Movie Review ~ The 2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary


I’d say that traditionally, this is my favorite category each year. It was my gateway into wanting to watch every Oscar-nominated film and realizing it was possible with a little extra effort. My category let me down a bit this year because these aren’t the strongest selections. In fact, I’m not sure I’m in love with any of them enough to be actively invested in which wins. Though I am thankful once more for the range of topics (now there’s only one nominee that’s directly related to a war of some kind), I wonder what tiny films were passed over for these mostly unremarkable entries. Don’t get me wrong; there are a few here you’ll want to check out, a definite winner and one I absolutely don’t want to win…but I didn’t feel I learned as much this year as I have in the past.

Haulout (Directed by Evgenia Arbugaeva, Maxim Arbugaev)
Synopsis: On a remote coast of the Siberian Arctic, in a wind-battered hut, a lonely man waits to witness an ancient gathering. But warming seas and rising temperatures bring an unexpected change, and he soon becomes overwhelmed.
Watching these shorts at home is a great benefit; honestly, it’s important to see them in whatever format is available to you.  However, certain shorts definitely would benefit from being seen projected on a massive screen, and Haulout is the one title across all three shorts categories that I would have loved to see in theaters.  Its scale is astounding, showing a man in a small Artcitc shack at Cape Heart-Stone in the Chukchi Sea who prepares every year for the ‘Haulout’ of migrating walruses desperate for land to rest due to the decrease in ice formations.  His task is to count (estimate?) their numbers and then tally the dead left behind when the event is over.  Shot by the man and his unseen wife, it’s a staggering short that again puts the effects of global warming into perspective.

How Do You Measure a Year? (Directed by Jay Rosenblatt)
For 17 years, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt filmed his daughter Ella on her birthday in the same spot, asking the same questions. What results is a unique chance to watch time, to see a young woman come into focus physically, mentally and emotionally.
Nominated just last year for the controversial When We Were Bullies, director Jay Rosenblatt is back in the race again with How Do You Measure a Year? his even more personal project involving his daughter Ella.  Starting with her 2nd birthday, Rosenblatt asked Ella the same series of questions and documented her answers, and put the footage away until she turned 18.  The result is an insightful progression of a child from a toddler into a young adult with the expected rough areas along the way.  As with his previously nominated film, this one cannot help but come off as somewhat self-indulgent, feeling like Rosenblatt might get rewarded for what’s essentially a home movie.  Still, watching the years fly by in a matter of minutes is undeniably fascinating.

Stranger at the Gate
(Directed by Joshua Seftel)
From Executive Producer Malala Yousafzai. After 25 years of service, a US Marine filled with hatred for Muslims plots to bomb an Indiana mosque. When he comes face to face with the immigrants he seeks to kill, the story takes a shocking twist toward compassion, grace, and forgiveness.
Hm.  I don’t know what to say about this one.  I found Stranger at the Gate to be the weakest of all the nominees and a head-scratcher that it even made the shortlist.  It’s pat-on-the-back cinema, finding a redneck jarhead with pride for his country deciding to bomb a local Islamic mosque…and then not going through with it once he meets the people that go there.  I kept waiting for Joshua Seftel to pull back some astounding discovery that would make the emotional journey (that everyone being interviewed clearly went through) into something notable, yet the short simply sits there.  The final message we’re left with is to get to know the people you think you don’t like before you make up your mind. It might bear repeating on some scale, but is it worth this large and clumsy of a platform?

The Elephant Whisperers
(Directed by Kartiki Gonsalves)
The Elephant Whisperers follows an indigenous couple as they fall in love with Raghu, an orphaned elephant given into their care, and tirelessly works to ensure his recovery and survival.
This documentary, currently available on Netflix, follows a couple in South India that works in Mudumalai National Park caring for orphaned/abandoned elephants, nursing them back to health so they can be integrated back with the elephant population on their protected land.  The obvious cute factor is a majorly at play here. Still, director Kartiki Gonsalves doesn’t let the undeniable tenderness of the elephants and their caregivers overtake their profile of the dedicated work being done.  Small glimpses into the couple’s personal lives (Gonsalves is there to document their beautiful wedding ceremony) are touched on. Slivers of how their outside life influences their work with the elephants are key to understanding why they are so successful.  Bring Kleenex for this one.

The Martha Mitchell Effect (Directed by Anne Alvergue, Debra McClutchy)
Synopsis: She was once as famous as Jackie O. And then she tried to take down a President. The Martha Mitchell Effect is an archival documentary portrait of the unlikeliest of whistleblowers: Martha Mitchell, a Republican cabinet wife whom the Nixon Administration gaslighted to keep her quiet. It offers a female gaze on Watergate through the woman’s voice.
Review: The Julia Roberts-Sean Penn limited series Gaslit, based on the life of Martha and John Mitchell, came and went without much incident in 2022, and as much of a fan of Roberts as I am, I admit I also skipped it because I wasn’t into the politics of it all.  After watching this fascinating documentary, I’m far more inclined to add Gaslit back into my watch queue because Martha was the kind of spitfire who kept people on their toes, if not always on their best behavior.  Unknowingly becoming a key pawn in the Watergate scandal, Mitchell turned the game around and refused to be a throwaway piece of a larger puzzle.  This profile of the woman doesn’t cover as much of the entirety of her life but slices off a chunk of her political involvement; however, what’s there is incredibly (ful)filling.

Final Thoughts:  For entertainment value, The Martha Mitchell Effect will give you the most bang for your buck.  That one and The Elephant Whisperers are both available on Netflix, which might tell you how both tend toward the more commercially appealing selections.  I found both to be rousing watches, slickly made, but not the kind of compelling winner you want to root for.  How Do You Measure a Year? felt like a home movie that somehow found its way into the hands of the right Academy voters — it honestly doesn’t belong here at all.  I also think Stranger at the Gate shouldn’t be here either; it’s an unconvincing examination of an event that was planned to happen and then didn’t.  The lesson learned from it feels too arbitrary and oft-told to be impactful.  That leaves Haulout, which becomes more powerful the longer I think about it.  Even though it’s a Russian title, it would be unfair to hold that country of origin against the filmmakers who have assembled a nearly wordless short that speaks volumes about the climate change affecting wildlife.

Movie Review ~ The 2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated


Taking a page from the Guillermo del Toro playbook, I’ll tell you the feeling that animation is just for children is archaic. One need only look at this diverse group of 2023 nominees for Best Animated Short to see the range of offerings, not just in the medium but in the voices of the creators and the audiences they are speaking to. Each short is a 180-degree shift from its predecessor, giving the viewer a kaleidoscope of colors and ideas to sift through. No, you’re not going to love all of these, but each brings its point of view to the forefront quickly with excellent ease.

An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It (Directed by Lachlan Pendragon)
Synopsis: When a mysterious talking ostrich confronts a young telemarketer, he learns that the universe is stop-motion animation. He must put aside his dwindling toaster sales and focus on convincing his colleagues of his terrifying discovery.
This stop-motion animation entry is a real treat.  Capturing the mundanity of the daily office grind with a meta-statement of the corporate work environment is quite on the money.  That it’s also funny with sharp wit is almost a bonus.  Visually a feast for the eyes (you’ll likely want to make yourself available to watch it twice to catch all of the nuances) and nicely molded into its short package, keep your eyes on this director for future work. 

Ice Merchants (Directed by João Gonzalez)
Every day, a father and his son jump with a parachute from their vertiginous cold house, attached to a cliff, to go to the village on the ground, far away, where they sell the ice they produce daily.
In past years, I’d read the descriptions of the shorts before I sat down to watch, but this year I opted to go in blind.  That helped in some cases and put me a little behind in others.  Ice Merchants is one title that takes a little bit to latch onto, but when you do, it becomes a momentously rewarding endeavor that’s coupled with pristine hand-drawn animation.  It’s also surprisingly suspenseful, leading me actually to gasp a few times.  By the end, I was consumed by a different emotion entirely.  This is an inventive, sensitive, wonderful short.

My Year of Dicks
(Directed by Sara Gunnarsdóttir)
An imaginative fifteen-year-old is stubbornly determined to lose her virginity despite the pathetic pickings in the outskirts of Houston in the early 90s. Created by Pamela Ribon from her critically-acclaimed memoir.
Chuckle chuckle chuckle, yes, the title makes everyone giggle, and it’s maybe funny enough for voters in your office pool to check off just because it’s the most obvious choice.  True, this short, based on Pamela Ribon’s memoir, is about her experience trying to lose her virginity and the men in her life that weren’t the best candidates for the job.  Told in five chapters employing distinct animation styles, it’s a pleasant watch and by far the most adult-oriented entry in this crop.  It has the most distinct voice of the nominees, and that could either be a stroke of good luck for voters setting out to reward clarified points of view or deter others unable to relate.  

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse
(Directed by Peter Baynton, Charlie Mackesy)
Based on the book of the same name; a story of kindness, courage, and hope in traditional hand-drawn animation, following the unlikely friendship of the title characters as they journey in search of the boy’s home.
I’d been watching a lot of content on AppleTV+ lately and therefore had fallen victim to early buzz for The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse.  I don’t want to say that I unfairly set the bar high for it, but it seemed like I already knew what I was about to see before this nicely made but totally inert short began.  Filled with so many anachronistic statements you’d think the writers raided a fortune cookie factory, it’s obviously a great title for parents to throw on for kids…and then leave the room because much of it is so overly sugar-soaked you may gag. 

The Flying Sailor (Directed by Amanda Forbis, Wendy Tilby)
Synopsis: In 1917, two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, causing the largest accidental explosion in history. Among the tragic stories of the disaster is the remarkable account of a sailor who, blown skyward from the docks, flew a distance of two kilometers before landing uphill, naked and unharmed. The Flying Sailor is a contemplation of his journey.
Review: Based on a true story, when The Flying Sailor began, I was briefly excited by the cheery animation (once again, each nominee this year represents a unique style) introducing a jolly sailor in a Halifax seaport.  Then…things got weird.  Like, naked weird.  No problems with nudity here, but there’s just a lot of dangling animated dong on display in the telling.  Surrealism is appreciated, but it quickly grows ponderous and repetitive.  Once a point is made, it doesn’t need to be restated repeatedly; once that happens, the audience starts to drift.

Final Thoughts
: If we’re going with my personal favorite, I’ll say that Ice Merchants is pretty and terrific (and pretty terrific).  Not only is it beautiful to look at, even with a limited color palette, but it’s structured and designed with the same type of big swing emotions and high stakes we miss in our studio blockbusters.  That you have to work a little harder at the beginning to worm your way into the story makes the finale all the more poignant.  Second place was An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake, and I Think I Believe It for pure ingenuity and charm, and then My Year of Dicks for being the most direct with its voice and on-target humor.  Speaking of the male organ, The Flying Sailor‘s animation is pleasing to the eye, even with the copious amounts of hand-drawn dingus.  The one I actively do not want to win, noble intentions aside, is The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse.  That kind of unrelenting emotional inwardness is fine for the written page where it came from, but the film is unbearably goopy.

Movie Review ~ The 2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action


This category often acts as a first-look testing ground for short films that will inspire full-length features. While I usually like warming up to the nominees that feel like a more singular, contained effort, my favorite Live Action Short Film of 2023 is the one I’d like to see expanded on. A few choices in this group could make an intriguing movie; uniformly, it’s one of the stronger years for the category.

An Irish Goodbye (Directed by Tom Berkeley, Ross White)
Synopsis: On a farm in rural Northern Ireland, estranged brothers Turlough and Lorcan are forced to reunite following their mother’s untimely death.
Clearly, An Irish Goodbye is one of those nominees destined for bigger (longer) things.  The directors have composed a short and sweet tale of two brothers spending time with one another after their mother passed away.  One brother has moved off of their tiny Irish farm and now lives in the big city, and the other, with a developmental delay, has stayed behind.  Life will change for both, and neither is ready for this shift.  Bound together by their mom’s bucket list, the big city brother has a major decision to make before they cross off the final task.  I could see where a viewer would find this overly saccharine and pandering, but it worked right in my comfort zone, and I’d heartily sign up for a full-length feature.

Ivalu (Directed by Anders Walter, Pipaluk K. Jørgensen)
Ivalu is gone.  Her little sister is desperate to find her.  Her father does not care.  The vast Greenlandic nature holds secrets.  Where is Ivalu?
Already an Oscar winner for his 2014 short Helium, director Anders Walter pairs with fellow Danish director Pipaluk K. Jørgensen for the dream-like Ivalu.  Following a sister’s quest to find her sister through a picturesque yet haunting Greenland backdrop, it boils down to an overly simple examination of the dangers lurking inside your home.  On the shorter end of the nominees, as beautiful as the film was visually, it’s as cold as the icy locales that are shot so elegantly. You’ll wish it all added up to something more.

Le Pupille
(Directed by Alice Rohrwacher)
From writer and director Alice Rohrwacher and Academy Award® winning producer Alfonso Cuarón, Le Pupille is a tale of innocence, greed, and fantasy.  This live-action short is about desires, pure and selfish, freedom and devotion, and the anarchy capable of flowering in girls’ minds within the confines of a strict religious boarding school at Christmas.
This is a strange one but delightful in its way.  Produced by Alfonso Cuarón and available now on Disney+, Le Pupille is the only nominee that felt like an actual “Short Film” in that it has a beginning, middle, and end.  I wouldn’t imagine we’d return to the small Catholic boarding school in Italy and the mischievous young girls there.  This Christmas tale is “clumsily adapted” from an actual letter received and is told through traditional narrative and a few songs here and there. It’s very much in line with the whimsy Cuarón brought to his adaptation of A Little Princess in 1995 but I can see even older, more mature children not knowing quite what to make of this oddball short.

Night Ride (Nattrikken)
(Directed by Eirik Tveiten)
It is a cold night in December.  As Ebba waits for the tram, an unexpected turn of events transforms the ride home into something she was not expecting.
Despite some unfortunate ugliness around the ¾ mark, Night Ride pulls into the station as a charming slice-of-life short film notable for its leading performance.  Sigrid Kandal Husjord plays a woman just wanting to get warm on the train home, but the driver has to take a scheduled break and won’t let her on for another half hour and leaves the tram unattended.  Undeterred, she decides to risk it, pry the doors open, and sit down, only to find they won’t shut.  Thinking she’s found the button to close them, she presses it…only to find the train pulling away from the station instead.  The magic of the movie rests in Husjord’s face as she a) realizes what she’s done and b) comes to understand her situation and rolls with it.  What happens next is a little dangerous, kinda funny, a bit cringe, but ultimately genuine.

The Red Suitcase (Directed by Cyrus Neshvad)
Synopsis: An Iranian girl decides to remove her Headscarf/Hijab in a life-changing situation.
Review: Here’s a nail-biter for you, even if it tends to trade in several conveniences that only exist in the movies.  A young woman arrives at the deserted Luxembourg airport late at night, and from text messages, we understand she’s there to meet the man who will become her husband through an arranged marriage.  A security door is the only thing between her and a life she hasn’t chosen.  A security check of her sole possession, a red suitcase, shows a young woman who dreams of freedom.  The subsequent events have the new arrival narrowly evading her intended groom while trying to exit the airport.  The central performance from Nawelle Ewad is fantastic; I only wish the screenplay didn’t always find a way for the cat-and-mouse game to become such a close match in the vast airport.

Final Thoughts: Of these unusually solid selections (past years have been hit or miss, with few standouts), I responded most to An Irish Goodbye, and it’s likely because it’s the most commercial (not a bad thing, mind you) and the only short that left me wanting to know more.  The Red Suitcase could also easily be filled out to 80-90 minutes, giving the director more of an opportunity to flesh out his intriguing characters.  I can see Academy voters finding a good amount of joy in Le Pupille or simply marking it down because it has Alfonso Cuarón’s name attached to it.  Night Ride has a leading character I’d welcome in a different story down the road, and Ivalu, while beautifully photographed, was ultimately too cold to the touch for me.