Our Favorite Oscar-Nominated Shorts This Year
In anticipation of a poor viewership for this Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony (at 8 p.m. on ABC), producers have been scrambling for ways to trim the program to keep it to three hours. Winners of Best Cinematography and Best Live Action Short are among those who will receive awards during commercial breaks. Their segments will be edited in later, without the dull walk to the stage.
While short film nominees have never had a ton of clout compared to feature films’ movie stars, their work is increasingly being shown at art house theaters in three respective programs: Animated, Documentary, and Live Action. (Check out local screenings at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema and the Institute of Contemporary Art.)
The art of making a good short film is far too underrated. And this year, while there are some standouts, there's a number of nominees I'd just as soon strike from my memory. I watched them all so you don't have to. Here’s an overview of each category, and my picks for each:
The Animated Shorts is the best overall program and the one I can recommend without losing sleep. The daunting potential with animation — exaggerate reality or blow it off altogether — makes for a kind of lawless landscape, and could be why short animated story arcs tend to fall back on the birth-reproduce-death formula. Those elements show up in three of this year’s five nominees: “Bao,” Pixar’s take on a mother’s empty nest grief; “One Small Step,” about a shoe-making father who supports his daughter’s dream to become an astronaut; and “Late Afternoon,” in which a grown daughter cares for her forgetful, aging mother.
All three are beautifully crafted, heartfelt life-cycle stories and all three will draw up welled emotions. “Late Afternoon” in particular maximizes the animated form to convey how memories flutter in and out of our minds, how it can be difficult to reconcile many past versions of selves with the one we are now. It’s lovely and my runner-up pick. (Another nominee, “Animal Behavior,” offers levity as a support group with dog, bird, amoeba, and so on argue nature versus nurture but it doesn’t hold up to its competitors.)
My pick for this category is “Weekends.” The short focuses on a child’s complicated experience of his parents’ divorce. Every Friday, a sweet-faced boy drags his suitcase from the stoop of his mother’s country home toward his dad’s car, engine running. They drive toward Seattle in a haze of cigarette smoke and ZZ Top and spend the weekend eating takeout and watching gory movies. The child falls asleep atop the father’s life-sized horse statue overlooking the cityscape. His dreams borrow from lives with both parents, where colors brighten then dim. It’s no better or worse at either place, just different, and jarringly so. As in any family, it becomes hard to decipher if emotional reality originates more with the parents or the child. This is the kind of ponderous yet compact storytelling deserving of an Oscar win.
The Documentary category reflects concerns over racism both homegrown and abroad, gender barriers, migration and mortality. It’s a fine enough batch but does not in sum reflect the breadth of what’s possible nor the excellence of nonfiction playing elsewhere.
“A Night at the Garden” is a 7-minute film drawn from archival footage that lays bare American racism and Nazism. In it 20,000 uniformed, mostly male Americans gather at Madison Square Garden to rally a return of the United States to “the people who founded it.” The year is 1939 but the film is being recirculated for, perhaps obviously, similar outcries today. Two other films, “Period. End of Sentence,” about how a menstrual pad-making machine gives women in India jobs and a new type of freedom, and “Lifeboat,” about a European marine rescue operation, adopt the point of view of the nonprofits that back the causes. As is too often the case in such instances, the result, especially with “Period,” comes off more commercial than balanced.
A strong contender in this category, “Black Sheep,” recounts one man’s experience of racism in the U.K. He tells how he befriended the white, racist kids who beat him up as a survival mechanism, changing his accent and attire. While the singularity of his story is exaggerated by the form — a direct address, close-up interview interspersed with scenes recreated from his youth – the film succeeds as a universal, and global, story about being targeted as an outsider, and specifically how racist hatred recycles itself in everyone it touches.
My pick is the urgent and humane “End Game,” which pieces together several stories of people considering or under hospice care. Some are facing mortality with family members by their side, some on their own at San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project. The film does not cash in on the relentlessness of the unknown, nor on the unfathomable generosity of its participants. Instead, it pays its respects. The most prominent thread is about Mitra, who at 45 is dying in a hospital room. Her mother and husband don’t want to make the final decisions for her, but they must: The mother is ready for hospice. The husband wants to keep fighting. “End Game” daringly delivers a version of how things go for some people at the end of life. Unless you’ve been through this process with a loved one, or even if you have, you know how limited our cultural conversation is on the topic of dying. As the wise Dr. B.J. Miller advises in the film, “Go make friends with death.” Or at least get acquainted. Seeing “End Game” is one way of starting that difficult and inevitable work.
Live Action Shorts
As for the Live Action films, I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone see the entire program. It left me sleepless and sickened. Four of the five films use children’s pain and suffering as their narrative’s engine, some rather thinly (in the case of “Madre,” a frantic mother can’t help her abandoned son) and some in excruciatingly horrific detail (“Detainment” recounts the murder and worse of a 2-year-old by two 10-year-old boys).
This begs the question of why make a film like this? And more, why do three of five live action shorts feature reckless, angry children — all white, all boys? Do we need to see their formation as perpetrators on screen to believe they exist in real life? While the Academy has attempted to broaden its ranks to include more people of color and women, its membership also still mostly reflects the powers that be: older white men. The process of getting to Oscar nomination is far from linear. But this year, the majority in this category tell stories of a demographic that feels under threat despite still holding almost all of the cards.
One live action short, “Marguerite,” gets lost in the boys-will-be-boys shuffle. Let’s call it my reluctant pick for this category. The elderly Marguerite could be a nun, or at least has lived like one, despite having fallen in love with a woman in her youth. The loss resurfaces as she gets to know her caregiver, who frequently calls and texts her own girlfriend. She’s far from perfect but if “Marguerite” takes home a statue at least I’ll have a slightly better chance of sleeping on Oscar night.
The 2019 Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Shorts, Best Documentary Shorts and Best Live Action Shorts are screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre through Feb. 21, Somerville Theatre through Feb. 22, Kendall Square Cinema through Feb. 28 and Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston from Feb. 22 through March 10.