Movie Review ~ The 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

Dcera (Daughter) (Directed by Daria Kashcheeva)
Synopsis: In a hospital room, the Daughter recalls a difficult childhood moment when as a little girl she tried to share her experience with an injured bird with her Father.
Review: Oh boy, you know things are going to be a bit rough when the first shot of an animated film is a hospital room with a daughter keeping vigil at her father’s side.  By this point in my Oscar journey I’ve come to expect these animated shorts to be more than the traditional Mickey, Donald, or Chip ‘n Dale comic hi-jinks full of laughs but it’s always a cold shot of air when they are bleak from the jump.  While Dcera (Daughter) has some moments of beauty, it’s largely a somber tale of a daughter recounting her life being raised by her single father and how they failed to connect until it is too late.  The animation is in line with this messy, complicated relationship and I appreciated that director Daria Kashcheeva picked a tone and stuck with it through to the end.  All of us can remember a time when we missed the chance to find greater meaning in a moment with a parent or parental figure and Kashcheeva doesn’t let us forget how much that stings looking back.

Hair Love
(Directed by Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., & Bruce W. Smith)
Synopsis: An African-American father learns to do his daughter’s hair for the first time.
Review: There’s always one entry each year that I call the “creeper”.  Not because it’s got questionable social boundaries but because it has a way of lying in wait, ready to strike at your emotions when your defenses are at their most vulnerable.  Hair Love is crowned Creeper of the Year thanks to a late in the game shift that truly got me and got me good.  Based on director (and former NFL player) Matthew Cherry’s book of the same name, this follows an important morning when Zuri is trying to get her hair just right.  Her father, Stephen, tries to help but doesn’t have the right touch so the two turn to a familiar face for assistance.  At first, you may think you know where this is headed and even when it shifts gears it may feel like you’ve been led into some manipulative territory…but keep watching through the credits because the story keeps going on.  Full of joy and heart…exactly the kind of authentic spirited crowd-pleaser this category often lacks.

Kitbull
(Directed by Rosana Sullivan)
Synopsis: A fiercely independent stray kitten and a chained-up pit bull experience friendship for the first time.
Review: For a long time, those cute PIXAR shorts that played before their full-length features dominated in this category and now that production on these has slowed a bit there is space for what they are calling SparkShorts.  According to their website, these are “designed to discover new storytellers, explore new storytelling techniques, and experiment with new production workflows.” and while some can read that as “cheaper to produce” I prefer to look at it more like the indie unit of PIXAR animation.  It’s sort of like what Fox Searchlight was to 20th Century Fox (which, like PIXAR is owned by Disney) so while you likely won’t see these SparkShorts in front of Pixar’s upcoming Onward, you would see them pop up regularly on Disney+.  That’s how we wound up with Kitbull, a dark tale that isn’t quite kid friendly but still has a message of friendship that could benefit the more mature youth in your group.  If I tell you the film is about the strained relationship between a stray cat and a junkyard mutt used in dog fighting, would that instantly make you think it’s a feel-good film?  Well, miraculously it is and while I would absolutely not suggest this one to little tykes, parents that have a good feel for the sensitives of their children (and themselves) would likely be in for a good conversation after watching this one as a family.

Mémorable (Memorable)
(Directed by Bruno Collet)
Synopsis: Painter Louis and his wife Michelle are experiencing strange events. Their world seems to be mutating. Slowly, furniture, objects, and people lose their realism. They are “destructuring,” sometimes disintegrating.
Review: Reminding me more than just a little of last year’s somber Late Afternoon, this French offering is an insightful look into the gradual deterioration of a man suffering from a neurological disorder that robs him of his memory.  I don’t want to call it Alzheimer’s or dementia because the film doesn’t articulate it but it’s on that level, illustrated with startlingly clear examples as a painter slowly sees the world in less defined states.  While these types of downhill spirals can be a bit of a bummer to sit through, knowing the eventual outcome is never going to be great, there’s something special in this one that allows it to blossom rather than wilt.  I think it’s largely due to director Bruno Collet’s way of putting the disease into a tangible visual seen through the eyes of the painter.  At first we don’t quite notice the small shifts in perspective but by the time it’s evident what’s happening it’s too far gone to do anything to address it properly.  It’s a sad story but beautifully told.

Sister
(Directed by Siqi Song)
Synopsis: A man remembers his childhood and growing up with an annoying little sister in 1990s China. How would his life have been if things had gone differently?
Review: Arguably the entry that I had the most desire to want to reach out and touch, Siqi Song’s stop-motion felt animation requires some attention to narrative detail at the outset for audiences to truly grasp the final twist Song cleverly tucks away until the perfect moment.  As our narrator retraces his childhood in China with his younger sister by recounting some key adventures and trouble they found themselves in being highlighted, Song makes it less episodic than it can seem on the surface.  It may be signs of some storytelling problems that the finale is a bit confusing, though. While I understood what Song was going for in flipping our preconceived notions on their head, if you have to pause an eight minute film to remember key details you may have missed then maybe they weren’t delivered as clearly as they could have been to begin with.  Even so, this one wasn’t the most polished in terms of animation but for providing something different with an air of mystery around it, it had its share of stand-out elements.

Final Thoughts
: Again, not the strongest years for nominees in this category but unlike in previous ceremonies there are no outright head scratchers that are showing up, either.  Bolstered by three other highly regarded shorts (the long but oddly compelling Henrietta Bulkowski, the gorgeously realized The Bird and the Whale, and the fun Max Fleischer-esque comedy Hors Piste) that didn’t get nominated but were liked enough for Shorts TV to include them in the presentation, this is a fine group of nominees but nothing so drop your knickers amazing that there’s a definite winner in the bunch.  That being said, I found Hair Love to be exactly the kind of pro-everything kind of experience we need a heck of a lot more of nowadays and Mémorable to have the most beautiful realization of a thought/concept.  Never underestimate the power of PIXAR, though, and the rag-tag team of PIXAR folk that were assembled for Kitbull could propel that one to a win as well.  My money is on Hair Love, though.  I still can’t get it out of my hair, er, head.

 

Movie Review ~ The 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT

Brotherhood (Directed by Meryam Joobeur)
Synopsis: Mohamed is deeply shaken and suspicious when his estranged eldest son Malek returns home to rural Tunisia with a mysterious young wife in tow. The emotional complexities of a family reunion and past wounds lead to tragic consequences.
Review: It’s become more and more commonplace for the short films nominated in this category to go on to be expanded to full length features and of all the selections this year, Brotherhood seems the most likely candidate to get that tap on the shoulder. Montreal film director Meryam Joobeur wrote the script for her short film after seeing two of the three brothers at the center of this story while traveling through Tunisia and that random encounter has led to a small but mighty story of a family torn apart by ISIS.  I appreciated how Joobeur made the film less about the extremism that led to the rift and focused more on the people affected by it — should she want to build out these characters a bit more I don’t think she’d have any trouble finding a fairly compelling film.

Nefta Football Club
(Directed by Yves Piat)
Synopsis: In south Tunisia, two football fan brothers bump into a headphones-wearing donkey in the desert on the border of Algeria. Unaware that two men are waiting for the donkey and its hidden drug stash, the brothers take the animal back home with them.
Review: An important element to these films is focus, for the filmmakers and the audience, and Nefta Football Club struggled to hold my attention for long.  It’s a quirky little film that’s building to one joke that, while admittedly an unexpectedly pleasant way to end things, feels a bit too simple for the more laborious set-up it took to get there.  Two men are searching for a donkey saddled with drugs wearing headphones that are set to play a certain song the donkey has been trained to recognize as its signal to go home.  When the animal is discovered by two brothers, it sets into (brief) motion some (brief) comic foibles as one brother knows what the powder wrapped up tightly in sacks is while the other has different designs on it.  Director Yves Piet has some editing issues that fumbles the narrative slightly but those thinking they know how this will end based on similarly pitched films may be in for a surprise.

The Neighbors’ Window
(Directed by Marshall Curry)
Synopsis: The life of a middle-aged woman with small children is shaken up when two free-spirited twenty-somethings move in across the street.
Review:  We’ve all been in a situation where we have a peek into the windows of someone across the way that may not know we can see them.  Most of the time, it’s just a sleepy baby boomer eating cereal and reading the newspaper but for a NY couple in Marshal Curry’s The Neighbors’ Window they get much more. Alli (a brilliant Maria Dizzia) and Jacob are parents in their mid 30’s settling into a routine when the apartment facing them gets two new tenants just starting their lives together.  They have frisky sex, they host dance parties, they have dinners with friends, all under the watch of Jacob and, increasingly, Alli who begins to experience some kind of longing the more she looks through her binoculars at the lives of her neighbors.  Were the film just this, it may have been just a tired story of parents wishing they were young again but a twist from Curry puts the lives of both couples into perspective in important ways.

Saria
(Directed by Bryan Buckley)
Synopsis: Inseparable orphaned sisters Saria and Ximena are fighting against daily abuse and unimaginable hardship at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala when a tragic fire claims the lives of 41 orphaned girls.
Review: Inspired by a true story, Saria is maybe the toughest watch of all the Live Action shorts this year due to its tragic finale (that’s not a spoiler, per se) but it’s also one of the best offerings thanks to it’s propulsive forward motion, solid performances, and sharp editing.  Two sisters are living a hard-knock life in a South American orphanage where they scrub floors during the day between going to school and occasionally being farmed out to men for money.  It’s an impossible life and one that Saria (an excellent Estefanía Tellez) refuses to accept as the only future for her and her sister…so she plans an escape.  Director Bryan Buckley works wonders with an untrained group of actors (most of whom were from the orphanage where this was filmed) but perhaps moves too quickly through their brief rebellion and dives headfirst into the finale which is a bit confusing.  It comes up so fast and Buckley has hit the brakes with such force that it’s jarring.

Une soeur (A Sister)
(Directed by Delphine Girard)
Synopsis: An emergency services dispatcher must tap into all her professional skills when she receives a call from a woman in a desperate situation.
Review: It’s these taut little gems that really make me appreciate the short form narrative celebrated with nominations every year. Director Delphine Girard has offered up a breathless thriller that starts off telling one story and then goes back and shows us what’s really happening.  A man and woman are traveling in a car late at night and you can sense the tension in the air.  She wants to call her sister and tell her she’s going to be late.  The conversation she has with her sister is banal but we soon learn the person on the other line is not a blood relation but is just as vital to her in the current situation.  Like last year’s gripping Live Action short nominee Madre and 2013’s The Call, plenty of suspense is mined and you’ll likely find yourself gripping your seat and holding your breath as it moves toward its conclusion.  Should it be awarded the Oscar?  I’m not so sure because it plays perhaps a bit too much on the populist popcorn entertainment side of things but it definitely earns points for grabbing the audience from the start and not letting go.

Final Thoughts
: So what will win?  Hard to say because I can see this going a few different directions.  If the Academy voters want to see more of a filmmaker they are going to go with Brotherhood as a vote of confidence in what Meryam Joobeur will do next which may include a full length version of her short film.  For the short and sweet impact of the film itself, The Neighbors’ Window might be tantalizing, though in a year where the Oscars were criticized for its lack of diversity it might be odd for a short about well-off white NYCers to be the victor.  Then again, Saria‘s strong final impact may help it overcome its weaker elements.  I wasn’t that enamored with many of the Documentary or Animated shorts this year and the same could be said for Live Action but I think there are some opportunities for better endeavors later on from this crop of filmmakers.

 

Movie Review ~ The 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

Life Overtakes Me (Directed by John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson)
Synopsis: Hundreds of refugee children in Sweden who have fled with their families from extreme trauma in their home countries have become afflicted with Resignation Syndrome. Facing deportation, they withdraw from the world into a coma-like state, as if frozen, for months or even years.
Review: Available on Netflix, this documentary poses an interesting question surrounding refugee families awaiting uncertain citizenship decisions and their children who exhibit signs of a rare but growing condition.  While it doesn’t outright suggest the children are faking their symptoms, it doesn’t exactly shy away from the parallels between positive decisions on asylum and the sudden recovery of afflicted children with Resignation Syndrome.  I can’t say this one held me in its grasp for long (though at 39 minutes it’s one of the longest) because that nagging sense of doubt started to creep up more and more as the film progressed.  It doesn’t help the three families we meet are strikingly similar and don’t offer much in the way of tactile interest…there’s a curated sense of compassion at play here and between the chilly shots of frozen landscapes and a plodding pace it’s a surprisingly difficult film to warm up to.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl)
(Directed by Carol Dysinger)
Synopsis: Over the course of 15 years, a class of young girls from disadvantaged neighborhoods in war-torn Kabul, learn to read and write, and grow together in confidence through the joy of skateboarding.
Review: If Life Overtakes Me lacked something in the way of convincingly honest intent, this documentary more than makes up for it in looking at the students of Skateistan, a non-profit set-up with the goal to empower children around the world through skateboarding and education.  Focusing on the girls of the Skateistan school in Kabul, Afghanistan, this one takes a few minutes to get running which is precious time when you’re already working with short form filmmaking.  The ramp up proves to be worth it as we hear from the pre-teen girls talk about what getting an education means to them and, more importantly, hear from their mothers why they want their children to obtain the skills they were prevented from achieving.  It’s a little rough around the edges but when it gets into a groove it really soars.  It was especially moving to hear from the teachers in this school and the way they looked at their roles in providing an education.

In the Absence
(Directed by Seung-jun Yi)
Synopsis: When the MV Sewol ferry sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014, over three hundred people lost their lives, most of them schoolchildren. Years later, the victims’ families and survivors are still demanding justice from national authorities.
Review: The unimaginable tragedy that serves as the focus of In the Absence plays out almost in real time as we watch.  A ferry in South Korea carrying nearly 400 passengers runs into trouble and begins to sink.  As camera crews film and as those in charge drag their feet on making decisions to position themselves as saviors in the best possible light, the vessel sinks and hundreds of passengers that followed orders and stayed put in their cabins drowned while waiting to be rescued.  All of this is presented with startling clarity, largely without any editorializing – these were the facts as they happened and it was a disaster for all involved.  It’s tough stuff and listening to the parents still in shock all these years later as they demand answers from a government that deals in policies of silence and cover-ups, you’ll feel your blood boil as the tears well up.

Walk Run Cha-Cha
(Directed by Laura Nix)
Synopsis: Chipaul and Millie Cao reunited in 1980s Los Angeles after being separated by the Vietnam War. Forty years later, they become ballroom dancers to reconnect again and make up for lost time.
Review: A documentary produced for the New York Times popular OpEd series, this is one of the blessedly lighter toned subjects.  Audiences watching all five of the nominees in one sitting will likely find this small but slight bit of joy a nice reprieve from the darker offerings and I say more power to them.  This is a nice little look at the lives of a couple that met in Vietnam in the ’70s and reconnected in the ‘80s in California.  Through their love of ballroom dance, they leave the churn of the daily grind behind and discover a new rhythm to their relationship.  While the piece ends with a fairly lovely dance for the couple, I couldn’t help feel like one half of the couple was more invested in the dance than the other and was the driving force for their participation…but I’ll let you see it and decide for yourself.

St. Louis Superman
(Directed by Sami Khan & Smriti Mundhra)
Synopsis: Bruce Franks Jr., a leading Ferguson activist and battle rapper who was elected to the overwhelmingly white and Republican Missouri House of Representatives, must overcome both personal trauma and political obstacles to pass a bill critical to his community.
Review: Our political system is crying out for new voices and new perspectives and after spending some cinematic time with him I feel that Missouri representative Bruce Franks Jr. is the embodiment of that necessary change.  Though he doesn’t look like your typical suit-wearing politician, he’s making a difference in and for his community by calling youth violence the public health epidemic it is.  Pushing for a bill to recognize this, his drive is fueled by a loss close to home and a hope for the future he still has faith in when others may not.  All politicians should sit and watch this and find ways they can connect with their community the way Franks has with his, though a surprising epilogue is a strong reminder how fragile we all are to our own demons.

Final Thoughts
: Another tough year for documentaries with not a lot of sun on this side of the street.  My gut is leaning toward In the Absence; even though it has likely the hardest subject matter to watch unfold, it’s the first South Korean film to be nominated in this category (much like Parasite is the first South Korean film to be nominated for Best International Feature) and it’s well put together.  My personal favorites were St. Louis Superman and Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl) but if I’m being totally honest I didn’t find any to be quite on the quality level as in years past.  Too many came off like half-baked cuts of longer narratives and I wish there was more focus on consolidating a voice, a vision, a statement into this short-form style.  It leaves things too ambiguous when you have something important to say and leave your sentence trailing….right?