For the 14th year, ShortsTV and Magnolia Pictures have teamed up to publicly screen the 15 films nominated for the Academy Awards’ three shorts categories: Best Live Action Short Film, Best Animated Short Film, and Best Documentary (Short Subject). With the Oscars ceremony in continual uncertainty, it’s possible some or all of these categories will be among the ones relegated to getting handed out during commercial breaks. The selections, though, are idiosyncratic, with a few gems mixed among some truly bizarre picks.
Some of the nominees invite comparison. The documentaries Black Sheep and A Night at the Garden both tackle racism and white supremacy. Black Sheep is a first-person profile of a black youth relating how he survived his family’s move from London to the countryside by changing to “fit in” with his violently racist neighbors. The interviews with the main subject are mesmerizing and harrowing, but its power is undercut by the unnecessary incorporation of reenactment sequences. They feel as though the filmmakers had no better idea as to how to make the story feel cinematic enough. A Night at the Garden is composed entirely of archival footage, presenting a brief glimpse of an American Nazi rally held in Madison Square Garden in 1939 (20,000 people were in attendance). While a longer look at the night in question could have been far more edifying, the brief running time is part of the point. Made by Field of Vision, it’s intended as a pointed, punchy reminder of how antisemitism and fascism are not recent developments in American populist movements.
These two docs’ nuanced understanding of the effects of racism stand in sharp contrast to the absurd parable of Skin. In it, a neo-Nazi leads his cohorts in an attack on a black man at a supermarket. Later, a black gang abducts him and, in retribution, tattoos his entire body black, which leads to an ironic Twilight Zone-lite twist ending you will absolutely see coming. Setting aside that spectacularly ill-conceived hook, Skin‘s processing of racism through a “safe,” easily hateful outlet of a repugnant white-trash stereotype and its fetishistic depiction of violence against a black body are nothing new to American film, though no less ugly for it.
End-of-life care emerges as another running trend in this year’s nominees, with an example in each of the three categories. End Game follows terminally ill patients in a San Francisco hospital, telling their stories through snapshots of their interactions with their doctors and families. It has a light, respectful touch, but doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from similar movies which the Academy has nominated in this category in recent years (like Extremis and Joanna). The animated Late Afternoon shifts back and forth between the past and present of an elderly woman with dementia, exploiting its medium to blend the two. It’s an effective story, although the ending is a bit overly manipulative for my taste. The best of the three (and the best nominee for live-action short) is Marguerite, about an elderly woman whose deep attachment to her caretaker is eventually revealed to be due to more than mere loneliness. She reveals she is a lesbian who has never been with a woman due to former societal standards — a touching twist on the old trope of an older character facing the regrets of their life. It ends on a remarkably graceful note.
Two different live-action shorts follow pairs of young boys getting into violent trouble. Fauves follows its two leads through a dangerous game of one-upmanship that takes a predictably gruesome turn. It’s an incredibly standard story of innocence lost. Still, it’s preferable to Detainment, which is based on Britain’s infamous James Bulger case. Produced and nominated over the serious objections of a young murder victim’s mother, it’s as tasteless in its exploration of a deeply disturbing crime as one would expect.
Working in a somewhat similar mode is Mother. It consists mainly of a single shot of a woman who gets a call from her young son, and learns that his father has apparently abandoned him on a beach. The boy is never seen, emphasizing our identification with her mounting panic. Overall, though, it feels like a test run for an idea to be developed into a feature … which is indeed what is being planned.
There are always a few documentary picks which fit neatly into the “issue doc” mold, and this year, it’s Lifeboat and Period. End of Sentence. The former follows a German nonprofit whose volunteers save Middle Eastern and African refugees from their flimsy boats in the Mediterranean. The latter features women in Hapur, India trying to get a small business selling easy-to-produce menstrual pads off the ground. Both tackle important subjects but feel like extended NowThis videos. Lifeboat is almost indistinguishable from 4.1 Miles, a nominee on the same topic from several years back, while Period comes across more like a commercial for the Pad Project than a real attempt at a stand-alone film.
Animation is the last place where wordless films still have a home, and that’s on display in three of the five nominated animated shorts this year. Bao, which played before Incredibles 2 last year, is an archetypically Pixar tale in which an anthropomorphic thing (in this case a dumpling) is used for a cute, slight metaphor (in this case for a middle-aged woman’s empty nest syndrome). It is typically technically proficient work from the studio, but also not much more than amusing. One Small Step, about a girl studying hard to become an astronaut with the quiet support of her father, is even more bound to convention (I clocked exactly how the film would play out early on). Far and away the best of the category is Weekends, in which a boy shuttles between his mother and father’s homes in the wake of their divorce. Despite working with limited 2D animation, it packs more emotion into its gestures, compositions, and sense of time passing than any of the other nominees.
ShortsTV’s Oscar-nominated short films program is now playing in select theaters nationwide. The collection will be available on VOD February 19. The winners will be announced at the 91st Academy Awards ceremony on February 24.