April 16, 2024


If you are aiming to win your Oscar pool you may feel relatively safe right about now predicting, as most are, a sweep by Oppenheimer, especially after its overwhelming showing last week winning 7 BAFTA awards, the DGA honor for Christopher Nolan the week before that, and on Saturday sweeping 3 of the 5 movie awards at SAG and winning top prize at PGA last night. However key to actually winning your pool will not be those marquee feature film categories but rather the three for shorts that run under the radar, but can spell the difference in triumphing over all others in whatever pool you enter. So who could – or should for these purposes – prevail in the Documentary, Animated, and Live Action shorts contests this year? Shorts TV in association with distributor Magnolia Pictures has, as usual. put all of them in theatrical release in theatres across the country, so if you are lucky you could have the chance to see the three different programs offered on the big screen. Some, like MTV’s The ABC’s Of Book Banning are available for free on You Tube, and some are available on the various streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon, Apple. I have seen all 15 of the films spread across these categories with 5 nominees each. Here is my take on the artistic merits of each.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

To my mind this is, film for film, the best of the shorts categories this year. It is going to be a very tough call for Oscar voters to pick a winner (voting continues until 5pm PT on Tuesday). All five are superb, and also wildly different.

The ABC’s Of Book Banning from veteran documentary kingpin Sheila Nevins is a timely and blood curdling look, very simple in its telling, of conservative movements to ban over 2000 books from school districts, many of them certified classics. The reason is chilling and designed to keep free thinking about a complex world including social issues such as LGBTQ rights, racism and more out of the hands of kids, basically an attempt to take America back 50 years. Nevins approach is just to show us those books, talk to kids, and also 101 year Grace Linn who leads a Florida movement to stop this madness, and use the power of film to make a difference.

The New Yorker

The same approach to make a difference is beautifully exhibited in John Hoffman and Christine Turner’s wonderfully inspiring The Barber Of Little Rock which in an attempt to show the widening racial wealth gap in America by focusing on one man’s journey to make life better for some of the poorest and most neglected areas in Little Rock, Arkansas. Arlo Washington is a local barber who not only shares the secrets of his own success in cutting hair, but more importantly through the mission of his self-started People’s Trust, a non-profit community bank that has the power to change lives in a community where no bank even exists anymore. Inspiring is the word here too.

Island In Between takes the very real tensions between Taiwan and China and tells it through the complicated story of its filmmaker S. Leo Chiang who navigates loyalty to both, as well as another adopted home, the USA, and he shows – literally – the problems of life on the “island between”. It is a subtle but compelling portrait well worth its nomination.

Porché Brinker in 'The Last Repair Shop'

Breakwater Studios/LA Times Studios/Searchlight Pictures

Two other films are perhaps the most humanistic of this quintet. The marvelous The Last Repair Show from directors Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, focuses on just what its title suggests, a small warehouse of sorts where damaged musical instruments go to die, but instead are renewed and find new life for the 80,000 public schoolchildren of Los Angeles who will become the beneficiaries of these instruments and the beautiful music they once again make,

Courtesy of Jennifer Lee
Disney +

Finally there is director Sean Wang’s love letter to his two grandmas, Nai Nai who is 94 and Wai Po who is 83 in the film which shows their everyday life, an often joyous one, as they live together in Northern California, even sleep in the same bed, and go about aging with grace, dignity, and above all, still with life to be lived. Wang felt that making a film might be his way of forever keeping these two influential ladies in his life, but also as an antidote to what he was seeing with increasing violence against the innocents and elderly in the Asian community. It is life-affirming, and spending 16 minutes with this fun pair is a treat.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

For me there are a couple of clear winners in this collection, the best in show belonging to directors Dave Mullins War Is Over! Inspired By The Music of John & Yoko. Sean Lennon and his mother Yoko Ono are also Executive Producers of this goregously animated story set in an alternate WWI reality and centered on a chess game where two soldiers on opposite sides of the war play a game of chess, a carrier pigeon delivering their chess moves over a very dangerous battlefield. Neither knows each other, and the film is a clear allegory of the horrors and senselessness of war and what divides us, not unites us. The message may be simplistic but through the animation, one unforgettable bird, and the music of John & Yoko, its timing could not be better.

DOCUMENTARY+

The other nominee I really admired here, and the one that would have gotten my vote before I saw War Is Over! is Directors Jeshsha Hess & Jared Hess’s Ninety-Five Senses in which actor Tim Blake Nelson memorably voices a character whose final days are told from the point of view of our five senses. It is a 13 minute ode to those things like smell, touch, and taste that most of us take for granted, but as is eventually revealed here add up to a lifetime lived, and about to end, for this very colorful man. Part of the pleasure of this short is watching it unfold, and the rather shocking impact it delivers. You might think it is a bit of a trifle, but it proves to be anything but.

As for the other three nominees, Pachyderme has stunning animation painting the life of a summertime visit to her grandparents house for young Louise. It is a lovely portrait, old fashioned and nostalgic of a peaceful French countryside with flowing lakes, homemade pies, and green gardens galore, but also one where Louise is made very aware of the fragility of life, the inevitibility of aging, and the importance of keeping memories close. An 11 minute effort from director Stephanie Clement, this French entry is pleasant to watch and expertly made, but may be too slight compared to the best in the category.

Then there is a 7 minute curio called Our Uniform from Iranian director Yegane Moghaddam which focuses on an Iranian schoolgirl and the details of her memories of her old school uniform, one which attempts I believe to give us a larger picture of the trials and tribulations of women in Iran and the fashion dictates of those who run the country. It is almost whimsical in a way but goes by too quickly to make much of a lasting impression, despite the inventive premise and impressive visual style.

Letter To A Pig is the other nominee and comes from Israeli director Tal Kantor. It is a strikingly , and quite artfully, animated 16 minute film in which a holocaust survivor reads a letter he wrote to the pig who saved his life. That all dissolves into a complex tale involving a schoolgirl who begins to question many of life’s most traumatic impulses. This one is hard to distill by just writing about it. The filmmaking style is key to its impact, but also kept me at a bit of a distance for the full emotional impact of its very earnest and important message.

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT

'The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar' Trailer from Wes Anderson

Foreground from left: Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayoade in ‘The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar’

Netflix

Grief, abortion, mental health, and Wes Anderson are the basic ingredients that collectively make up the five nominees in this category. Let’s start with the oft-nominated feature film director Wes Anderson who has yet to win an Oscar. His dialogue and star-driven 37 minute take on Roald Dahl’s whimsical The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar is probably the front runner here just for the fact it comes from Anderson, who has put his unmistakable stamp on it, and cast it up with a starry group all in fine form including Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and a delicious turn from Ralph Fiennes. This is about as impressive a cast as in Anderson’s other work this year, the Oscar-ignored feature Asteroid City. In it a man discovers a guru who can see without using his eyes, which of course if mastered means this wealthy guy could cheat at gambling. It is great fodder for a short, the production values are top notch, its premiere was at Venice, and it has the Netflix machine behind it. The only question is will voters think it has too many advantages over less heralded competition. On its own however it still is what this category is all about.

I would say that it is eclipsed, at least in terms of pure emotional impact by a couple of other entries. Danish director Lasse Lyskjaer Noer’s superb Knight Of Fortune (Ridder Lykke) somehow manages to be a wry, sometime funny, and ultimately winnningly human story of unending grief and regret set in a morgue where two men bond over the deceased bodies of their wives. It isn’t that simple, and the story takes twists and turns but ultimately leads to a kind of human connection I have felt only one other time at the movies this year, and that was in The Holdovers. Two wonderful veteran actors help make this film the sleeper of the category.

The hot button topic of abortion rears its head in the sensational Red, White And Blue that depending on where you stand on the issue will either make you angry or get you activated. Like the best films dealing with issues that are politicized, this Nazrin Choudhury film focuses on human stories, this one about Rachel (Brittany Snow) , a single parent of two kids who works as a waitress just trying to make ends meet. When an unexpected pregnancy occurs she is forced to cross state lines in search of an abortion. To say more would be to severely diminish the stunning impact of this story. At just 23 minutes this one manages to pack a wallop, an understatement to be sure.

David Oyelowo’s impassioned performance in the 18 minute UK short, The After, from renowned photographer and activist Misan Harriman, is what drives this devastating story of a man whose life is turned upside down after a random attack of violence affects his family and his whole reason for being. It truly is shocking to watch, but so effectively presented in the short’s first few minutes that you wonder where it is all headed. Keep in mind the title of the movie and you will get the idea. This is about unending, and even delayed, grief coming to fruition much later, and Oyelowo is just such a fine actor it never feels overplayed, thus its strong emotional impact of this impressive debut.

Grief is also something that becomes part of the reason for Invincible, the story of the last 48 hours in the life of Marc-Antoine Bernier a 14 year old boy with mental health issues leading to his tragic death. Director Vincent Rene-Lortie tells the true story as a half hour film in order to partially try to comprehend the incomprehensible reasons for the death of his young friend. It is a decidedly dark journey, tough to watch, but perhaps necessary to understand.

Hopefully this review/overview of this year’s nominated shorts will inspire you to seek these movies out which, despite their length, deserve to be considered among the traditional feature films that consume most of the focus of Oscar season. It is the one time of year they deservedly get to also have their moment in the spotlight.

Title: 2024 Oscar Nominated Shorts

Distributor: Shorts TV / Magnolia Pictures

Release Date: Playing In Theatres Nationwide

Directors/Screenplay/Cast: Various



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