Movie Review ~ The 2021 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated



This category always manages to surprise me because of the range of tone and animation styles. While the other shorts categories can sometimes feel like they are checking off boxes to meet particular criteria, you never know quite what you’re going to get when the animated shorts come your way. Sure, now that PIXAR has moved into their Sparkshorts realm and is releasing a decent number of them you can rest assured they’ll start to feature heavily here but I’m not so sure they’ll dominate this category like they continue to do in Best Animated Feature. At least not this year.

Burrow (Directed by Madeline Sharafian)
A young rabbit embarks on a journey to dig the burrow of her dreams, despite not having a clue what she’s doing. Rather than reveal to her neighbors her imperfections, she digs herself deeper and deeper into trouble.
This year’s Sparkshorts nominee from PIXAR was one I had already seen and thought was quite delightful, a cheeky little bit of fun following a rabbit that only wants to make a little home for herself but can’t seem to find the right place that’s also unoccupied. The more she tries for perfection, the worse she makes things for herself until she threatens to upend the balance of the community for everyone. As with the best PIXAR film, there’s a message here about working with others and the benefit of community in reaching your goals; working solo might be your mission but it might not be the wisest choice. With at least one eyebrow raising sequence, it’s not 100% kid friendly but they’ll probably blink and miss this quick moment.

Genius Loci (Directed by Adrien Merigeau)
One night, Reine, a young loner, sees among the urban chaos a moving oneness that seems alive, like some sort of guide.
The animation in director Adrien Merigeau’s French language Genius Loci is fairly arresting, often showing the seams and lines used to produce the hand-drawn visuals and I wish the storyline were half as interesting as the look of the work. Deliberately surreal, the film follows a woman who seems detached from her daily life and also unsure of her place in the world. A nighttime flight of fancy takes her into a cityscape that welcomes her with a swirl of conceptual animated renderings, at times feeling like Merigeau and his team were using this as more of a demo/calling card showing their range of style than constructing a cohesive plot. Merigeau was an animator with the studio that gave us the Oscar nominated The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea and you can see that inspiration in some of the visuals, but it’s not enough to make the obtuse majority of Genius Loci shift into a focus worthy of an Oscar.

If Anything Happens I Love You
(Directed by Michael Govier & Will McCormack)
Grieving parents struggle with the loss of their daughter after a school shooting. An elegy on grief.
I went back and forth about including the detail about the school shooting in the synopsis because I was wondering if it was better not knowing this detail going into Michael Govier and Will McCormack’s (Toy Story 4) immensely moving animated short. In the end, I decided to keep it in so you can decide for yourself if this is one you’ll be able to take (especially parents or educators) as it’s a highly effective and mature depiction of loss and grief related to an unthinkable tragedy. The animation is simple but the impact is mighty, maybe even stronger the second time I watched it. Through objects around the house and even damage done to walls, two parents that have drifted apart after their young daughter dies are reminded of the life their child led. The happy times come back like a comforting wave but are followed by the memory of the devastating event that robbed them of her future. It’s almost a miracle the story doesn’t sink under the weight of its melancholy and refuses to go totally maudlin or political. Mostly, it’s just a reminder of how lasting grief can often do more damage than the original inciting event.

(Directed by Erick Oh)
The history, structures and rhythms of human history are seen through a glorious, massive pyramid. Written and directed by award-winning filmmaker and former Pixar animator Erick Oh, OPERA is an animation project that can be defined as a contemporary animated edition of the Renaissance fresco mural paintings.
Now this is one short that I find no review could do justice to. You sort of just have to see Opera and experience it for yourself. I will say this, I’m glad I was able to watch it at home so I had the option of rewinding it and/or watching it over again because there is so much detail going on in Erick Oh’s masterful work that you’ll be tempted to explore it more. As the camera slowly pans down a gigantic pyramid that shows the life cycle of human history (including creation, birth, love, work, war, death and so many many many more events) our eyes dart around trying to take it all in and being completely unprepared to do so. There’s simply not enough time to absorb all that is happening and I could see this being a coffee table book in some form, allowing further dissection over a longer period of time. I would love to see this one on a huge screen so the finer details could jump out even more.

(Directed by GÍsli Darri Halldórsson)
Synopsis: One morning an eclectic mix of people face the everyday battle, such as work, school and dish-washing. As the day progresses, their relationships are tested and ultimately their capacity to cope.
Review: Seems to me that Iceland had a fairly good year at the Oscars, what with Yes-People snagging a nomination here and “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga also landing a nod for Best Original Song. That being said, the song has a far greater chance to win at the ceremony than this short which is just fine but nowhere near on the same level as several of the other nominees. Actually, it’s sort of unsettling the way these strange people from a small village apartment complex are animated, all either grumbling, bumbling, or stumbling through their day without speaking any real dialogue. It’s all very Nordic and likely went over like gangbusters in its native country but here there is some humor lost in the translation (of tone) and with the stop-motion animation feeling like it’s from fifteen years ago, the whole of Yes-People comes across as dated.

Final Thoughts
: A mix of styles populate our nominees this year but as is often the case, emotion will win out over everything and that’s why I’m calling If Anything Happens I Love You the easy winner in this category. Not only has it been well-received since its debut on Netflix in 2020 (even better than feature Oscar contenders like the no-buzz Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) but it plucks at the heartstrings without going overboard and I think voters will appreciate that. You can count Yes-People and Burrow out, as neither rise to the necessary volume to gain a foothold over their stronger competition. I could see some love going toward Genius Loci for its out of the box animation and contemporized devil-may-care approach to narrative storytelling but can’t honestly see a voter watching it and finding it more deserving than If Anything Happens I Love You. That leaves Opera which is a pretty genius piece and has Oh’s PIXAR cred as a bolster, though it’s eight minutes of relative silence that many older voters will probably be WTH-ing through. This category feels like an easy one to call.

Movie Review ~ The 2021 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action



In the past few years, this category has been growing slightly more uneven but these five nominees were unusually off-kilter this year, only one stuck out like a sore thumb as truly bad, though. I purposely didn’t read any synopsis about the films first so I could be surprised by what they were about, just in case the summary spoiled any secrets. Reading the brief descriptions of them while putting this post together, I made sure to edit out anything that might give away too much. Consider the synopsis provided and my review spoiler-free.

Feeling Through (Directed by Doug Roland)
A late-night encounter on a New York City street leads to a profound connection between a teen-in-need and a DeafBlind man.
One of the last trips I made before this pandemic set in was the NYC and it was such a wonderful trip, I keep it and the city as it was then alive in my memory as best as I can. Watching Feeling Through made me remember the out of the way, non-tourist-y places of the city, the neighborhoods that give the city it’s most charming ambiance, and that’s where we meet a young man texting a number of his friends looking for a place to crash. The night is getting late, the friends he’s hanging out with are heading home, and he’s either too proud to tell them about his situation or doesn’t feel he can ask again. Randomly, he sees a man waiting on a curb holding a sign…and that’s where a small wonder of an adventure begins. Director Doug Roland’s film is perhaps a bit of a candy-coated, rose-colored glasses version of what the same situation might be 8 out of 10 other times but the quickly developed interchange between the two men and what both gain from their time together is easy to jump on board with. I always look for which of the live action shorts would lend itself well to a longer format and this one I could totally see expanding to feature length if handled with the same kind of care and compassion.

The Letter Room (Directed by Elvira Lind)
When a corrections officer is transferred to the letter room, he soon finds himself enmeshed in a prisoner’s deeply private life.
Previous years have had familiar names and recognizable faces in the cast of these shorts but finding a star like Oscar Isaac (The Addams Family) turn up in a compact piece such as The Letter Room took some getting used to. Isaac is playing a prison officer guarding inmates of all security levels but friendly with a number of death row convicts. His request to transfer to a desk job with more human resources work leads to him the unexpected assignment of being a one-man band in the titular room. Day after day, he has to open the mail that arrives for prisoners, scan it for the system, skim it for content, and then pass it on if it doesn’t violate any protocols. Of course he eventually blurs the line between his job and the letters he’s reading, eventually crossing a line that changes his perspective on the task he’s been given. Isaac’s character is, let’s just say it, kind of creepy and the film never addresses this as a problem and that bothered me. He does things that are clearly out of line but writer/director Elvira Lind takes giant steps to not judge this man that maybe could use a little judgement. When you find out that Lind and Isaac are married in real life, the whole project begins to make sense…and it made me feel like the short was nominated for all the wrong reasons. It’s a poorly executed “pat myself on the back for being so noble” exercise and it’s without question the weakest of the bunch.

The Present
(Directed by Farah Nabulsi)
On his wedding anniversary, Yusef and his young daughter set out in the West Bank to buy his wife a gift. Between soldiers, segregated roads and checkpoints, how easy would it be to go shopping?
One thing I’ve come to learn about these shorts is that you need to be ready to jump in no matter where the director drops you off and be prepared to not ask too many questions about the final destination and that helps a lot with The Present, set in the West Bank near Jordan. The first few minutes of the film feel a bit overwhelming, with Palestinian-British director Farah Nabulsi introducing lead actor Saleh Bakri amongst a throng of Palestinians retuning home in the middle of the night through one of the difficult checkpoints. The next morning, Bakri’s character takes another arduous journey with his angelic daughter in order to buy groceries and pick up a gift he’s secured for his wife as an anniversary present. Nabulsi tracks father and daughter’s tense trek into dangerous territory quite effectively, coaxing out the small details in each performer. It’s a rather simple tale, true, and yet it will likely have you on the edge of your seat when the pair come up to a security stop, first as they go to pick up the present and then again as they return when everyone is tired and feelings are running high.

Two Distant Strangers
(Directed by Travon Free & Martin Desmond Roe)
Cartoonist Carter James’ repeated attempts to get home to his dog are thwarted over and over again.
I’ve deliberately edited the synopsis for this short way down because it gave away a key bit of info about the piece that I think would ruin a fairly significant surprise if it hadn’t already been spoiled for you. As I mentioned before, I avoided reading anything about the shorts prior to watching them so was able to experience Two Distant Strangers without that knowledge and I’d advise you to try your hardest to do the same.
I feel as if Two Distant Strangers is going to be the #1 favorite of voters or could end up last on their list, depending on where they are in their process of understanding the impact of this last year and the reckoning our country went through related to police violence. Either way, it’s going to spark an emotion and that will keep it front and center in the memory of many, not to mention that it’s readily available on Netflix and has been talked about since it premiered on the service. I have some questions on the taste level at times in the way the writers and directors weave familiar news stories of police violence into the plot almost as a gimmick for entertainment, and that will likely be something that gets under the skin of its detractors as well. If the acting isn’t as strong as the other entries (some significant performances are merely serviceable), it must be said that it remains a slick film with a frighteningly timely message.

White Eye
(Directed by Tomer Shushan)
Synopsis: A man finds his stolen bicycle, which now belongs to a stranger. While attempting to retrieve it, he struggles to remain human.
Review: While a number of the films nominated in this category have pristine production values, White Eye is a bit rough around the edges and more’s the better for it. Shot in one continuous (and impressive) take, director Tomer Shushan’s gripping drama takes viewers through a situation that rapidly escalates out of control, eventually spiraling into something bigger than anyone involved could have imagined. A young man thinks he has found his bicycle that was stolen weeks before chained up on a street corner of a rough neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Determined to get his bike back, the man calls the authorities even as the migrant worker who claims he bought the bike earlier that week protests he is innocent. While many of these “one shot” movies like to make a show out of the gimmick, Shushan makes the plot and the characters the focus, so you wind up not even noticing it’s all being done in an uninterrupted take. Keeping all of the central action going is one thing but if you think of it, watch what’s going on with the background players because there’s a storyline happening there as well. Capped off by a finale that is perplexing and devastating in the same breath, White Eye signals Shushan is a director to watch out for in the future.

Final Thoughts
: Considering the year we’ve had and the way our country has responded to the Black Lives Matter movement, I can easily see the votes swaying toward Two Distant Strangers which covers some of these issues (albeit with a questionable taste level) but really drives its message home with a final crawl displaying stark facts about BIPOC deaths involving police. It isn’t the best film of the pack (that’s probably White Eye, technically and narratively) and a win wouldn’t signify anything but Hollywood essentially saying “we hear you”, however the emotional prickle the short leaves with viewers will likely sway the votes. The worst case scenario is if The Letter Room wins…not just because it’s bad (really bad) but because it would clearly be a case of voters going for a familiar face.

Movie Review ~ The 2021 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary



Oh, how I’ve come to love this category. Documentaries have always been a favorite of mine and once I started to become an Oscar completist, looping in these Documentary Shorts unlocked another level of insight into subjects that may not be meaty enough to fill out a feature length endeavor but can achieve a great power in a brisk run time. However, I’ve noticed that “short” is starting to feel more like “expedient” and that isn’t the same thing and a few of the films this year felt like they were in a gray space between short and feature length and were forced to be trimmed to qualify in this category. Cohesion is beginning to get sacrificed and I’m having trouble easily finding the narrative thread…or at least the general concept.

Colette (Directed by Anthony Giacchino)
Resistance took courage in Nazi-occupied France. 75 years later, facing one’s ghosts may take even more.
If given the choice, I prefer to get any documentary about Holocaust out of the way first because I know it will take an emotional toll on me and this short on survivor Colette Marin-Catherine was the first one I crossed off my list. A moving study of the 90-year old who fought in the French resistance and hasn’t been back to Germany since making a pledge never to return after her brother was killed in a concentration camp, Colette could bend under the weight of its sentimentality but refuses to wallow in any sort of sadness. As Colette travels to Germany with a young student that has been researching her life, there are many emotional milestones met and the expected bouts of unbearable sadness at confronting the site of such terrible acts of horror. Colette is so matter-of-fact in her way of speaking and director Anthony Giacchino is almost resolute in not allowing his film to become just about re-opening old wounds, that the short is more about moving through the pain of the past and into healing.

A Concerto is a Conversation (Directed by Kris Bowers & Ben Proudfoot)
Synopsis: A virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Every year I tend to forget that The New York Times produces a great series of documentaries available on YouTube (Op-Docs) and really I have no business letting this slip my mind seeing how often they wind up getting nominated for an Oscar. This year the nominee is this super short piece on Kris Bowers (who also co-directed), a jazz-pianist readying a new concerto while at the same time speaking to his terminally ill grandfather, a self-made business owner, about how he made a life for himself during a period of civil unrest and systemic racism. Using the documentary format to retrace the history of his family, Bowers has a dynamite subject in his amiable grandfather but their “conversation” comes in the form of both men speaking direct to camera…so it feels like they are connecting with us but not each other.

A Love Song for Latasha
(Directed by Sophia Nahli Allison)
: A dreamlike portrait of a vibrant 15-year-old girl whose shooting death sparks the 1992 L.A. Riots.
After spending the last year watching the video of George Floyd being murdered by the now convicted police officer Derek Chauvin (not to mention countless other similar videos) over and over again on the news, I guess you could say it was a small relief not to have the video of the 1991 shooting death of Latasha Harlins shown in a similar fashion during director Sophia Nahli Allison’s documentary A Love Song for Latasha. The murder of the teen was a catalyst for the uprising in LA and her death is an important part of a lengthier story to be told, but without any other footage of Latasha to show, Allison’s film is filled with incongruous images and animation that don’t achieve the type of impact I felt this life warranted. The ‘love song’ of the title is related to viewers as an obtuse interpretation of Latasha’s life and dreams up until that point but somehow it was never able to paint in picture in my mind or, sadly, heart.

Do Not Split
(Directed by Anders Hammer)
The story of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, told through a series of demonstrations by local protestors that escalate into conflict when highly armed police appear on the scene.
Here’s a prime example of what I was talking about in my opening paragraph — a documentary that lacks cohesion because of its editing and lack of context. To understand where this short is coming from you need to have some (actually, quite a lot) of understanding on the conflict between Hong Kong and mainland China and the protests that boiled over in 2019. For most of director Anders Hammer’s film, the scenes are just a randomly assembled jumble of protests, on-screen facts, interviews with heavily masked/concealed fighters for the cause, and it’s all hard to follow — even if you are aware of what was happening there. To a viewer, all we’re seeing is people running toward armed police who shoot tear gas at them, only to turn around and run away. Little extra is added beyond that and when the protestors eventually barricade themselves away from the police and start fires, images of a modern day Les Misérables began to dance in my head. It was only when the events began to get to more recent months that Hammer found some meter to it all, and that’s mostly because the pandemic stymied the protests from returning, though they had ceased long before the world was in global lockdown having seen the writing on the wall concerning COVID-19. Truth be told, the film lost my interest even further back.

Hunger Ward
(Directed by Skye Fitzgerald)
Synopsis: Filmed from inside two of the most active therapeutic feeding centers in Yemen documenting two female health care workers fighting to thwart the spread of starvation against the backdrop of a forgotten war.
Review: Every year it feels like there is one documentary or documentary short that is almost painfully hard to watch and Hunger Ward is by far the toughest sit of the nominees this round. Detailing the epidemic of the childhood famine in Yemen, director Skye Fitzgerald (previously nominated in this category in 2018 for Lifeboat) follows a doctor and a nurse in two different hospitals treating malnourished children. Poverty, overpopulation, and the devastation of war has left the children suffering the consequences and Fitzgerald and his crew don’t spare viewers an up close look at their tiny weak bodies, sunken chests, and hollow cheeks. In two excruciating scenes, we watch as hospital staff try (and fail) to revive children as their families cry howling sobs around them and in the halls. It would be easy for Fitzgerald to give the mourners some space or the staff who are also deeply affected by each loss room to mourn as humans must…but he keeps his camera focused and following so we aren’t spared the luxury of looking away. While not an eye-opening film if you’ve kept up on current events, hopefully it doesn’t allow people in power the chance to blink in the face of opportunities to make a difference.

Final Thoughts
: This one could go many different ways and so I’m torn, honestly. Sadly, I feel like we have to cross Hunger Ward off the list because I don’t think voters will watch the film due to its subject matter. I also think Do Not Split can definitely be counted out seeing that it’s weaker when compared to all the other entries, I’m honestly surprised this landed in the top selections when looking at potential nominees that were passed over. If we were voting ten years ago, I might hedge some bets on Colette due to the subject matter and emotional appeal of the voting body but am more inclined to say that A Love Song for Latasha and A Concerto is a Conversation will have a greater hold over this new Academy which grows more diverse year over year. A Love Song For Latasha could stand out because of the politicized nature of the last year and the protests we’ve seen surrounding Black Lives Matter; her story has seeds of that movement that voters may want to reward. On the other hand, A Concerto is a Conversation feels like a solid choice for its examination of race through an intergenerational lens and also because it doesn’t resort to easy theatrics to elicit an emotional reaction from its audience.