The shorts can make or break your Oscar pool. Thanks to Shorts TV, the animated, live action, and documentary short films are easier to find every year, but what about those films that just missed the cut? Earlier this month, the Academy released their shortlist of films for all three shorts categories, and we will be looking at all the entries before the nominations are announced.
Two years ago, the Live Action Short category could’ve been renamed the I Hate Kids Film Festival since four of the five nominees had children in danger. Or dead. Or in prison and then dead. Last year, The Neighbors’ Window lessened the memory of the previous year and rightfully walked away with the Oscar. There are some stories of children facing adversity on this year’s shortlist, but I assure you that we won’t return to anything as bleak as two years ago. According to The Academy’s website, a staggering 174 films qualified for this year’s race.
The Letter Room
Throughout the last year, people have been generous with the phrase, ‘the movie we need right now,’ but Elvira Lind’s The Letter Room is a call for kindness and empathy for our fellow man. We must take the time to understand people, especially those we already think we know. We might surprise ourselves and gain a little perspective.
A mustached Oscar Isaac plays Richard, a corrections officer who is finally offered a new position in the communications department at the prison. He is now tasked to open all the incoming mail for inmates and make sure there are no coded messages for violence and he must destroy any kind of pornography. Whether or not this is what Richard had in mind, he takes it in stride and dives in. Richard becomes fascinated with the letters from a young woman named Rosita. Her prose takes Richard by surprise, but he is more frustrated that its recipient, an angry inmate on death row, doesn’t reciprocate by writing back.
There is a lovely placidity to Lind’s film–it’s calming to think that a man inside the system is taking delicate consideration for another’s feelings. Now that Isaac is through with the Star Wars franchise, he can focus more on great work like this. Sometimes The Academy responds to familiar faces, so Isaac and Alia Shawkat could pique voters’ interest quite easily. This is definitely a film that people will love.
Buying your spouse an anniversary present shouldn’t be as hard as it is for Yusef in The Present. His normal day has larger than life circumstances as he tries to go to the West Bank to purchase a new fridge for his doting wife. He takes his young daughter, Yasmine, along because, while he knows the trek will have challenges, he doesn’t know it will take this long.
Every time they want to cross into the city, the soldiers manning the checkpoint find excuses to make them wait. Sometimes they stand there in silence and you can almost hear the clock ticking away. I actually worried that Yusef wouldn’t make it back to spend time with his wife. Yasmine clearly looks up to her father, so to see him being talked to so condescendingly doesn’t fully make sense to her. It’s hard to watch.
Director Farah Nabulsi allows us to feel Yusef’s anger and his frustration. In the confrontations between him and the ones in control of the border, she does not look away and she stares the conflict dead in the face. You can read a fuller review here.
Two Distant Strangers
A young, Black man named Carter wakes up in the bed of Perri, a woman he was lucky to spend the night with. They flirt as their morning begins, and Carter floats as he leaves to start his day. A random smattering of events lead him to accusations from a white police officer and Carter dies at the hands of several men who have more concern for causing a commotion than they do with his life. He wakes back up in Perri’s bed and Carter realizes he’s trapped in the most terrifying time loop for any Black American.
As Carter tries different ways to get away from Officer Murphy, we realize that it doesn’t matter what he does. He will always end up dead. The cause of death just happens to change. Much like The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, Two Distant Strangers hits home that Black people can be doing anything–walking down the street, going to a convenience store–and they must always live with a paralyzing fear of the people who are sworn to protect everyone. As a white American, I will never be able to grasp what that feels like but Two Distant Strangers made me angrier than I already was.
Directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe pace their film with a tight precision. To be able to infuse an issue like this with such power and use a time loop device takes real guts. Carter even tries to level with Murphy and that element to the story is unexpected and fresh. When he wakes up next to Perri for the second time, Carter says, “I had the craziest, realest dream.” Note that he said realest. Before he knows that he’s going to relive the same events, he knows what he dreamt is possible. It’s happened to too many Black Americans already.
Two children come close to something dark in Da Yie, directed by Anthony Nti.
Matilda and Prince spend their days playing soccer and trying to avoid their mothers who would swat them if they had the chance to. After a match one day, the two youngsters are approached by Bogah, a man on his way to a buffet. Since they have never been to one before, they pile into his van and consider it an adventure for themselves. Bogah’s intentions aren’t necessarily clear but mysterious phone conversations insinuate that he is delivering Matilda and Prince to a certain someone.
Nti doesn’t give everything away, and that helps strengthen the story’s danger. We are almost put into the same position as our young leads and we have as many questions as they do once things to go hell and they make themselves scarce. You will leave this film worried that the next time these two kids come in contact with a friendly but dangerous person, they might not be so lucky.
Erenik Beqiri’s The Van is hard to watch not because it revolves around fighting but because of what it doesn’t show.
A nondescript white van drives around an Albanian city, but passersby don’t know that men are fighting in the back. At the start of the short, a lean young man steps out with a cut cheek. He collects his money and stomps off, trying to escaped the contained violence he endured. The actor playing The Son, Phénix Brossard, is a startling mixture of Josh O’Connor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
The Son’s dreams of getting to England are dependent on him winning more and more illegal fights. His father, played by Arben Bajraktaraj, works with him at a construction job and tells him that his mother would be appalled by his behavior.
The Van has a masculine strength to its filmmaking. Beqiri keeps the camera tight above The Son’s shoulders but he keeps our eyes away from a lot of the actual fighting. This is about the aftermath and blood drying rather than it being spilt.
Karishma Dube’s Bittu stays with its charismatic lead for the entirety of her film, and it successfully shows us the world through her eyes.
Bittu doesn’t seem to like school very much, and her sassy mouth can get her in trouble with the teachers of the mountain school she attends. On this particular day at school, the adult seem rather frustrated and they are merely trying to get through the day to day routine. Bittu doesn’t seem to have much parental guidance and one of her closest friends makes fun of her and they end up fighting.
The short is based on a poisoning incident that happened in 2013, but it does not share any of the facts of that incident. Instead, Dube wants you to focus on Bittu’s childlike face–her dimples and her easy smile–rather than any danger she might come close to. With the action set against a Himalayan school, Bittu can see that the world is indeed very wide, and she needs to make her own way in it.
The Kicksled Choir
A father and son are on the precipice of their relationship in the Norwegian film, The Kicksled Choir. Dad is quiet and distant but the son is curious and wide-eyed. We don’t know what happened to the mother in this family unit, but a character says that she ran away from the father some time ago.
The son, Gabriel, has a desire to join the local choir who goes around town and asks for donations for the local refugee center. Gabriel’s friend has already auditioned and been accepted, but he is scared of his father’s temper. He witnessed his dad get into an altercation with a refugee man in the street and his father tossed him over an embankment into a river. Is it a clear prejudice or perhaps his father is hiding some emotional turmoil over his wife’s departure?
How does Gabriel help his father when the very people he wants to help is on the receiving end of so much rage and anger? Benoni Brox Krane has big eyes and a gentle demeanor and director Torfinn Iversen does a good job of striking Gabriel’s fear of his father’s actions into the audience. The script avoids going into schmaltzy and preachy territory by keeping the central conflict between father and son.
Kindness and the resilience of the human spirit are the heart of Doug Roland’s Feeling Through. When you meet someone you have never considered or met before, would you put yourself in their place to empathize with their situation? Told over the course of a cold, New York night, a young homeless man meets someone who will change his life forever.
Tereek (played by Steven Prescod) is just trying to find a place he can crash for the night. He can worry about tomorrow night tomorrow, but he needs to get away from the cold so he can get some sleep. His girl isn’t going to wait up for him and his buddy says he can’t stay with him. Tereek then runs into Artie (Robert Tarango), a deaf-blind man trying to get home. Artie is holding a sign explaining his situation and waiting for someone to pay him enough courtesy to help him.
As Tereek sits with Artie at the bus stop, they communicate by writing on one another’s palms. Feeling Through is a quiet, sweet film, and Roland doesn’t invade on their time together. He allows us to observe this beautiful connection between two strangers organically.
The Human Voice
Seeing Tilda Swinton shopping for an axe is a jarring image. With her huge sunglasses and her blue pantsuit, Swinton purchases the item and the clerk wraps it up like a piece of expensive meat or a bouquet of roses. The pairing of Swinton with director Pedro Almodovar (in his English language debut) is enough to celebrate as much as the colorful film itself. This version of The Human Voice is “freely based on Jean Cocteau’s play” but Almodovar’s fingerprints are all over this magnificent one-woman show.
The Human Voice has been adapted several times before–a 1966 version starred Ingrid Bergman and another version came out in 2019 starring Shelby Satterthwaithe–but there is a grandness to Almodovar’s interpretation, especially since it fits right into his oeuvre of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Swinton begins to unravel after her lover seemingly refuses to meet to end their relationship and she stalks around the apartment tossing sculptures, chugging wine, and downing pills.
Swinton doesn’t even need a scene partner or a physical actor (yes, she does have a gorgeous dog with her) to make the words alluring. The way she talks on the phone about desire and paying the price of being infatuated and in love is so, as her character says, intoxicating. Couple the flirtatious way Almodovar circles her and the production design, and you have a fierce contender on your hands. Who wouldn’t want to see Pedro pick up Oscar number two?
The refugee crisis is told in such a unique and powerful way for Tomer Shushan’s White Eye. Does your personal experience matter more than someone else’s and do you know what you would do if you compromise the safety of another person? Shushan’s film explores huge themes of humanity and regret with his impressive film, and it’s my personal favorite of the shortlisted ten.
Omer finds his stolen bicycle chained up outside the back door of a factory and he becomes a man possessed to get it back. The police tell him that he has no proof that belongs to him, and the new owner of the bicycle, a worker named Yunes, pleads with Omer that he needs the bike more than he does. The longer the situation persists, the more people get involved and everyone has an opinion of who truly owns the bicycle.
We sometimes don’t know how our actions can affect someone else until it is much too late. Shushan sometimes puts us in the hot seat, as if we had the opportunity to object to parts of the conversation. We are a bystander and sometimes feels like we are an accomplice. The camera almost never stops moving us towards the inevitable.
Who Is Going to Be Nominated?
A good rule of thumb when determining the winner of the Live Action Short category is how much it tugs at your heartstrings (see The Silent Child, The Phone Call, Helium). If a short can pull a strong emotional response from the viewer, it usually wins. There are some shorts with big talent so that always attracts voters’ eyes, but kids are also big in this category (Curfew, Shok, My Nephew Emmett) so you can’t assume they will gravitate towards a film solely about adults. Films not in the English language are always here. The predicted five:
1. The Human Voice
2. Feeling Through
3. The Letter Room
4. Two Distant Strangers