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.

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