2019 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: DOCUMENTARY

Black Sheep: B
End Game: B+
A Night at the Garden: B+
Life Boat: A-
Period. End of Sentence: A-

black sheep Black Sheep, the single nominated documentary short not from the U.S., is a 27-minute film from the UK with a sensibility all its own. This one examines racism and its effects one one young black man in a rural British context. Cornelius Walker, fantastically lit with his face against a backdrop as he speaks directly into the camera, relates his mother and father moving him to the country after another immigrant child was stabbed to death in their London neighborhood. Cornelius was immediately met with racist abuse in his new small town, until he goes out of his way to emulate and fit in with the very kids who initially tormented him -- right down to bleaching his skin to make it lighter, and purchasing blue contact lenses. Much of this is recreated with very well executed flashbacks, but what is most compelling is present-day Cornelius wrestling with the evolution of his identity. This is a truly unique perspective, albeit with a strangely abrupt ending.

end game End Game, as you might imagine is rather sad: it's a 40-minute Netflix documentary about palliative care for terminally ill patients at a fairly posh medical facility in San Francisco. The cameras focus on about five different patients and the imminent challenges they face, although particular focus is put on two of them. In its way, even as it slightly evades clearly important questions of class and access to care (even with a fairly diverse group of subjects, one Iranian and another Asian American), it's the most emotionally affecting of these five short films.

a night at the garden A Night at the Garden, at a mere 7 minutes, is by far the shortest, and arguably the most haunting, of this year's documentary short nominees. It's simply seven minutes of footage of a 1930 "pro-American rally" that occurred at New York City's Madison Square Garden. With 20,000 people cheering as police beat a man who attempts to protest, and a huge number of them engage in Nazi salutes, this might as well be called 1930 Trump Rally. It's hard to watch, but creepily illuminating -- a reminder of a dark history for our nation, which is clearly not relegated only to the distant past, and of the need to endless vigilance.

The 34-minute Life Boat both the longest and pehaps the best of this bunch: a look at rescue missions in the Mediterranean by Sea Watch, a European nonprofit that rescues as many refugees as they can as they flee persecution, war, and worse from their native African and Middle Eastern countries. I really waffled between whether I thought this or Period. End of Sentence was the best of these five films, and somewhat reluctantly settled on this one, which is very effective at putting human, individual faces on people far too easily generalized, stereotyped or outright ignored by the media and the rest of the world. These people appear to be doing incredible, heartbreaking work.

period. end of sentence And that leaves the cleverly titled Period. End of Sentence, the likely winner of the Academy Award in this category -- and it would not be undeserved. With the help of students in a school who helped fund the project, a group of women in a village outside Delhi, India utilize one man's invention to mass produce sanitary pads at low cost. They then sell them at local markets, to a rural population for whom menstruation is such a taboo (the "biggest tabboo in India," says one man) that they know very little about it. This is the seed of a quietly feminist revolution and it is undeniably exciting to witness.

lifeboat

Overall: B+

2019 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: LIVE ACTION

Mother: B-
Fauve: B
Marguerite: A-
Detainment: B+
Skin: B

mother Mother is a 19-minute film from Spain that consists solely of a series of phone calls between a young mother, and the six-year-old son on the other line, whose dad has mysteriously left him alone on a beach in France. As it happens, this woman's own mother is in the apartment, so the two women are the only characters ever seen onscreen. (The boy is the only other voice heard.) The "story," such as it is, is simply this young woman becoming more and more hysterical as it becomes clear her son may have been abandoned and she cannot figure out exactly where he is. It ends with no resolution to speak of, leaving me to wonder what the point was -- to illustrate a typical mother's nightmare? Skilled performances notwithstanding, a short like this makes me wonder how slim the pickings are when film shorts are put up for Oscar consideration to begin with.

fauve Fauve is the second of two Canadian live action shorts up for contention this year, this one, at 16 minutes, the shortest of the bunch. A couple French-Canadian kids are just hanging out on abandoned railroad tracks, and, eventually, a surface mine. And basically, their youthful ignorance of nature and physics gets the best of them. I won't spoil what that means exactly, except to say that this one turns surprisingly dark. With again only three characters, though, this short does also illustrate how a little can go along way.

And then there's Marguerite, a 19-minute film, also French-Canadian, that gets my vote as the best of these nominees. Here we have only two characters: the title character, an elderly woman in need of daily in-home assistance, and her much younger woman caretaker. We see plenty of their routine before a phone call from her partner reveals the caretaker to be gay. The way Marguerite's face changes at this revelation made me slightly nervous, but it turned out to be something much more bittersweet than negative. Eventually, we learn what decades-old memories this triggers in Marguerite, and as she tentatively opens up to her caretaker, it becomes something quite moving -- and, in its way, a sad reminder of how different things were for people half a century ago.

detainment If you're looking for something truly disturbing, look no further than Detainment, a 30-minute film from Ireland about the youngest convicted murderers of the 21st century. Based on actual interrogation transcripts, two 10-year-old boys are interviewed separately about what they did with a random toddler they spontaneously decided to abduct from a shopping center and do heinous things to. Thankfully, none of the specific horrors are depicted onscreen; the story that unfolds here is how the two boys start off with total denials and conflicting accounts, until bit by bit, increasingly horrible truths come out. If nothing else, this one serves as a cautionary tale: never let your young child out of your sight for a second, no matter how harmless it may appear to be to do so.

skin Live-action shorts often have a "clever twist" at the end of them, especially American ones, and the 20-minute Skin is no exception. (To be fair, the real difference year is that only one of the shorts ends with such a twist.) When this one ended, foremost in my mind was to wonder whether the director was white or black: Guy Nattiv is a white guy. And, okay, it does seem difficult to imagine a black director creating a film this pointedly about a racist being taught a lesson. Skin has "white guilt" built into its DNA, albeit with more subtlety than usual. This film is generally competently made, although the final moment is about as predictable as it gets.

MARGUERITE

Overall: B

2019 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: ANIMATION

Bao: B+
Late Afternoon: A-
Weekends: B
Animal Behaviour: B-
One Small Step: B+

[“Highly Commended]
The Wishing Box: B
Tweet Tweet: B

bao This year's set of animated shorts, better than average but falling short of particular greatness as always, starts with the one short many of us already saw, as it was presented last year prior to screenings of Pixar's Incredibles 2. It's an 8-minute short called Bao, American and about an Asian mother's evolving relationship with her son -- as represented by a dumpling. I think. Honestly this one went, at least in part, kind of over my head, although the animation is up to typical standards of Pixar excellence and still has charm to spare. Who knew a dumpling could be so adorable?

Late Afternoon, a 10-minute short from Ireland, proved to be my favorite of the bunch, alternately wistful an melancholy though it was. This one will hit particularly close to home for anyone who's had a family member suffering from dementia. Here, an elderly woman's mind washes back and forth between current reality and other eras of her life, as her grown daughter packs up the stuff in her home. The relatively rudamentary animation here is well suited to the subject, and is well rendered particularly as the old woman struggles to hold onto her memories, moving from joy to sorrow and back at regular intervals. The end result is something quite moving.

weekends The longest of this year's animated crop is the 15-minute Weekends, an American short detailing a young boy as he grows accustomed to visiting his father on weekends shortly after his parents' separation. Eventually each parent finds a new romantic partner, with varying results of which the child has limited understanding. The water color animation is very pretty, but the length of the story exceeds necessity.

animal behaviour I really wanted to love Animal Behaviour, the 14-minute short from Canada about several different animals in a group therapy session, as it's the kind of thing that's right up my alley. What's not to love about a group of characters so diverse it includes not only a dog, a cat and pig, but also a bird, a gorilla, a praying mantis and a leech? And they all have their own mental issues -- I just wish those issues had been explored with a little more cleverness. This one seems to coast a bit on its concept alone, although I will admit it still got a few good chuckles out of me.

one small step One Small Step is the one animated short nominee with two countries of origin: USA & China. This 8-minute short details the astronautical ambitions of a girl as she grows up struggling through school, at the expense of noticing the attentions and assistance of her cobbler father. He regularly mends her shoes, she regularly fails to notice until she has finally reached her goals and then it is too late. This one also has excellent animation, which is somewhat ironic given how little of the story calls for it as a necessity (as opposed to shooting it as live action). Honestly, the most deeply affecting moment is the clip during the end credits, with one of the directors so excited to hear his short was nominated he starts crying. Three of the nominated shorts feature clips of this sort at their end, it's always a nice thing to see.

photo Often these presentations feature five nominees of such short average length that several "Highly Commended" extras get tacked onto the end. This year there are only two, the first being Wishing Box, a 6-minute American short with impressively crisp animation and slightly lacking in substance. I pirate discovers his monkey can pull anything it wishes for out of an otherwise empty box, much of it fruit it wants to eat. Once the pirate's greediness gets the monkey on board (so to speak) with wishing for riches, a fairly predictable lesson is learned.

tweet tweet Tweet Tweet, a short from Russia, is arguably among the most intriguing of all the shorts here, and I would submit that it was more deserving of a nomination than, say, Animal Behaviour. Being intriguing does not mean it necessarily makes sense, however: the entirety of its run time features human feet on a tightrope that runs across the screen, along with a bird. There are clearly profound metaphors intended here, though I couldn't tell you what they are. The animation is excellent, though, and a lot of thoughts about both Russian history and of life and aging is packed into its twelve minutes.

late afternoon

Overall: B

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated

Dear Basketball: B
Negative Space: B+
LOU:A
Revolting Rhymes Part One: B+
Garden Party: B+

["Highly Commended"]
Lost Property Office: B
Weeds B
Achoo: B-

dear basketball Dear Basketball (USA, 6 minutes) precipitated a fair amount of humor on Twitter about basketball player Kobe Bryant somehow becoming an Academy Award nominee -- because he wrote and narrates the poem that makes up the audio of this entire short. I don't particularly see any pressing reason to make fun of it. I have close to zero interest in basketball, sure, but I can still recognize sincerity when I see it. This isn't the greatest poem in the world, but that's beside the point. This is effectively evocative with its animated pencil drawings and earnest delivery.

negative space Negative Space (France, 5 minutes) is a light hearted little stop motion short, with rather odd looking characters that sort of look like papier-mâché, about a boy who learned how to pack suitcases from his father. This one kind of touched me in a personal way because my stepmother also taught me how to maximize space in luggage by rolling up my clothes. This kid has a few more rules, hence the aversion to "negative space" used inefficiently, which serves as a cute little punch line at the very end.

LOU (USA, 7 minutes) is far from the longest short in this year's group of nominees, but, it should come as no surprise that as the Pixar submission, it's easily the strongest. This one, about stolen toys come to life to teach a playground bully a lesson, has charmes that practically leap off the screen. Here Pixar continues its knack for presenting stories that are equal parts enchanting and moving.

revolting rhymes Revolting Rhymes Part One (UK, 29 minutes) is based on a story by Roald Dahl, and is thus a suitably twisted mashup take on several fairy tales at once: Little Red Riding Hood (who here becomes a vengeful badass); Snow White; and the Three Pigs. The story is narrated by the wolf who has lost his two nephews, and we find out how that happened. This one is by far the longest of the animated shorts, but with a pacing that never lulls, it remains engaging and fun from beginning to end.

garden party I might be more tempted to dismiss Garden Party (France, 7 minutes), if not for its stunning, photorealistic animation. It's mostly of frogs, each of them lazily exploring what increasingly becomes clear is an abandoned mansion whose inhabitant has been shot and killed. Thus, it goes from peaceful and beautiful to dark and disturbing pretty quickly.

lost property office Lost Property Office (Australia, 10 minutes), the first of the "Highly Commended" shorts used as filler to stretch the full prohram to a barely feature length 83 minutes, is another stop motion short, this one in black and white with impressively detailed, art deco cityscapes. It's just a man who ultimately gets laid off and finds a way to turn all the junk he works with into an escape, but it does have its charms.

weeds Weeds (USA, 3 minutes) is the shortest of all the shorts here, but as a brief parable about "daring to dream," does wind up being memorable, as we watch a dandelion struggle to escape the fatally dry and hot part of a sidewalk and make it to where a nearby sprinkler hits. Short as it is, it's easy to see this one only barely missing out on getting an Oscar nomination, particularly considering its crisply rendered animation.

achoo Achoo (France, 7 minutes), on the other hand, is easily the weakest of all offerings here, and it's too bad it gets presented last instead of allowing something strong to be used for going out with a bang. At least there is a "bang" here, as it tells us how fireworks were created -- by a dragon with a cold. The animation here is well done, but the story is somewhat weak, and I can't really decide how I feel about the rendering of the one Chinese human character, who is a little too much of a caricature, even for a cartoon.



lou

Overall: B+

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action

DeKalb Elementary: B+
The Silent Child: B+
My Nephew Emmett: A-
The Eleven O'Clock: B+
Watu Wote / All of Us: A-

dekalb elementary DeKalb Elementary (USA, 21 minutes) is an impressively tense short film for how spare it is in production design: a possible school shooter walks in with a gun, and all we ever see for all 21 minutes of the run time is the reception area where the young man spends his time. We never know whether he might actually shoot someone, but soon learn he has mental issues an is off his meds, and the entirely black staff, particularly an unlucky woman covering reception just for the day, helps talk him down. All of the action takes place exclusively in this one room, but the characters each effectively evoke their individual worlds outside of it.

the silent child What The Silent Child (UK, 20 minutes) lacks in resolution, it makes up for in messaging: this is about a little deaf girl whose parents don't quite understand the importance of teaching her sign language, and the young teacher who tries in vain to explain it to them. We learn at the end of this filn that while 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, 78% of deaf children attend hearing schools. This film has little chance of winning the Oscar, given the racially charged political climate tipping the odds in favor of the several shorts that address racial issues, but for this one, the win is truly just in getting nominated -- exposure to these issues is the key. This is the first of four shorts out of those nominated that shows footage of the cast and crew learning of their nomination. This one is well deserved, and in all cases it's fun and touching to see the filmmakers so excited.

my nephew emmett My Nephew Emmett (USA, 20 minutes) features a very slow and deliberate pace, and eases us into the realization that it's based on the true story of Emmett Till, a young black man murdered in Mississippi or simply whistling at a white woman. His 64-year-old uncle tries, ultimately in vain, to protect this boy visiting from Chicago where social mores are a little different. Soon enough to white man arrive at the house, armed, leaving the residents of the home powereless to stop them from taking the young man away. Needless to say, this one is a bit of a downer in the end, but it's no less powerful for it, and is the strongest short film among these five. It would get my vote for the Oscar.

the eleven o'clock Every year there has to be at least one live action short that is more light-hearted and fun, lest the whole bunch of them lure us al into a deep depression. The Eleven O'Clock (Australia, 13 minutes) is this year's example, a comic story of a psychiatrist seeing a patient who is convinced he is himself a pyschiatrist. It quickly becomes clear that we, the viewer, do not know exactly who truly is the psychiatrist and who is the patient. The inevitable twist at the end could not be more predictable, but the film is still a worthy bit of a good time.

Watu Wote / All of Us (Germany / Kenya, 22 minutes) closes out this year's live action set with what turns out to be the true story of a bus raided by Muslim extremists on the border between Kenya and Somalia. When the one Chrisian woman on the bus, whose husband and baby were previously killed by Muslims and thus made her deeply hateful, is protected by all the Muslims on board, it's tempting to feel the story is a little contrived. But, then you learn that this is based on true events, and it becomes more genuinely affecting. There's still a slight note of "can't we all just get along" to the proceedings, tense as they are, and it's also tempting to roll one's eyes at that. But once this relatively brief story is done being told, it proves more moving than expected.

watu wote all of us
Overall: B+