Oscar-nominated shorts don’t get the same degree of love and attention that feature films do. This is a shame. Without big celebrity names or big conservative studio budgets, the shorts are often more inventive and daring than features. In a year when the Oscars have been justifiably criticized for their lack of diversity, it’s reassuring to see that the Oscar-nominated shorts maintain a broader appeal. The films tend to be more global in their scope (the two categories, live action and animation, are further subdivided by country). Even a cursory glimpse reveals that the categories are much better at representing the significant contributions of a diverse line-up of participants. In other words, there’s never been a better year to dive into the Oscar-nominated short films. If you do, you’re in luck, because this year’s nominees are funny, moving, inventive, and accomplished. In Atlanta, the two programs, live action and animation, are currently screening at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Nearly all the live action films are somber, moving, dramatic, and political. Most of the animated films are comic, sweet, and, well, cartoonish. It’s surprising how neatly and consistently the two categories are divided by tone. Does no one make a somber cartoon? A silly live action short? This may be due to the preferences of Academy members, or it may have something to do with the nature of the two genres and the approach of contemporary filmmakers. The live action films also tend to be longer, about 20 to 25 minutes apiece, while the animators keep things short and sweet at around 10 to 15 minutes each, often less. The five live-action nominees screen together on one program, while the program of four animation nominees is beefed up with the addition of four additional “Highly Commended” short films.
Picking out which live action film will take home the statue is a tough call. BURNAWAY’s picks are Ave Maria, Shok, or Day One. All are excellent films based on political themes of global significance. Director Basil Khalil’s Palestinian-French-German co-production Ave Maria shows an Israeli family encountering car trouble as they drive through Arab territory during the Sabbath. They seek and find unlikely help in, of all places, a convent of cloistered nuns. This unusual encounter proves to elicit hostility, generosity, and resilience on both sides.
Shok is a lovely and devastating film about ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. It is based on a true story and told from a child’s point of view. It’s surprising how much drama and moral ambiguity director Jamie Donoughue manages to pack into this excellent film. It is compelling and makes the case for short films as equally or even more moving and complex than features.
American filmmaker Henry Hughes’s Day One is likewise a compelling look at a female Afghan-American military interpreter’s first day on the job in Afghanistan. The film is based on Hughes’s own experience in the military working alongside female interpreters. Without giving too much away, we’ll just reveal that the “terp,” as she’s called, encounters a rough and eventful first day on the job. This brings to the forefront both the horror of war as well as the fast and surprisingly deep human bonds that form in the heat of violence.
UK director Benjamin Cleary’s Stutterer is a sweet and insightful film about someone who stutters and is anxious about meeting an online crush. Germany’s Patrick Vollrath offers a thrilling and moving, though ultimately oblique, Everything Will Be OK, which focuses on a recently divorced dad who seeks to kidnap his beloved daughter so he can have sole custody.
The live action shorts tend to be grim and challenging. Viewers who delve into them may want to head straight to the admirable frivolity of the animated shorts soon after. BURNAWAY’s pick for the best of the shorts is American animator Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow. A little girl is visited by a time-traveling future version of herself. Illustrator Julia Pott performs the voice of the lead character, while the girl Emily is voiced by Hertzfeldt’s then-four-year-old niece, who was recorded while drawing and playing. The World of Tomorrow is, as we discover, hilariously and fatalistically bleak; however, Emily remains obliviously optimistic as she’s informed of the terrible fates awaiting humankind.
We predict the most likely to take home the Oscar is Sanjay’s Superteam by Sanjay Patel of Pixar Studios. This is a more palatable, predictably upbeat, and mainstream short in which a young Indian boy resists being called away from his beloved television superheroes by his father. Instead of the Hindu prayer encouraged by his father, the bored child imagines an epic battle of a super-team composed of Hindu gods. The film depicts the ultimate dominance of pop culture over revered traditions. It is a troubling and complicated subject which, in the end, is too lightly handled by the saccharine film. We were more taken with the visual inventiveness of Chilean animator Gabriel Osorio’s Bear Story which imagines a bear telling his story of loss through a hand-cranked nickelodeon-style automaton. Russian animator Konstantin Bronzit’s We Can’t Live Without Cosmos centers on a sweet and abiding friendship between two cosmonauts.
All in all, it’s a good year for shorts. Immersing yourself in them will make for two pleasant evenings at the movies. Familiarity with the genre will only increase your enjoyment, not to mention your chances of winning the betting pool on Oscar night.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based critic who covers visual art, dance, and theater.