Ahhh, the shorts. With the three different categories of live action, documentary, and animation, the short film categories can make or break your Oscar ballot every year. Even though the Academy is slowly making strides for more inclusivity with its membership and winners, the shorts always represent a wide swath of artistry that trots all over the world.
According to The Academy’s website, an incredible 145 films qualified for this year’s Live Action Short shortlist, and that is down slightly from last year’s 174. This year’s list features a lot of yearning: to be free, to be loved, to be let go. Last year’s winner, Two Distant Strangers, took a fictional narrative of police brutality and twisted it into a time loop device to create a wholly original short film. Every entry on this list is strong, in my opinion, and they would all make worthy winners. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Les Grande Claques
Do you remember what you were like as a kid at Christmas? All I can remember is being awkward around my cousins and eating too much sugar. There is a melancholy humor surrounding Annie St-Pierre’s Les Grandes Claques (Like The Ones I Used to Know) short film, and you will recognize some holiday resentment even if you weren’t around in 1983. Ahhh, Christmas!
Denis doesn’t want to go to pick up his children, because they are attending a Christmas Eve party at his ex-wife’s parent’s house. There is too much familiarity, too much history, and, frankly, too much booze that gives everyone license to chatter away. His son shrieks that he doesn’t want to leave his mother’s side, and Denis feels the weight of the holiday season upon him. His daughter, Julie, observes more than her younger brother, and she has a striking resemblance to Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine.
The familiarity of the awkward holiday season will win audiences over, and there are some gorgeous shots of colored Christmas lights through foggy, slushy windows. St-Pierre manages her cast well–she lets them rip through the festivities with gusto, but she reminds us that while this can be the most wonderful time of the year, it can also be a lonely one for some.
Censor of Dreams
How much time do you think about your dreams once you wake up? Almost everyone has a friend or an acquaintance who mentions, ‘I had the craziest dream the other night…’ and then they unravel a fluid yarn about how ideas, fantasies, and images crash and segue into one another. When you are experiencing a huge loss or trauma, however, you might be afraid to go asleep. In Léo Berne and Raphaël Rodriguez’s Censor of Dreams, emotions take charge.
A weary team is trying to block the dark emotions from coming to the forefront of Yoko’s nightly imagination. They get a series of images come through, and they are tasked with changing how they look in order for them to not drag Yoko into a deeper depression when she wakes up. What Berne and Rodriguez do is introduce a setting that we have all seen before in a pseudo-workplace comedy, but they give Censor a dark and brooding edge in a film where the imagination has no bounds.
Censor is a key reminder that you cannot escape your own pain as much as you block it out. Your emotional truth will find you no matter how much you try to run from it. It’s so exciting and spontaneous.
When you are alone and you feel like you don’t deserve love, it can be a defeating mindset. When you have a spark of hope, it can become an obsession-fueled feeling. In Tadeusz Lysiak’s harrowing, The Dress, one woman puts herself on a path of romance, but is she ready to accept the ugliness of the world?
Julka is a maid at a rundown, Polish motel, and she spends her time just trying to get through the work day. Even though she has a friendship in her co-worker, Renata, Julka’s gaze falls mostly on the ground in front of her. Since she is a person of small stature, she doesn’t assume that romance is in the cards, but she starts flirting with Bogdan, a trucker who occasionally stays at the motel. Bogdan has a boyish charisma, and he and Julka make plans to have a drink together whenever he is back in town. “I don’t mind your height,” he tells her, and it gives Julka something to look forward to.
The Dress is a haunting film. Years of taunts about her height has given Julka a hardness that she needs to protect herself, and the performance from Anna Dzieduszycka (in her film debut, no less) makes Lysiak’s film all the more impressive. The world needs to be kinder, and even though there are some shocking, triggering moments, Lysiak directs his leading lady with empathy, precision, and power.
The Dress is available for a limited time through Short of the Week.
T’es morte Hélène (You’re Dead Helen)
How long do the dead hold onto grudges and feelings of love? Director Michiel Blanchart expertly mixes horror, the romantic comedy, and feelings of regret and longing in the surprisingly emotional, You’re Dead Helen. It’s one of the lighter entries on this shortlist, and the eye-catching title is enough to pique an audience’s curiosity.
The pangs of a long term relationship are the source of comedy in a lot of films, but I don’t recall any that feature a dead participant. Maxime is growing weary of Helen’s presence not because he is over her, but because she has passed on. She takes up seats in movie theaters and they can’t have conversations in restaurants without the other guests wondering why Maxime is talking to himself. When Maxime decides to go on a date with another girl named Clara, Helen is determined not to be left behind.
While there are amusing moments in this short, I was struck by how emotional the ending is. Blanchart isn’t just concerned with exploring the comedy or the horror, but he really drives the heart home. It’s truly an emotional genre-bender.
T’es morte Hélène (You’re Dead Helen) is available for a limited time through on Short of the Week.
Ala Kachuu – Take and Run
The flicker of promise of a young woman’s life is almost snuffed out in Maria Brendle’s disturbing story of scholarship hopeful who is kidnapped and sold into marriage. Ala Kachuu – Take and Run is the longest entry on this list (it come in at just under 40 minutes), but Brendle unfurls her story quickly with the help of her determined lead character
Sezim lives with her family in a small village, but she dreams of studying in the Kyrgyz capital despite her parents’ objections. A childhood friend, Aksana, encourages her to take a scholarship test anyway, and Sezim makes the choice to capitalize on her potential and curiosity. After she gets comfortable in the beginnings of a new life, a group of men storm into the bakery where she works and takes her back to the village to be married. Sezim is brave enough to make her feelings known every minute she is back in a place where women have no rights. The scene where they take her, literally kicking and screaming, to her wedding day is haunting.
Alina Turdamamatova, as Sezim, keeps you locked into this struggle, and you desperately want to give her a helping hand out. The women around her insist that she will find happiness with her husband and that “her tears will dry” like theirs did, but why should she settle?
The Long Goodbye
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve watched Aneil Karia’s incredible short, The Long Goodbye, but the imagery and freneticism hasn’t left me. With a devastating, personal central performance from Riz Ahmed, The Long Goodbye is essential viewing.
A British South Asian family is handling wedding preparations on a typical day. The girls are upstairs while Riz (played by Ahmed) is spending time with his younger cousin. Even though he sees a news report about spreading violence broadcast on the television, he doesn’t think anything of it. We see this every day, don’t we?
The violence hits home when Riz sees masked men toting assault rifles in the neighboring yards, and the men burst into his family’s home. It’s a tense, horrifying, and unsettling twelve minutes, and Karia doesn’t let up the entire time until Riz addresses the camera directly. There is power not in just his words, but in the tone of his voice–in the way the words spill out of his mouth and how he won’t keep them at a whisper. The violence against South Asians in Britain has only risen in the last two years. In case you missed it, we interviewed Karia and Ahmed about The Long Goodbye, and you can read it here.
The Long Goodbye is available on Riz Ahmend’s YouTube page.
Parents should always encourage their children to follow their passions, especially when there is a clear enthusiasm for it. In Nicolaj Kopernikus’ wonderful, Stenofonen, a young boy finds his salvation in the music he creates himself. It is a long journey.
Jørn is excited to go to camp, but his father refuses to let him take his violin along. Even though Jørn is expected to play for his friends, his father tells him, “you’ll make a fool of yourself…it’s amateurish.” It’s shocking to the point that you think that his father is playing a cruel joke, but Jørn spends so much of his young life wondering why his father keeps him at a distance. You don’t always get those answers that we so desperately need.
Jørn finds another way to channel his love for music, but his father is still not impressed. It leads him to live a life craving that approval and attention, and, sometimes, it can make you wonder if there is something wrong with you. Kids need love from their parents, but a lot of dads are reluctant to give it.
Kopernikus’ directs his young lead like a teacher showing him how to play an instrument. He can give them the right notes and the right guidance, but it’s up to the student to find the music. Stenofonen is an intimately triumphant story of finding the music yourself.
Imagine wanting to check into a hotel with your significant other just so you can have some privacy only to discover that you don’t have the freedom you think you have. In the taut, unsettling thriller, The Criminals, a young, Turkish couple discover that tradition will drive people to near violence.
Nazli and her boyfriend, Emre, just want to spend time alone. They can’t go back to the dorms, and Nazli’s mother keeps a close watch on her by calling her at the most inopportune moments. When they try to go to a hotel, they are turned away because they cannot produce a marriage certificate. When they try to get a room at another place, they enter separately, and the front desk clerk tells them that it’s regulation to scan their IDs and send them to the police. When Nazli and Emre finally get alone, it’s clear that they will not be able to spend an amorous night together.
The Criminals succeeds in how director Serhat Karaaslan brings in thriller elements like seeing footsteps under the door or the loud ringing of a telephone breaking the silence. When another character enters claiming to be hotel security, the vibe of the film feels very unpredictable, and you can’t help but be engrossed. It will sink its claws into you.
ISIS’ intimidation and control is seen through the eyes of 8 year old Tala in Murad Abu Eisheh’s accomplished, Tala’Vision. In a year where were have Belfast as a possible Best Picture winner, Tala’Vision would make an interesting parallel winner. Both stories feature children that see violence that they don’t quite understand.
Young Tala spends most of her time alone. Her father is in and out of the house, but she finds solace from the outside world with the television. She gets lost in the images of men playing soccer, but she is devastated when her father throws their television out the window. Eisheh was inspired to create this short film after he read an article in 2014 about ISIS destroying Syrian televisions.
Tala is not fully aware of the dangers outside her home, but she occasionally hears her father arguing about ISIS or she sees things when she peeks out the window. She is being raised to be afraid of the world beyond her home, and the only thing that can distract her is the warm glow of the television. When you are that young, you are more determined that others may think, and you can have one-track mind. Tala’Vision is a glimpse into how innocence is lost and how violence can find you even as you try to escape into your comforting shows.
We have all had those moments where a loud person has made us uneasy in public. Whether we are on a bus or in the lobby of a building, sometimes someone can have a random outburst, and we don’t know how to react. In Susan Béjar’s warm film, Distances, she poses the notion that we all have bad moments, and we all have the potential to find ourselves in dark places. We just need someone to turn on the light.
On a typical day during rush hour, a crowd of people sit silently on the metro as it putters along. Riders have their headphones in or read a book as they are trying to get to their daily lives. When a disheveled man steps aboard, people scatter away from him slowly, but one woman simply stays in her seat. Maria isn’t bothered by this man despite his yelling or insults. There is something in her eyes that acknowledges his pain, and she can dish out anything he indirectly tosses out.
There is a beautiful simplicity to Béjar’s short. I could remember instances in my own life where I should’ve shown a little more kindness or understanding, because someone I care about could find themselves in the shoes of the man who is looking for a connection. After the last few years, we all could use a little more understanding.
Lakutshon’ Ilanga (When the Sun Sets)
Feature length films could take a few lessons from Phumi Morare’s When the Sun Sets. Last fall, the director won a gold medal at the Student Academy Award, and it was also nominated at the 2021 BAFTA Student Awards. Morare is interested in telling stories from the female gaze, and if When the Sun Sets is any indication, we might be hearing her name a lot in the next few years.
When the Sun Sets focuses on Lerato, a nurse working in Apartheid South Africa in 1985 who is worried about the safety of her activist brother, Anele. There is a lot on her shoulders, and when Anele doesn’t show up on day, Lerato must take it upon herself to find him before he sees any new violence.
You cannot tear your eyes away from When the Sun Sets, because of how Morare frames history with her narrative. There is enormous weight to this film, and she expertly uses sound to heighten some of our other senses as Lerato’s desperation sets in. Morare also keeps things out of frame that we know are there or we know are happening, and that restraint shows us how connected she is with her audience.
Erick Lopez grounds the clever and devastatingly real Please Hold with his frustrated and angry performance. If they gave more awards to showings in shorts, Lopez would be a worthy entry.
Lopez plays Mateo Torres, a fast food employee on his way to work when a drone approaches him and his cell phone informs him that he is about to be arrested. There are no human police officers in sight, and Mateo is not informed of the crime that he allegedly committed. He is thrown in jail, but everything is automated. He has to cuff himself, answer questions on an automated screen in his cell, and he is left without any money in his bank account when he doesn’t read the fine print. There’s even a justice scale version of Clippy that needs punched in the face.
The harsh reality is that a lot of non-white people feel alone whenever they are targeted and placed in prison. There are virtually no other people in Please Hold other than Lopez. He is left alone, and he doesn’t have anyone to turn to for even the most basic questions. There are many advances to the criminal justice system shown in Kristen Davila’s film that streamline the process, but the wrong things are being fixed. Is this our inevitable future?
Under the Heavens
The silence is what I most noticed in Gustavo Milan’s Under the Heavens, a somber drama about a woman traveling the border between Venezuela and Brazil. The lead doesn’t speak many lines, but her eyes are watching so much.
Marta has left her newborn child with family in order to find work. After attempting to flag down a family in a small car, she hitches a ride in a truck with other people who might be doing the same thing as she is. She comes to the rescue by offering to breastfeed a young couple’s child, and her generosity extends to them in other ways. Some people might not be as giving as Marta is, but she seems to understand that everyone is struggling and she wants to help in any way she can.
Maybe Marta’s silence is a tool she uses to go undetected, but Milan has confidence in the understated performance from Samantha Castillo.
On My Mind
The Danish drama, On My Mind, might tug enough heartstrings to make the cut this year. I can see a lot of audiences responding to the simple story and the sly humor director Martin Strange-Hansen brings to his film.
Henrik steps into a bar on an early Tuesday afternoon for a drink. Obviously weary, he gets some sympathy from the flirtatious bartender, Louise, even though her boss, Preben, surly chain-smokes as he does the bar’s taxes. The guest orders a few drinks, but when his eyes fall upon the lonely karaoke machine, his face lights up. He requests to sing Elvis Presley’s ‘Always On My Mind’ much to Preben’s chagrin.
To reveal Henrik’s motive for wanting to sing the Presley tune would be a disservice to the film’s story even if you can sense where it might be going. Henrik’s heart is broken but big, and he just needs help getting through one of the hardest days of his life.
There are several films on this shortlist that promote the power of kindness, but On My Mind also succeeds because of the power of song. Like its lead character, it has a huge heart, and it’s a winning film with melancholy at its eager edges.
If an unplanned pregnancy threatened the life you had at home, how far would you go to course correct? Frimas is not your typical pro-choice film, because, in this world, abortion has recently been outlawed. With 11 states passing heartbeat bills, this is not a dystopian fantasy, but a realistic warning.
At the start of the film, a young woman named Kara is waiting for her ride on the side of the road. Even though we can feel the harsh wind blowing, we know she shivers from fear as well as the cold. A van pulls up and she climbs in the back as if instructed. She passes through hanging meat carcasses and makes her way to a shiny operating table. Kara has entered a mobile abortion clinic, and the procedure has to be finished because she or her doctors are discovered.
Marianne Farley makes us feel the danger and dread. It’s tempting to ask questions about how we arrived at this dreadful conclusion, but Frimas wants us to look inward and look at our representatives. With Roe v. Wade literally being threatened by a conservative Supreme Court, Farley isn’t afraid to show us what women will do in order to survive. Frimas is terrifying, and you should be scared.
Who Will Be Nominated?
There aren’t as many children in danger this year (phew!) like a few years ago. No, I won’t let that go. Those official nominees made for a super bleak viewing experience. The subjects of this year’s shortlisted films is quite varied and, like the documentary shortlist, it all depends on what the Academy is in the mood to watch.
Of all the films, I think the two that stick out the most are You’re Dead Helen and On My Mind. Even though the Academy doesn’t traditionally go for horror or romantic comedies, Helen benefits from being the most unlike the others, and it has an eye-catching title. Until last year, I didn’t know so many people came to this category with the logic that some voters don’t watch the films…they just look at the titles. In the same vein of last year’s nominated Feeling Through, On My Mind is one of the most feel-good, so I think it makes the cut.
The other three slots are trickier. Please Hold wraps its message in a pseudo-sci-fi presentation, and it’s very unique. Frimas feels so incredibly urgent, and the same goes for The Long Goodbye. Unlike the Tilda Swinton fronted The Human Voice last year, the substance of Goodbye outweighs the kind of style that Pedro Almodovar was doing so well in his film.
I can see audiences being touched by Stenofonen and Les Grandes Claques, but you might want to also consider the prestige of Tala’Vision and Ala Kachuu.
My gut reaction:
The Long Goodbye
On My Mind
You’re Dead Helen
Watch out for:
Ala Kachuu- Take and Run
When the Sun Sets