This Year in Shorts: The 95th Academy Awards
Once again the most magical time of year is upon us- the time in which we look at all fifteen of this year's Oscar-nominated shorts and rank them arbitrarily based on my own personal preference at the time of publication. If that's not magical, I don't know what is! Still, I know that not everyone is as into the shorts as I am. Even aside from that, not everyone has the free time or desire to search all of them out. But the Academy will be airing ALL the categories live this year, and as such it might be good to have a baseline of what potential wins we should be celebrating or getting unreasonably mad about. And isn't getting unreasonably mad about things what awards season is all about?
Not that there's too much to get worked up over this year. This year's crop of nominees are mostly pretty damn good, and even the bad ones don't make me angry like they did LAST year. Which came as a bit of a surprise to me, considering the guy who made the first film we'll be looking at...
#15)- How Do You Measure a Year?
For the second year in a row, documentary filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt finds himself at the bottom of our list with How Do You Measure a Year?, a film which seeks to singlehandedly undo all the goodwill towards Rent I'd been feeling after seeing tick, tick... BOOM! Once again, the director of When We Were Bullies gets some clout by exploiting someone else's life story despite the fact that they don't seem particularly up for it, although it's a sign of progress that at least this time he's focusing on an immediate relative instead of a former classmate who clearly wants nothing to do with him. Filmed every year on his daughter Ella's birthday, Rosenblatt asks her a series of (largely pretentious) questions and films her response. And hey, I'll say this for it- it's not offensively bad.
Of course, that doesn't mean it's particularly good either. Rosenblatt eschews the artsier editing flourishes from his previous film, which is to his credit, but what we're left with is nothing more than a compilation of home movies. It might be a cute thing to show family and friends, but it's certainly not the stuff of an Oscar-nominated film. Once again, the most interesting thing about Rosenblatt's film is how much it reveals about himself and how others react to him; in this case, his daughter's growing exasperation with him and his project serves as a pretty nice reflection for my own feelings about the film. That doesn't make it interesting, but I guess it's funny.
When you've been Oscar Baiting as long as I have, you gain an eye for trends the Academy tends to follow, and that goes double for the shorts. Every year, for instance, it seems that they decide to nominate a terribly bleak European short about something horrible happening to children. Hell, I've covered at least one of those shorts already. Occasionally such shorts can be quite good (the director of this particular short also made Helium, which was ALSO about children dying, but was actually good), but more often than not they're just dull and cruel. Such is the case with Anders Walter's Ivalu, which comes to us from Greenland and is apparently based on an acclaimed graphic novel.
I wonder if something was lost in translation. While Ivalu is technically proficient, packed to the brim with beautiful landscape shots (Visit Greenland! You probably won't be murdered!), there's not much to recommend it beyond that. The acting gets the job done, but the characters are all underdeveloped so the cast never really gets anything to do. And the plot is as bare bones as it gets, to the point where despite being so simple it's a bit hard to follow. It's a shame too, because the film focuses on a culture that's largely underrepresented in world cinema (in this case, Greenland's indigenous peoples), and it's unfortunate the film didn't really do much to showcase them or give them anything interesting to do. Maybe if the story elements were all jettisoned in favor of a short about a little girl wandering around Greenland it would work a little better. It would certainly be less depressing. There's just not much there there, and even at sixteen minutes it feels padded and slow. Come on Academy, was this really better than All Too Well?
#13)- The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
When I started watching Peter Baynton and Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (based on the children's book of the same name by Mackesy), I thought I was in for a treat. The animation, for instance, is absolutely stunning, with gorgeous, colorful landscapes and appealing character designs. I mean, look at that mole. That's just about the cutest damn thing I've ever seen. On top of that is the wistful score and an all-star cast, featuring the vocal talents of Tom Hollander, Gabriel Byrne and Idris Fucking Elba. All the elements are there for a classic short reminiscent of The Snowman or Winnie-the-Pooh, with one glaring exception- the script. The trite, repetitive, unbelievably terrible script.
As a young boy tries to find his way home accompanied by various animal companions, he learns a series of valuable lessons. Not by doing interesting things and gaining new knowledge for them, or even by having meaningful or well-written conversations. Instead, the boy learns things by having the various characters recite platitudes straight out of a motivational poster to him. Over and over again. For thirty-four minutes. And then the film just sort of ends. After awhile it just becomes a bit much, and it's difficult to appreciate the animation when your eyes are rolling so hard you can't properly see it. Hopefully the talented team behind this particular short can take the clout they get from this and parlay it into more worthwhile projects. Or at least a movie where the characters shut the fuck up for five minutes.
#12)- Stranger at the Gate
Another common trend amongst short nominees across the years has been "Documentary Short About a Prejudiced Person Learning to Overcome Their Prejudices Through Some Unbelievable Story." Hell, that's just a common trend amongst Oscar-nominated films in every category. And it's not very hard to see why they're so popular. Films like Joshua Seftel's Stranger at the Gate tackle complex and serious issues in a way that's palatable for mainstream viewers and Academy voters, and everyone loves a good redemption story. And there is certainly value in stories like these, as is evidenced by Mac McKinney's touring around the country testifying to his experience.
I do question, however, the value in constantly nominating films like these, aside from general exposure. It certainly doesn't help that Stranger at the Gate offers little else besides a general recap of events, accompanied by some pretty average filmmaking. Is an inspiring story about overcoming hate really all it takes to get an Oscar nomination? All signs point to yes, and that's just depressing. There's nothing particularly wrong with Stranger at the Gate that isn't wrong with a dozen other similar films, but there's nothing particularly special about it either. It's just there, and I feel like there should be more to it than that.
#11)- Night Ride
The Academy is infamous for generally snubbing light comedies across all categories, preferring big, expensive epics or serious, weighty dramas. One of the few exceptions to the rule is the category for Best Live Action Short, which is often filled with silly joke shorts, many of them from Europe. At first glance, Erik Tveiten's Night Ride seems to be one of those; a simple lark about a woman stealing a tram and deciding to perform the duties of the hijacked driver. Sounds like a pretty fun time, right?
Well, eventually things take a turn, and not in a way that exactly works. As you no doubt can guess from the content warning, this short goes into some fairly dark territory with very little warning, and doesn't seem to know what to do when it gets there. I don't think it's offensively bad- the short is clearly well-intentioned and it seems a little silly to get up in arms over something that's at least trying- but it's a little over its head, at least with the runtime it has. As much as I appreciate a short that's actually short, maybe a few more minutes might have helped develop the comedy or the drama to something a little better. Still, I can't hate a short that supports tram heists and trans rights, so there you are.
#10)- The Martha Mitchell Effect
Netflix has two nominees in the category of Best Documentary Short this year, and Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy's The Martha Mitchell Effect is certainly one of them. Compiled from interviews, news footage and other secondary sources, the film tells the story of Martha Mitchell, an integral figure in the Watergate Scandal. If you ever wanted to know the absolute bare minimum of who she was and how she was important, you might find this movie useful. Of course, you'd probably find her Wikipedia page equally useful, and that wouldn't take you forty minutes to finish. I, admittedly, do not know much about Martha Mitchell either (my one US History course ended with the Civil War), but even I know there's more to the story than what's shown here, and the movie barely has enough time to touch on it. The Martha Mitchell Effect is not a bad film by any means, but it's fairly basic, even by Netflix short documentary standards.
#9)- An Irish Goodbye
Irish cinema has done pretty well for itself at the 95th Academy Awards; a frontrunner for Best Picture, five Irish acting nominees, a nomination for Best International Feature and- of course- a representative in the category for Best Live Action Short. That honor belongs to Tom Berkely and Ross White's An Irish Goodbye, a pleasantly charming comedy-drama about two estranged brothers who set out to complete their deceased mother's bucket list before going their separate ways. If you like heartwarming family stories or that uniquely dark strain of Irish humor, you're going to like this one. But I don't necessarily think you're going to love it. Despite its best efforts, it never rises above the level of "quaint", partially because it focuses a little too hard on tugging at the heartstrings over tickling the funny bone. There are a couple of good laughs scattered throughout, but not as much as you might expect.
#8)- The Elephant Whisperers
Netflix's second short documentary nominee, Kartiki Gonsalves' The Elephant Whisperers, is a bit better than The Martha Mitchell Effect, although it still suffers from some of the same issues. Telling the story of an Indian couple tasked with taking care of orphaned baby elephants in Mudumalai National Park, The Elephant Whisperers is certainly educational and (more importantly) features a lot of great footage of baby elephants. If you want to spend forty minutes just being in awe of how intelligent and emotionally complex elephants are, this is the movie for you.
Unfortunately, The Elephant Whisperers falls into a trap common with a fair number of documentaries, focusing more on telling the story rather than showing it. Figures in the film explain things that are already apparent, or important events are recapped after the fact rather than being given moments for themselves. It's hard to say exactly why that is; maybe the filmmakers worried that audiences wouldn't follow, or maybe it was just that there simply wasn't footage available for certain moments. Either way, the end result is a weaker film than it could have been, which is always frustrating. But on the other hand- elephants.
Of all the short nominees this year, Maxim and Evgenia Arbugaeva's Haulout was the one I watched last, despite the fact that it was one of the easiest to find. And really, can you blame me? The short is about the devastating effect that climate change is having on walrus populations, and tells its story by following a solitary Russian hermit. Sounds like a fun time, right? Of course not! It sounds like the premise for a particularly bleak Off-Broadway play. So it took me some time to get to it.
Well, I was certainly correct in my assumption that the film would be bleak, and it's certainly not a film I ever want to watch again. Still, I have to give the film credit for being the most cinematic of this year's documentaries. Eschewing narration and only providing explanatory text at the very end of the film, Haulout instead chooses to make its point through visuals and minimal speech from its main subject. It's a film filled with stark and often surprising images, beautiful landscapes and an eerily foreboding atmosphere. Maybe I'm setting the bar too low by praising a film for using the language of filmmaking, but still.
#6)- The Flying Sailor
Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of the works of Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that they had a new film nominated this year. And in some ways, The Flying Sailor lives up to the hype! The animation is as gorgeous and richly detailed as we've come to expect from them, while still managing to have a distinct look all its own; the music by Luigi Allemano is hauntingly beautiful; and, of course, the film deals with death in a way that is both thought-provoking and strangely comforting. All the staples are there, so it has to be another slam dunk from the pair, right?
And yet... it doesn't quite come together in the same way. I feel like a hypocrite doing this, but I think I blame the runtime. Again, despite my love for shorts that are actually short, seven minutes just doesn't feel like enough on this one. There are some nice concepts in this film, but none of them have enough time to be developed. What we end up with is a short that feels like it ends before it gets going, which I suppose might be the point. Life can end so suddenly, why not the film? I guess it makes thematic sense, but it's certainly not very satisfying.
#5)- The Red Suitcase
Thrillers tend to do fairly well in the category for Best Live Action Short, and it's not very hard to see why. Maintaining tension is no easy feat, so it's a pretty good way for up-and-coming filmmakers to show off. (It certainly also helps that maintaining tension for under forty minutes is probably easier than doing it for feature length.) Cyrus Nevshad's The Red Suitcase is the only thriller among the shorts nominated his year, but it demonstrates perfectly why they can be so well-regarded.
Telling the story of Ariane (Nawelle Ewad), a young woman arriving in Luxembourg for an arranged marriage, The Red Suitcase is a tense, lean affair. It's arguably the most economical of this year's shorts, with just about every moment in the film being used to build a looming sense of dread over Ariane's plight. Even the long pauses and quiet moments help with this. Not a heck of a whole lot happens in The Red Suitcase (when you boil it down, it's just a movie about a girl leaving the airport), but it's the worry about what might happen that drives the film. Cyrus Nevshad's career up to this point has been short films, but hopefully his success with this allows him to make his feature debut soon. He's clearly got the goods!
#4)- Ice Merchants
One thing I've been trying to work on lately in my criticism is focusing less on plot and more on craft, which can be a bit tricky, but rewarding. Story is still pretty important as far as I'm concerned, but it's not the only thing, and a film with a pretty unoriginal or unremarkable story can still be pretty compelling with the right amount of skill and style. Joao Gonzalez's Ice Merchants is one such film.
The short follows a father and son who parachute from their mountain home every day to sell ice to the villagers below, which is certainly an original enough premise. The film that follows doesn't do much with it though, aside from a late twist and a warning about climate change. (It's struck again!) But none of that really matters with a film that looks this damn good. Honestly I can't remember the last film I've watched with this specific aesthetic, that unique style of drawing or the specific way the colors look. It's so unique that I don't even have the words to describe it! (I told you this sort of things was tricky.) Still, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the whole film is available to watch for free, so maybe I'll just let the movie speak for itself.
#3)- Le Pupille
This year Alfonso Cuaron tied Kenneth Branagh's record for nominations across the most categories for his role in producing Alice Rohrwacher's Le Pupille. That sort of thing might not be interesting to most people, but I have to assume if you're reading this blog you might find it a little interesting. But as fascinating as that sort of thing may be, it's nowhere near as fascinating as the short itself, a knowingly silly "true story" about a Catholic school in wartime Italy. Filled with surprisingly good child performances and a hell of a lot of style, Le Pupille is easily the best of the year's live action shorts, and ranks among the best of the year's nominees in general.
Despite the potentially heavy subject matter (touching on things like fascism, religious corruption and mustaches), Le Pupille arguably fills the role of "Jaunty European lark" better than Night Ride did. The short is almost gleeful in how seemingly pointless it is, luxuriating in the minute details of school life and the absurdity of the situations these girls find themselves in. It's the sort of film that in lesser hands could become tedious of insufferably twee, but Rorhrwacher's assured direction consistently nails the proper balance. If you are a fan of quirky Italian cinema (and hey, who isn't?), definitely make this one a priority. Just make sure you actually watch it in Italian, because for some reason Disney + defaults to English dubbing. Poor form, Disney!
#) 2- An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It
What would happen if Charlie Kaufman decided to make a stop motion animated film? Well you'd get Anomalisa. BUT what if Charlie Kaufman was Australian and decided to make a stop motion animated film and also there was a large, flightless bird in it? Well, the result might be something a little like An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It, a delightfully meta short imbued with a dark sense of humor and no small amount of visual flair. To discuss it in too much depth would be to spoil the fun of letting you discover it for yourself, but suffice it to say that the film is more than worth your time, especially if you like Australian comedy. And if you don't... well, there's not a heck of a whole lot I can do for you.
#1)- My Year of Dicks
I'll be honest with you- the moment I heard that there was a short entitled My Year of Dicks, I pretty much knew it was going to be at the top of this year's list. How could it not be? So luckily for what little credibility I have as an Oscar Baiter, I'm happy to announce that Sara Gunnarsdottir's short more than deserves its place at number one.
Following a teenage girl's fruitless quest to lose her virginity, My Year of Dicks is a frequently funny and surprisingly sweet short, packing a hell of a lot of movie into a relatively small period of time. As important as it is to look at craft and not always prioritize story, it's always nice when a film can handle both equally well. And when great craft meets great storytelling? Well that's just pure movie magic. Each of the film's chapters is filled with funny lines, strong characterization and great moments of both heart wrenching drama and gut-busting comedy. The autobiographical screenplay by Pamela Ribon (based on her own memoir from 2014) is both hilarious and heartwarming, and more than deserves a place alongside the great coming-of-age movies we've had in recent years. Writers are not always nominated for the shorts they work on (the two nominee slots tend to go to the director and producer), so it's good that Ribon is. The short wouldn't work nearly as well without her.
But as great as the script may be, it's the animation that brings it over the top. Gunnarsdottir effortlessly includes a variety of animation styles, each one fitting the tone of the scene, and throws in a multitude of great visual gags as well. When it comes to presenting subjective reality on film, hand-drawn animation has an undeniable advantage over other mediums, and this film takes full advantage of it. Really, as much as the "animation is cinema" meme may have been overplayed in the past year, this film serves as a perfect example to anyone who might argue otherwise. My Year of Dicks is easily the best short of the year, and we should all hope that the Academy agrees.
If only so we can hear someone have to say that title twice on live television.
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