Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Film Reviews: This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Shorts May Be Dominated by Grief, But They Can Still Entertain and Educate

Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó (c) Disney+

In the week leading to the Oscars (Sunday, March 10), you may want to catch up on the nominated short films, packaged together in cinemas or found on streaming services like Netflix (Henry Sugar, The After), Paramount+ (The ABCs of Book Banning), Disney+/Hulu (Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó, The Last Repair Shop) and YouTube (Island In Between, Knight of Fortune, The Barber of Little Rock). 

Knight of Fortune (c) Meaww

If there’s a theme to this year’s nominees, it’s grief. And alarmingly, a lot of the films involve children in peril. (I found the live action shorts the most consistently enjoyable, the documentary shorts the most engaging and the animated shorts the most poetic. Here are my thoughts on the 15 nominees, with a call out to the ones I think will most likely win the prize, thus upping your chance of winning your Oscar pool. 

The Ninety-Five Senses (c) The Ninety-Five Senses

Animated Short Film 

Letter to a Pig (Director, Tal Kantor): A vividly animated but meandering short that starts off straightforward enough with an old Jewish man narrating his story to a class of bored kids of how he escaped capture from the Germans thanks to a pig. Only one girl seems engrossed by the tale and the film unexpectedly veers away from the man to the girl’s daydream perspective that looks cool but is more expressionistic than satisfying. 

Ninety-Five Senses (Directors, Jerusha Hess and Jared Hess): Tim Blake Nelson is our unnamed narrator, who waxes poetic about his life as he reaches the end of it. Nelson gives the man a down-home, country-fried wisdom twang that he perfected with his work with the Coen Brothers. The story holds some plot surprises as well as philosophical musings, including the title in which our guide believes at the time of death, our body experiences the ninety-five senses we never use of the one hundred we supposedly have. It’s a poignant short and probably my favorite of the five. 

Our Uniform (c) Our Uniform

Our Uniform (Director, Yegane Moghaddam): Moghaddam is the first Iranian to be nominated for Animated Short, and it feels very autobiographical: a young girl explains her school life in Iran, mostly through her religion mandated wardrobe. Although there’s not much plot, the animation mixes live action fabrics and clever animated elements effectively. The point of view of this girl gives us hope that the younger generation may finally confront patriarchal hypocrisy, one piece of clothing at a time. 

Pachyderme (Director, Stéphanie Clément): What starts off as a young French girl’s reminiscence of her week-long visit to her grandparent’s rural home turns darker and more foreboding. Although the real nature of the story is so buried between the lines that one wishes for fewer metaphors and more head-on confrontation of the issue. I get that children sometimes have no language for their fears (both imagined and real), so I was ultimately moved by this short’s attempt to show everything from a confused child’s perspective. 

War is Over! Inspired by The Music of John & Yoko (c) ElectroLeague

War is Over! Inspired by The Music of John & Yoko (Director, Dave Mullins): I didn’t know that director Mullins is a former Pixar animator until after I saw this film, which is based on an idea by John & Yoko’s son, Sean Lennon. But it was obvious from the first moments of the influence of the Pixar formula. The film takes place at No Man’s Land during WWI and is a wordless story of how two soldiers are able to play a game of chess between skirmishes. The chess game feels like a sequel to one of Pixar’s first shorts, Geri’s Game, and it has a wonderful score by frequent Pixar composer Thomas Newman, but its message is a bit obvious and sentimental, considering its titled song, heard during its final moments. Which is probably why it’s going to win. 

Documentary Short Film 

The ABCs of Book Banning (Director, Sheila Nevins): Even the most ardent of us who are against book banning will feel that this short falls short in diving deep into the frightening resurgence of the practice we mostly equate to Nazi Germany. It feels like a competent news segment which interviews kids about the banned books they love as well as the authors who wrote them, but in keeping with its title, it is an introductory paragraph to a complex issue that feels unexplored here. Still, I still support the film’s sentiment enough to say it’s a good starting point. I can’t wait until we get to the XYZ of it all. 

The Barber of Little Rock (c) New Yorker Films

The Barber of Little Rock (Directors, John Hoffman and Christine Turner): The subject of this documentary is Arlo Washington, an African American Arkansas barber who uses his financial know-how to invest in his community’s poor, one haircut at a time. But the real subject is the wealth disparity between the white and black communities in Little Rock, and Washington’s Sisyphean task to confront and change this. But unlike the myth of the Greek Sisyphus, Washington’s selfless purpose seems to be making a difference. 

Island In Between (Director, S. Leo Chiang): The most educational documentary of the bunch has to be this film about the small island of Kinmen, located just off the coast of mainland China. It is part of Taiwan, which puts its inhabitants in constant fear of attack. Director Chiang gives the film a personal angle but it’s really just learning about the crazy proximity and how the Taiwanese people cope, especially during the pandemic, that is the real eye-opener. 

The Last Repair Shop (c) Searchlight Pictures

The Last Repair Shop (Directors, Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers): Both Proudfoot and Bowers (an accomplished film composer as well) have been nominated before in this category and they might just win this year with its inspiring story of a small factory that repairs musical instruments to be given to Los Angeles children in need. The film focuses on both the workers and the kids, and its inspirational and emotional message should be irresistible to Oscar voters. 

Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó (Director, Sean Wang): If there’s one documentary short that could upset the race, it has to be this simple and charming film that has a strong background narrative (Wang won the Audience Prize at Sundance for his first full-length film Didi the same week he was nominated for an Oscar) and the power of the Disney company behind it. But the real secret weapons are the titled grandmas, who live together out of convenience and because they actually like each other. Sure, the best parts of the film feel less germane to their everyday lives and are set-up by Wang to remake these grannies into some badass MF (humorously making it rain on the Lunar New Year). Plus, they have appeared at a handful of Oscar events, so imagine the ovation if this film wins and they are brought on stage. It’s a fairytale ending that could be the meme of the evening. 

Live Action Short Film 

The After (Director, Misan Harriman): Grief is all over this well produced but, ultimately, tragedy-porn bait about a British ride-share driver (played with dignity by David Oyelowo) who has to listen to the inane conversations of the passengers in his car as he is dealing with a recent tragic event that is outrageously over-the-top, but in our modern life, wholly not out of the realm of believability. Where the story ends feels contrived (the couple at the end are horrible people) but also cathartic, although in a somewhat unearned way. 

Invincible (c) Telescope Films

Invincible (Director, Vincent René-Lortie): All of the live action shorts have a standout actor at its center, but Invincible, has the most effective and raw one in Léokim Beaumier-Lépine. Beaumier-Lépine plays a young, socially confused boy who has found himself trapped in the reformatory system in which he is treated as a problem. This story is not uniquely told, but Beaumier-Lépine invests the kid with so much heart and anger that you are drawn in from the beginning. I am not surprised the story is somewhat personal to the director. 

Knight of Fortune (Director, Lasse Lyskjær Noer): The film with the strangest sensibility has to be this tale of a Danish man at a morgue who has to identify the remains of his recently deceased wife. It has a quirky, somewhat absurdist tone for such a heavy subject, but once the story turns into an Odd Couple tale of strangers bonding over toilet paper, this off-beat journey about grief (again, grief) is sweetly enjoyable. If there’s a dark horse winner for the Oscar, this could be it. 

Red, White and Blue (c) Majic Ink Productions

Red, White and Blue (Director, Nazrin Choudhury): The most surprising film of all the shorts has to be this seemingly obvious tale of a working single parent mom (played by the wonderful Brittany Snow), living paycheck to paycheck, who finds herself in need of an abortion that she would have to go out-of-state for. The ironically patriotic title gives away Choudhury’s stance on the issue, but the story does take a couple of twists and turns that gives this film a powerful finale. Is it manipulative? Sure. Is it political? Most certainly. Is it effective? Most assuredly. 

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (Director, Wes Anderson): This is probably the most well-known of all the shorts this year (I reviewed it earlier this year), and that’s because it’s from the imaginative mind of Wes Anderson, who has shockingly never won an Oscar. Based on a Roald Dahl story with a cast of expert players (my favorite being Dev Patel), this is Anderson at his most whimsical. Also, he released three other Dahl shorts (all on Netflix), which may tip the scale for the Academy to finally reward Anderson.

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