For the second year in a row Chase Branch has seen all the Oscar-nominated short films, and is looking to give you an edge in your Oscar Pool.
For all the talk about how this is the most wide-open Oscar race in years, there’s actually a lot of consensus on most of the up-ballot categories. So how can you separate yourself from everyone else in your Oscar pool? The shorts! For the second straight year I saw all of the Oscar-nominated short films so you don’t have to, and now I’m here to break down the ones I expect to win.*
If you think of yourself as a true cinephile or just want to have a great time at the movies, I can’t recommend the shorts highly enough. They showcase a wide range of voices, and offer a preview of tomorrow’s talents. Back before Martin McDonagh directed best picture frontrunner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri he won the Oscar for best live action short for 2004’s Six Shooter. Seriously, see the shorts.
*No guarantee of victory (1-for-3 in 2017)
Let’s get to it!
Dear Basketball – Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant
Disney animation legend Glen Keane teamed up with basketball legend Kobe Bryant to make this short feature about the former Laker’s retirement from basketball. Keane’s lovingly hand-animated sketchbook-styled watercolor illustrations are the real attraction here as the Bryant retirement poem that narrates the film is nearly two years old. Ask anyone, I’m the biggest Kobe hater around. Still, there’s something moving about Bryant’s eulogy for his career, and how it feels when the spirit is willing, but your body just won’t take it anymore. Maybe it was the string-filled score by none other than John Williams, but for all its obvious indulgence, Dear Basketball does hit the heart.
Negative Space – Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata
This French film is the only stop-motion film among the nominees, and it tells the story of a boy’s relationship to his father through their ritual of packing a suitcase, showing how they share an emotional connection despite the father’s constant business travel. Negative Space doesn’t lack for visual inventiveness as it flowingly metamorphoses zippers into highways and undergarments into tokens of love, and it was made with incredible attention to detail. I’ll forever be awed by the people who have the patience to do any form of stop-motion. The film ends with a sweet gut-punch, and my friend and fellow shorts attendee listed this as his favorite of the night.
Lou – Dave Mullins and Dana Murray
Lou is this year’s Pixar release, and, after finally breaking their losing streak with last year’s win for Piper, I think the animation behemoth will be back with the also-rans. There’s nothing wrong with Lou (which ran alongside Cars 3 in theaters), but it’s rather rote and sickeningly sweet. The short is about the being that lives inside a schoolyard lost and found box (naturally missing the L, O, and U from its label), and its quest to reunite its comprising toys with the children who lost them via the schoolyard bully. It’s made to please children, and it’s what you would expect from a major animation studio with a runtime too short to offer any real surprises. Pixar has outdone this short film by leaps and bounds and lost before so I’m not expecting it to win, especially with the exceptional Coco poised to win Best Animated Feature.
Revolting Rhymes – Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer
At twenty-eight minutes, this is by far the longest of any of the shorts. Even so, it’s only the first half of a two-part production. This German-British (but oh so British!) intertwined revisionist retelling of several nursery rhymes is based on a book by Roald Dahl and features Red Riding Hood as a fearless huntress, the three little pigs as greedy bankers turned real estate moguls, and the big bad wolf as a vengeful uncle, among others. It also features the best vocal performance of the nominees with a delightful turn from Dominic West as the Wolf. The animation is pretty standard CGI fare, but it’s the story and voice acting that makes this one a deserving nominee. Fun without being saccharine, and twisted without being dour, this was my favorite of the bunch.
Garden Party – Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon
This French production was the final graduation film for the six students listed as directors, and the obvious draw here is the photorealistic computer animation. Garden Party shows a cast of non-anthropomorphized frogs going about their lives at a seemingly deserted mansion as a close watch of the background reveals that something has gone horribly wrong for the house’s original human inhabitants. This is the token adult-centric nominee of the bunch, and features a surprising ending that didn’t really work for anyone in my viewing party. The adult-oriented animated shorts never seem to win (see 2016’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes), and I don’t expect that to change here.
- Revolting Rhymes
- Negative Space
- Dear Basketball
- Garden Party
What it Means:
Get ready, America: I expect Kobe Bryant to win an Oscar. Though there were others that my group and I liked more, Dear Basketball has everything working in its favor. The Oscars are often about star power, and Dear Basketball features a first-ballot NBA Hall-of-Famer. How can you expect anything but a group of Los Angeles-centric voters to choose a film about the sports legend from their own backyard that they’ve idolized for two decades? If you can’t bring yourself to vote for Kobe, then take a flier on the delightful Revolting Rhymes or Negative Space, but expect to be disappointed. Your move, LeBron.
DeKalb Elementary – Reed Van Dyk
DeKalb Elementary is a fly-on-the-wall look at the secretary who talked down a mentally disturbed gunman that infiltrated an elementary school with the aim of killing the police officers who responded to calls for help. Shinelle Azoroh is dazzling as the receptionist trying to keep the shooter’s disturbed whims in check while dealing with 911 operators and her own fear. DeKalb Elementary, telling its simple, yet gripping story based on a real 911 conversation recorded during the school hostage situation, is smart to not try and do too much. It doesn’t shoot for anything too grand, trusting its performances and the power of its personal story about acting in the face of danger, and DeKalb Elementary is all the better for it.
The Silent Child – Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton
Rachel Shenton stars in this short film which she also wrote about a deaf child whose parents just won’t listen (excuse the pun). Libby is a frustrated six-year-old girl whose intelligence goes unnoticed by a family that won’t make any effort to engage with her deafness. Libby takes quickly to tutor Joanne’s (Shenton) sign language instruction, but the child’s mother bristles at all that “hand-flapping,” insisting that her child only learn to lip-read instead. Libby is robbed of her ability to communicate by her own mother’s prejudices, and the film ends with a text reminder that deaf children perform just as well in school as hearing children if they’re given support. Some critics have puzzled at the entire film being closed captioned, wondering if audiences really need if to decipher these British accents, but those critics are missing the point. The film is closed captioned to be inclusive for deaf audience members who can’t lip read. If you don’t realize that, then you missed the entire film.
My Nephew Emmett – Kevin Wilson Jr.
This is the best looking of the live action short films, shot with period 1950s costumes and dramatic lighting. I didn’t know what this film was about before it started, but you could feel the dread in the audience when everyone realized it was about that Emmett, Emmett Till, and we were about to endure his kidnapping and murder as experienced by his uncle. It’s a difficult watch as Mose Wright (L.B. Williams) does everything in his miniscule power to protect his nephew from the fate that awaits him. Williams is excellent throughout, and he’s the actor I’d most like to see get some major work off his performance in these shorts.
The Eleven O’Clock – Derin Seale and Josh Lawson
After films about school shootings, deaf children, and lynching, The Eleven O’Clock is a welcome breath of clever fresh air even if it is a tad lightweight. With a temp filling in for the day, there’s no one in the office who can distinguish between the psychologist and his patient who suffers from delusions of being a psychologist. This Australian production is cleverly done, featuring the type of tightly-wound dialogue that purposely reveals nothing as both men continue to assert that they are the real psychologist and the other is a disturbed imposter. You can probably predict the ending, but it’s a fun thirteen minutes as the two performers tie themselves into exasperated knots.
Watu Wote/All of Us – Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen
There’s plenty to rally around with Watu Wote/All of Us, but it’s also the most confused of these five films. The film tells the real-life story of a Christian woman in Kenya who takes a charter bus trip to see relatives. She’s uncomfortable with all the Muslims on bus, but those same passengers protect her when a group of terrorist fundamentalists attack the bus aiming to kill any Christians they find onboard. However, the film’s message is muddled by a confusing switch in focus about 2/3 of the way through the film. Is this the story of Jua, the prejudiced girl, or Salah Farah, the Muslim man who led the resistance? The film isn’t sure, and it tries too hard to make a grand powerful statement instead of trusting the one it was already making. I’m sure the film will have its proponents, but I’m not one of them.
- DeKalb Elementary
- The Silent Child
- The Eleven O’Clock
- My Nephew Emmett
- Watu Wote/All of Us
What it Means:
This is an absolute crap shoot. I will not be surprised to see any of these films win. Each is resonant in its own way, with four covering major topics and the fifth giving the audience a respite to breathe. DeKalb Elementary feels incredibly topical in light of the recent Stoneman Douglas shooting, and voters may want to make a statement about gun violence. On the other hand, Watu Wote/All of Us speaks for Muslim-Christian relations and against the Trump Muslim ban. My Nephew Emmett has thematic connections to Black Lives Matter, and The Silent Child is the film that will make voters feel like they’re actually accomplishing something with its overt calls for action. I’ll let history be my guide here. DeKalb Elementary feels like a very of-the-moment pick, but voters picked the insanely lightweight Sing last year over a field of much better and more topical competitors. In light of that, I’ll roll the dice with The Eleven O’Clock. But I could easily be wrong.
Traffic Stop – Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
Despite being topical, this is the worst of the documentary shorts. It’s a failure of style and function, not subject matter, as Davis and Heilbroner’s film about a black teacher arrested after a traffic stop comes off as an incomplete document. The directors didn’t interview any of the officers involved, and if they attempted to do so it isn’t mentioned. Neither do they have a statement to make about a lack of police accountability as Breaion King’s case against the Austin Police Department has yet to be resolved. Traffic Stop feels like a real missed opportunity. Director Davis says she was excited that the film didn’t have to get mired down in the details of the case, but that leaves her with little beyond dashcam footage and King’s sophist musings. Traffic Stop is scheduled to run on HBO this spring where you can judge for yourself.
Edith+Eddie – Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wright
Edith and Eddie are a newlywed interracial couple who, at the ages of 95 and 96, find themselves mired in an uncaring legal system. The couple just want to live out their final days in peace, but court proceedings, legal guardianships, and monetary disputes by their heirs seem destined to tear the couple apart. It’s a story about love contrasted by the couple that says they have it, and the relatives who say they’re in no state to make their own decisions. Edith+Eddie confronts a disadvantaged group that doesn’t get much press: the elderly. Edith’s (unseen) daughter with legal guardianship is fighting to keep she and Eddie apart while another daughter fights to obey her mother’s wishes despite having no legal standing. It’s a heartbreaker, and raises questions about what love really is. Do you speak for your parents because a legal document says you do, or by being present in their lives?
Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 – Frank Stiefel
Ignoring its sprawling title, Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is a story about the power of art in a mentally disabled woman’s life. Artist Mindy Alper suffers from extreme anxiety, depression, and seemingly some learning disabilities. This intimate portrait of her life and art is a powerful testament to the effect that the freedom to create can have on a person, culminating in Alper’s first gallery show of her art. 405 is a look at childhood trauma and abuse and its long-reaching effects on a person as Stiefel uses Alper’s drawings as a vehicle to explain her tortured relationship with her deceased father. Alper talks openly about her daily mountain of pills and thoughts of suicide, but the quality of her art speaks for itself. “A triumph of the human spirit” is an overused cliché, but that’s truly what this film is.
Heroin(e) – Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon
Heroin(e) confronts the reality of America’s opioid crisis through the stories of three women working to overcome it in the town of Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington has one of the nation’s worst heroin problems as workers in the blue collar town, already addicted to prescription opioids for pain relief, have taken to using more dangerous drugs. The Netflix documentary follows three women, one on the overdose response team, one a judge at drug court, and one a good Samaritan who works with women who turn to prostitution to fund their addiction. Much like The White Helmets last year, Heroin(e) finds a positive take on a horrific state of events as these women persevere against a rising tide of overdoses and addiction. Along the way the women of Heroin(e) celebrate their small successes, showcasing the lives saved and rehabbed as the reason for their efforts. Heroin(e) is inspiring and deeply humane.
Knife Skills – Thomas Lennon
Where would you expect to find the greatest French restaurant in the United States? New York City? Los Angeles? Chicago? How about Cleveland? Knife Skills follows restauranteur Brandon Chrostowski as he attempts to open a restaurant attaining just that label in Cleveland with a staff of former inmates. Knife Skills is all about rehabilitation and how released prisoners have much to give the world, if only anyone will hire them. Chrostowski, himself a former inmate, launches his restaurant as a school program where the staff learns accountability and kitchen skills in time for the restaurant’s grand opening. No one is turned away based on their background, but the program is tough. Plenty can’t survive, but those who do graduate with an immense knowledge of French cooking and restaurant service, allowing them to make a life for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with Knife Skills, but it’s a tad shallow, focusing on too many students to truly work. I imagine this story will work much better when it’s inevitably adapted as a feature film.
- Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405
- Knife Skills
- Traffic Stop
What it Means:
Mercifully, this was a much cheerier batch of nominees than in previous years (that may sound crazy, but last year’s nominees included three about refugees and one about end of life care. The “happy” one was about a holocaust survivor). The documentary short feature was the only category I called correctly last year when Netflix’s The White Helmets won the award. I expect Netflix to repeat. This seems like a two-way race between Edith+Eddie and Heroin(e), and I expect the latter to take the prize. Netflix seems to have found a niche for tackling horrific problems with uplifting stories. They’re films that are both very good and easy to vote for, and Heroin(e) is exactly that.