Reviewing All the Oscar-Nominated Short Films

Want a leg up in your Oscar pool? I alone (on the site) have seen all fifteen nominated shorts.

The bane of everyone’s Oscar pool is the shorts. By the time we reach late February there’s a pretty strong consensus about which films, actors, actresses, editors, writers, and the like are projected to win their various awards. At worst, you have to make a pick between a couple of frontrunners. The shorts, however, are a whole different ballgame. It’s hard to predict something you haven’t seen. It’s even harder to predict a category where you’ve never heard of any of the nominees. If you really care about winning your Oscar pool you usually scour the internet for advice and then take an educated guess based on a 3 sentence summary and then watch as you go 0-for-3.

This year I made it a goal to see all 15 nominated shorts in an effort to be more prepared this year (I did win the Fellowship of the Screen Oscar pool in 2016), and I’m offering up my opinions*. First, this was a fantastic experience. I wholeheartedly recommend seeing the shorts if you have a chance. My local Landmark Theaters host them in animation, live action, and documentary blocks about 2 weeks before the Oscars, and it’s one of the best film experiences I had all year. There’s a lot of creativity on display from all across the globe, and the short film directors of today may be the big name directors of tomorrow. Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Thor) is a former nominee. Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) and Peter Capald (the current Doctor Who) are previous winners.

Let’s get to it!

*No guarantee of victory

ANIMATION

Borrowed Time – Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj

A western story about an aged sheriff and his feelings of regret over the stagecoach disaster that claimed his father’s life. Both directors are Pixar employees working independent of the company here. Thus, it’s no shock that the film looks the way it does. You could easily drop these characters into the latest Pixar film and they’d be right at home. There’s something masterful about the way the dust billows in this film, and its subject matter strays from the Pixar banner’s family-friendly fare. It’s a touching story about the need to move on from pain, but it should be better than it is. With only two characters and minimal dialogue, there’s plenty of room for the emotions to shine, but they never quite rise to the heights they should.

Pearl – Patrick Osborne

You wouldn’t be wrong if you confused Pearl with a car commercial. In fact, I’m sure there’s a Volkswagen commercial that did something similar a few years ago. Pearl is filmed in a flat, blocky animation and painted in pastels. It tells the story of a family through their experiences over time in the family car. The only dialogue is incidental background noise as the story is told through mood and music. Osborne actually won this award two years ago for the delightful Feast filmed in a similar manner, but I have big doubts that he’ll collect a second trophy for this effort.

Piper – Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer

The official Pixar nominee. Piper ran in front of Finding Dory in theaters and is the only animated nominee you may have seen. But don’t be ashamed. It’s wonderful and was the clear audience favorite at my theater. Pixar has a long history of nominations, but surprisingly few wins. The animation powerhouse hasn’t collected the short film trophy since 2001, but that could change this year. Piper’s luscious computer animation borders on photorealistic, and this story about a baby sandpiper scared of the ocean tide has charm to spare. There’s a definite argument to be made that the studio has been snubbed for far too long, and Piper could be the film to finally rectify the situation.

Blind Vaysha – Theodore Ushev

This is the most abstract and avant garde film of the bunch. Blind Vaysha’s choppy stills are animated in a tablet-drawn linocut style as though made on woodblocks. It’s the story of a girl with one eye that only sees the past and another that only sees into the future. Sound weird? It is. Parts of the film are animated with what Vashya would see, the left side of the screen showing images of the past and the right side showing the future. It’s more an exercise in philosophical folktales than an interesting film. Even the narrator is keen to point out that “this is a hopeless story; at only 8 minutes long I found myself checking my watch.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes – Robert Valley and Cara Speller

Pear Cider and Cigarettes is an obvious outlier here. At 35 minutes it’s longer than the other four films combined, and deals with very adult subject matter. In between the other films there were 2 different warnings for parents that Pear Cider featured adult content and was not meant for children. The film looks like Waltz with Bashir and a Gorillaz video mated, and the content isn’t that far off either. The narrating character is director Robert Valley (though I’m not sure if he actually provided the narration) as he describes the news of his friend Techno’s surprising death. Rob then flashes back to his experiences with Techno, someone dangerously charismatic, both “completely in control and completely out of control at the same time.” The majority of the film deals with Rob’s experiences helping get Techno a black market organ transplant in China, told in a noir-like style and smelling of cigarettes. There’s both plenty of swearing and animated nudity to boot, and a killer soundtrack to match.

Ranking:

  1. Piper
  2. Pear Cider and Cigarettes
  3. Borrowed Time
  4. Pearl
  5. Blind Vaysha

What it Means:

If Pixar is “due” then I expect Piper to be a worthy winner. That said, I see Pear Cider and Cigarettes as the frontrunner. There’s just something to be said for its sheer ambition. I also think the Academy will be keen to honor Valley as an artist in his own right, and not just as the side project of a giant animation studio like Pixar. If they also want to reinforce the idea that animation is at art form and not just the real of children stories, that’s another mark in Pear Cider’s favor.

LIVE ACTION

Sing – Kristóf Deák and Anna Udvardy

This Hungarian film is incredibly sweet. It’s the story of Zsofi, a new student at an elementary school with an award-winning choir. The headmaster tells Zsofi that all students are encouraged to join the choir, but that comes with a catch. When the choirmaster tells Zsofi that it would best serve the choir if she only mimed instead of singing out loud, Zsofi and her new best friend are forced to either stand up against injustice or stand silent. The resolution is a devilishly delightful bit of fairytale, the kind that only works with a child’s simple logic, but it’s wonderful to watch. It’s a gentle reminder that friendship and a shared love of music is more important than winning a contest could ever be.

Silent Nights – Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson

I’m not going to mince words: I absolutely hated this film. Silent Nights is a Danish short about a Salvation Army volunteer who falls for an illegal immigrant against the protestations of her racist mother. Director Aske Bang has his heart in the right place with a topical story about European immigration, but the underlying message of the film is a disaster. The film’s drama comes from a series of mistakes that Kwame, a Ghanaian immigrant, makes. And by “mistakes” I mean unethical and criminal behavior. Silent Nights aims to show that we all make mistakes and love can overcome them regardless of race and nationality, but this is only done in the broadest strokes. Instead, the message is that immigrants are liars and thieves who can ruin your life if you don’t keep your guard up. Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive at the moment, but this film winning would be an absolute disaster especially when other films in this category handle stories about Europe’s relationship with immigrants with considerably more nuance.

Timecode – Juanjo Giménez

The setup is simple enough. Luna and Diego are security guards working opposite shifts at the same parking garage, but when Luna is shocked at what she finds when she’s asked to investigate a damaged vehicle report from the previous night. That much is generic, but it’s what she finds that’s truly remarkable: dancing. Luna inadvertently stumbles on footage of Diego dancing all across the parking garage each night. It’s smooth, and strangely emotional to watch, and much of Timecode’s footage comes from the garage’s closed-circuit TV cameras enforcing the idea of surveillance as Luna and the audience interlope on these private moments. It’s a film about understanding between people even in the absence of words, and the cliché that “you’ll want to stand up and cheer” has never been more apt.

Ennemis intérieurs – Sélim Azzazi

French for “enemies within,” Ennemis intérieurs is a far more nuanced look at Europe’s relationship with immigrants than Silent Nights. Centered around a series of interviews between an Algerian man applying for French citizenship and his government interviewer, the meeting quickly spirals into an interrogation about terrorism when the Algerian national can’t provide simple answers about his past connection with a local mosque. This man’s future is held hostage while the interrogator ironically espouses the French motto of liberty, equality, and fraternity as a shield while demanding the names of Muslims. Ennemis intérieurs is masterfully tense, ratcheting up the intensity as the Algerian interviewee attempts to resist naming names while the interrogator’s pen hangs over his future like the sword of Damocles. It’s a film all about shades of grey as the inquisitor is forced to defend his own actions. “You think everyone here is a racist? It’s that easy?” His predicament is no easier than the interviewee’s, as admitting the wrong man could cost French citizens their lives. There are no easy answers here.

La Femme et le TGV – Timo von Gunten and Giacun Caduff

The Woman and the TGV.” The TGV is a European train, and Elise joyously waves her Swiss flag at it every day as it flies past her tiny house on the tracks. It’s the lone highlight of her day now that her son is pressing her into a home for senior citizens and her once acclaimed bakery has fallen on hard times. One day she finds a note flung from the train from an engineer delighted by her daily flag waving, and the two begin an epistolary relationship built on their tiny shared interactions and a lot of mail delivery cheese. Of course Elsie can’t see the irony in decrying modern life while falling in love with a high-speed train engineer, but that’s part of the charm. TGV is grounded by a wonderful performance from Jane Birkin who’s both sweet and hilarious as the woman holding onto her old ways so tightly that she’s missing her life as it passes her by. La Femme et le TGV is an endearing crowd pleaser.

Ranking:

  1. Ennemis intérieurs
  2. Timecode
  3. La Femme et le TGV
  4. Sing
  5. Silent Nights

What it Means:

There are three clear frontrunners here. Ennemis intérieurs, Timecode, and La Femme et le TGV are all excellent films, but I think Ennemis intérieurs is both the best of the bunch and clearly topical enough to win. The one thing that’s clearly in TGV’s favor is Jane Birkin as a big name and a positive outlook often goes a long way in furthering the Oscar chances of a short film. Look for those two to duke it out, but if they split the vote then Timecode could be there to swoop in for a win. It already won a Goya and a Short Film Palme d’Or, and it would be no shock if it scoops up the Oscar as well.

DOCUMENTARY

Joe’s Violin – Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen

Joe’s Violin chronicles the story of a holocaust survivor who donates his violin during a New York City instrument drive, and how that decision effects both him and the young girl who receives it. Joseph Feingold bought his violin in exchange for cigarettes in 1947 after surviving a Siberian work camp, but he decides to give it up in old age after no longer being able to play. The violin makes its way to the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls and into the hands of a young girl named Briana with a beaming smile. It’s a story of survivorship and music with a focus on what it means to be “chosen” through the lens of Briana’s lottery acceptance into BGLIG and receiving the violin, and Joseph’s Jewishness and holocaust survival. As Joseph tells Briana that he’s so surprised to hear how much she likes the instrument’s tone as its “just a violin,” it’s Briana who aptly corrects him. “It sounds more than a violin!”

Extremis – Dan Krauss

Extremis is one of two documentary shorts from Netflix on this list. The film deals with a group of doctors and their patients as the patients and their families make end of life decisions about their care. The film is shot as observational cinema, taking a fly-on-the-wall look at the grey areas where difficult decisions are made. There are no interviews, no narration. There are only the stories of two patients, Donna and Selena, as they and their families try to decide the best course of action. Extremis is a very thoughtful investigation into quality of life vs quantity of life, and the constant pressure doctors and families face in making these extreme decisions. The film is incredibly moving, and goes a long way to explain how doctors are willing to fight ceaselessly and also help their patients find death with dignity.

4.1 Miles – Daphne Matziaraki

How do you remain a humanitarian when those in need completely overwhelm your ability to help? 4.1 Miles is the story of a Greek coast guard captain as he and his team struggle to rescue thousands of immigrants fleeing Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan by crossing the Aegean Sea. It’s also the story of panic as the captain and his 4 to 5-person crew struggle to rescue 60-plus refugees at a time without having as much as CPR training. Matziaraki and his crew use long interrupted shots to fully capture the chaos of a rescue, using handheld cameras and GoPros onboard the ship before even they’re forced to set them down and help. The film, itself, is a cry for help. “This is my nightmare. This is agony,” the captain says. “The world needs to know what’s happening here. We can’t go through this alone.”

Watani: My Homeland – Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis

It’s not that Watani: My Homeland is bad as much as the film bites off more than it can chew. It tells the story of a family living in Aleppo, Syria as the father fights in the Free Syria Army, but quickly shifts gears from a story about survival to one of relocation when the father, Abu Ali, is captured by ISIS and possibly killed. Now missing their father, the family emigrates to Germany. Either of those story lines would have been excellent, but Watani attempts to do them both, and the story gets lost in the shuffle. There’s extreme heartbreak as one of the young girls “plays” ISIS, pretending to kill and torture in her living room, and later as she leaves a picture of an airplane so that her father will know where to find her in Germany. There are also heartwarming scenes of acceptance as the family arrives in Germany and adapts to a new world while still trying to remain connected to the old one. War, loss, misunderstanding, culture clash, welcoming, acceptance, assimilation. Even my review can’t contain it all. There’s simply too much going on for a 40-minute film.

The White Helmets – Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

The White Helmets is clearly the best of an outstanding slate of documentary short films. The second Netflix film on the list, it also chronicles the horrific civil war in Syria, this time through the lens of a volunteer rescue group operating in Aleppo as they rush into recent bombing sites in hopes of rescuing anyone in the rubble, regardless of creed or allegiance. The film contains remarkable footage of this group of volunteers diving into dust clouds and debris-strewn areas while everyone else runs away to safety, providing a sharp contrast between the high-tech Russian planes that bomb and fly away and the chaotic destruction left behind in their wake. All the while, the film intercuts formal interviews with the white helmets whose uncompromising optimism and brotherhood is a shining light in a world of incredible darkness. Even when their own members and brothers are the ones dying, they continue to rally around stories like that of Mahmoud, the “miracle baby” rescued at one week old from a bombed-out structure. When any one life is saved, it’s as though all lives are saved even for a brief moment. As the White Helmet motto says, “To save a life is to save all humanity.”

Ranking:

  1. The White Helmets
  2. Extremis
  3. 4.1 Miles
  4. Joe’s Violin
  5. Watani: My Homeland

What it Means:

This is an outstanding group of films, but The White Helmets is clearly the best of the group. It’s the perfect balance of subject matter and craftsmanship. It will be a huge upset if it does not win. Second place goes to Extremis. What I’m saying here is that I expect Netflix to win an Oscar. That said, it’s been claimed time and time again that the Oscars are really “all about hugs” and if that’s the case then Joe’s Violin could pull an upset simply by being the only one of these 5 films that you don’t feel terrible after watching.

Tune in Oscar Sunday to find out how wrong I am. As previously stated, victory not guaranteed.

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