Of all the categories in the Academy Awards, few if any are more underappreciated than the short film categories. Any decent cinephile or film student should know that telling a decent story in fifteen minutes can actually be a lot more challenging than telling a decent story in ninety. From budget to screen time to the size of the crew involved, making a short film is an exercise of doing more with less. Furthermore, because making a short film is a smaller operation by nature, a short film tends to be a far more pure vision of a single filmmaker or partnership.
It’s impossible to overstate the skill involved in making a decent short film, or how many filmmakers got started by producing short films. Yet the short film nominees aren’t given the publicity or campaign muscle of their feature-length peers, which makes the short film categories among the most unpredictable as well.
So in the interest of staying informed and keeping you all informed in turn, I finally took the opportunity to marathon all ten Oscar-nominated short films in the animated and live-action categories. (The documentary shorts were sadly not available for this review.) Let’s start with…
Sanjay’s Super Team
Even though The Good Dinosaur bombed hard, this is still probably the most famous short film nominee of the year. For those who missed it, this is a short film that tries to blend polytheistic Hindu imagery with the colorful imagery of your typical superhero team-up. It’s told from the relateable perspective of a young boy who wants to go watch superhero cartoons, but his dad wants him to join in meditation. So we’ve got old and young, exciting and relaxing, new and ancient, and so many other potentially interesting conflicts. Yet the sense of wonder and the basic notion of super-powered god-like figures provides a bit of overlap.
Alas, the picture very quickly melts into a neon-colored hodgepodge of what-the-fuckery. The imagery is mind-blowing, with fantastic use of color and music, but it’s still a barely-coherent mess. That said, it’s still a better candidate than Pixar’s other short film of the year. Sorry, but aside from some nice animation and a clumsily-written song, Lava just didn’t have much to offer.
Here’s your basic story of an anthropomorphic bear who gets kidnapped and press-ganged into performing for a traveling circus, before he escapes and finds his way back home. The gimmick is that this bear is also a tinkerer who built an elaborate clockwork puppet show, to tell his story through a viewfinder to anyone with a coin to spare.
Unfortunately, the gimmick is perpetually undercut by the editing, and also by the design of this box and its mechanics. Anytime something happened that didn’t fit the clockwork aesthetic, and anytime we cut to an angle or a close-up that shouldn’t have been possible through the viewfinder, I kept getting pulled out of the movie. What’s more, it’s a good thing that so much of the picture focuses on robots, because the stiff animation does no favors to the flesh-and-blood characters.
World of Tomorrow
This one was a hoot. A funny, absurdist, nonsensical, “kitchen sink” parody of science fiction with a hefty amount of dry gallows humor. The brilliant jokes about cloning and time travel are definitely a plus. What makes it even better is that because of the simplistic animation and the clueless protagonist so young that she can barely speak, we’re never pressured to take any of this seriously. Except for the part about treasuring what time we have, of course.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
Here’s a story about two childhood friends as they train to be the two best astronauts in Russia’s latest class of recruits. It’s a sweet little story with some effective jokes, and it always helps that the animators are able to convey so much emotion without any dialogue.
There’s nothing overtly wrong with it… except that we already have The Martian, which did so much to portray astronauts and space travel in an authentic and plausible way. Next to that picture, all the ridiculous plot contrivances and all the stone-stupid choices made by the characters becomes that much more obvious. I mean, cutting into the space suits with a freaking chainsaw? Are you kidding me?!
It’s a sweet and poignant little story, don’t get me wrong. But that comes at the expense of a credible and interesting plot.
Right off the bat, I can tell you that the animation is FUCKING GORGEOUS. I’m serious, the pencil-drawn animation is so detailed and lifelike, with overwhelming effort poured into every shadow and expression. Purely in terms of animation quality, this was easily the best of the nominees. Which is great, because it doesn’t have much else to offer.
In terms of story, there’s virtually nothing. We’ve got two teams of two men each fighting each other to the death in a kind of ancient Greek gladiator style, but that’s it. We’ve got no idea who these men are or what they’re fighting over. More than that, these men are straight-up disemboweling each other, with nasty and bloody injuries shown to us in graphic detail. The presentation is staggering, yes, but it also comes off as gratuitous without a story behind it.
From the title to the finished product, this was very clearly intended to be more of a demo reel than an actual film.
Now we move on to the live-action nominees. Remember, these are the live-action short film nominees, which are not to be confused with the documentary shorts. I just want to make that clear to you all, because nobody made that clear enough to me when I bought the tickets. Let’s open with…
We lay our scene in the West Bank, with a bickering family of settling Israelis. The story begins when the family crashes their car into a convent, tipping over and decapitating their statue of the Virgin Mary. Hilarity ensues as the Jews and the Arabs stubbornly try to help each other while holding onto their rigidly orthodox beliefs. It’s a cute little movie, saved by razor-sharp comedic timing.
This is a more dramatic take on Middle Eastern cultural differences, as we follow a woman on her first day as an interpreter for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. I won’t even try to recap the chain of clusterfucks that gets us from point A to point B, but by the end of it, our brave interpreter is weaving her way through American/Afghan relations and Muslim rules about propriety as she helps a woman give birth through a complicated labor.
There is a lot packed into these 25 minutes, as the film deals with gender politics, the U.S. presence in the Middle East, statements about orthodox religion, and throws in a recurring motif of motherhood for good measure. The latter also serves as a kind of life/death counterpoint that’s especially effective in this particular setting. Best of all, this short film is positively loaded with reversals. Just try and count how many times a victory turns into a defeat or vice versa. It makes for one remarkably effective suspense thriller.
Here’s a film based on the true story of two boys who grew up in the Kosovo war. In terms of plot and premise, it’s your basic story about helpless civilians who are caught between two warring factions. But the two lead characters are so superbly developed and acted, and the atmosphere is so wonderfully immersive, that the presentation more than makes up for any faults in the story.
Everything Will Be Okay
This one begins as a man goes to his ex-wife to pick up his daughter. So the girl’s parents are divorced and it’s the father’s turn to look after her for the weekend or whatever. It’s a familiar scenario, and sure enough, it plays out exactly as you might expect. At first.
The girl and her dad go shopping for toys, they go to the local fair, and everything seems to be going just fine. But just when I was starting to wonder where the plot was, I heard an offhand comment. So quick that I nearly did a double take — no way did I hear that. But then so many weird little incidences keep cropping up, and it became increasingly obvious that there was something else going on. The build-up is so expertly paced, and the big reveal is such a huge shock, that I’d hate myself for spoiling any more than I already have.
Suffice to say that these two characters are put in a truly heartbreaking place, and their actions — however well-intentioned — guarantee that there’s no way any of this can end well. The characters are so relateable and sympathetic, their actions are so reprehensible, and the both of them are acted so superbly, that the finale is guaranteed to hit you like a punch to the gut.
Thank you, AMPAS, for putting a romantic comedy in the mix! As you can guess, this one focuses on a young man who can barely speak a word through his impenetrable stutter. He’s a typographer, an artist, a wonderful writer who’s lightning-fast on a keyboard, he’s very well-versed in sign language, he loves to read emotions and clothing… basically, our protagonist is an expert at every other form of communication except for speech. Which naturally makes him incredibly nervous when his longtime internet crush asks to meet up with him as she passes through town.
This one is a very sweet little ode to communication in the age of internet access and handicap accessibility. It depicts a world in which speech is still a crucial part of everyday life, but we have so many options available to us that it’s never been easier to express yourself in the way that’s right for you. Even if the plot is thin and the ending was ridiculously contrived, it’s more than light and charming enough to get by. Especially next to all the downers filling two-thirds of this category.
I hope there was something in there that sounded interesting to you. I’ll be sure to do something similar for the documentary shorts if and when I can. Thanks for reading!