another great story about Deafness.

Even though since none of these categories are airing live, they kind of have neglected to do so already.

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