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.