Friday, January 31, 2020

Oscar Nominated Shorts Reviews

I quite enjoy going through the Oscar nominated shorts every year – when I can at least, it’s not always possible. This year, I haven’t been able to see all of them, but a combination of Vimeo, Youtube, Netflix and other sites meant I could see most of them. Below are reviews, by category, of the twelve out of fifteen shorts I have been able to see so far. For each category, I start with my least favorite, and work my way up.
Sister *** / *****
Directed by: Siqi Song.
Written by: Siqi Song.
Sister, by Chinese director Siqi Song, is an interesting looking short. It’s a stop motion animated film, using figures that are essentially like sock puppets. In narration, we hear a man talk about his little sister – how she annoyed him as a baby, and how she continued to annoy him as he grew up. There are little vignettes – places in times – where the two characters’ poke and prod at each other the way siblings do. The short is only about 8 minutes long, but honestly, for about 6 of those minutes – even as the film looks quite good – you do wonder where the story is going, or why Song felt the need to tell it. The reason does come out – and its kind of gut punch – but I’m not sure it really works as it feels like a cheat. Still, the film looks very good, and the message is good – but there were other, better ways to tell this story.
Kitbull *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Rosana Sullivan.
Written by: Rosana Sullivan.
Kitbull is an amusing little short about the unlikely friendship between an adorable kitten with huge eyes, who lives in an alley, and a pit bull, whose owner chains him out back, and (it is implied anyway) uses him for dog fighting. The kitten is fearful of anything – including the pit bull – but the pit bull is a big softy at heart, and soon the two of them are playing with a bottle cap together – and slowly bond. The film is nothing more than that – it’s a very amusing 8 minutes, with a heartfelt ending designed to elicit tears, and a cartoon-y animation style that brings to mind classic short cartoons. It lacks ambition, surely, but it’s so good at what it does – looks so good – and is so much fun, you won’t care.
Memorable **** / *****
Directed by: Bruno Collet.
Written by: Bruno Collet.
I have seen a few animated shorts that get nominated over the years about an older person slowly losing their memories – it’s a surefire way to build emotional stakes, while at the same time the short runtime doesn’t lend itself to repeating itself. But Bruno Collet’s Memorable is one of the best of the sort I have seen. The best thing about it is the animation itself – the man whose memory is fading is a painter, who uses his hands when painting, and Memorable takes that as its cue for the visual look – the characters and backgrounds look like thick coats of painted, sloppily, yet beautifully constructed. There are only two characters – the man and his wife, and it’s a beautiful and heartfelt film – as his mind goes, and doesn’t remember who she is, he is still stunned by her beauty. In terms of its story, Memorable isn’t all that new – but in terms of how it looks, it is one of the best in its field.
Hair Love **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Matthew A. Cherry & Everett Downing Jr. & Bruce W. Smith.
Written by: Matthew A. Cherry.
The most widely seen of any of the nominated shorts this year (it played in front of The Angry Birds 2 movie, and quite frankly was the only reason to see that awful film) is Hair Love. Directed by Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr. and Bruce W. Smith, Hair Love is the heartwarming story a little African American girl, with an unruly head of hair, who wants it styled just like mom used to – but with mom away, dad struggles to do things right. The film is an absolute charmer from start to finish – fun and funny, wonderfully animated, and ending on a note of pure heartwarming goodness. This is an example of what great animated shorts can do – in 7-minutes, the filmmakers deliver a very specific cultural story, in an extremely entertaining, funny, heartfelt and brilliantly animated package. The highlight of the shorts this year to be sure.
Live Action
Nefta Football Club ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Yves Piat.
Written by: Yves Piat.
Featuring: Eltayef Dhaoui, Mohamed Ali Ayari, Lyes Salem, Hichem Mesbah.
Nefta Football Club is a very slight short – running just 17-minutes – set in the middle of nowhere in Tunisia. Two young brothers find a donkey wandering around out there in the desert, with headphones playing music on, and bags of white powder strapped to its back, and decide to take it to their village – the older one knowing what going on, but lying to his brother about it. Meanwhile, two bumbling men are looking for that same donkey, and cannot figure out where it is. This is all supposed to be comic, with misunderstandings with both pairs at its core, but I don’t really think director Yves Piat’s film really goes anywhere. You see the ending – and the final shot – coming from the beginning, and when you get that far ahead of a short right from the start, you’re in trouble. Mildly amusing, but not something I suspect you’ll remember.
The Neighbor’s Window **** / *****
Directed by: Marshall Curry.
Written by:  Marshall Curry.
Featuring: Maria Dizzia, Greg Keller, Juliana Canfield.
Marshall Curry, who directed the wonderful documentary short A Night at the Garden, nominated last year, moves into fiction territory with The Neighbor’s Window – a 20-minute film about how we should be grateful for what we have, and never really know what is going on with others. The film stars the wonderful Maria Dizzia as a New York mother – with two kids, and a third on the way (who we will see nursing as the film progresses). Along with her husband, Greg Keller, they are struggling with what many couples with kids struggle with – the pains of raising kids, of growing older, of settling into a routine, etc. Then a younger couple move into the building across the way – and leave their blinds open all the time, so the older couple see them having sex, throwing parties, and generally being young and having no responsibilities – until, of course, something happens. The film doesn’t go in any of the sordid directions you may think – it’s actually quietly profound in the way it makes you re-evaluate everything in the end. Everyone always wants something else – and we often don’t see it, because we are trapped in our own perspectives.
Brotherhood **** / *****
Directed by: Meryam Joobeur.
Written by: Meryam Joobeur.
Featuring: Kais Ayari, Mohamed Grayaa, Mouldi Kriden, Jasmin Lazid, Walid Loued, Alaeddine Mandhouj.
A lot of acclaimed shorts end up as features at some point – and often, the features don’t work as well, as they feel like what they are – a story that should be told in 30 minutes, ballooned up to take 90. Brotherhood is different – this 25 minute short would be well-served with a feature length treatment, as there is so much here worthy of explored, that the very talented writer/director Meryam Joobeur, a Tunisian-Canadian film director, only touches upon. Brotherhood is a film about Mohamed, a father raising his sons with his wife, who is shaken when his oldest son returns from Syria – where he went to fight – with a new wife, a young teenager who stays quiet and completely covered. It makes him question everything – and he grows angry at the son he feels he no longer knows. But, of course, it isn’t that simple. A longer version could add more complexity to the story, and the characters who aren’t Mohamed – and make that strong ending, even stronger. Still, this is a great short film – and one that makes me curious for what Joobeur will do next.
A Sister
Directed by: Delphine Girard
Written by: Delphine Girard
Featuring: Selma Alaoui, Veerle Baetens, Guillaume Duhesme.
In many ways, the simplest of the nominees – and one that will likely remind some people of the 2018 feature The Guilty – all about one long 911 phone call, where we never leave the operator. This one though does flash back and forth between a woman calling 911 after she has been taken by an acquaintance, but is not free to talk as he can hear what she is saying (she pretends she is talking to her sister, about her son) – and the 911 operator who has to figure out what to do. The film is tense, building the tension up throughout its 16-minute runtime. It’s no more complex than that – but it’s just expertly handled throughout its runtime – and I’d be curious to see what Girard does next if she moves into feature thrillers. Unlike some of the other films here, that are shorts that seem to want to be features, this one is perfect as is.
Walk, Run, Cha-Cha *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Laura Nix.
Walk, Run, Cha-Cha is a lovely, calm little doc – it runs just 20 minutes, and tells a small, intimate story. It is the story of Paul and Millie Cao – both originally from Vietnam. They met back in their home country, and dated for six months – before Paul and his parents had to flee for America to get away from the communists. He and Millie never lost touch – but they didn’t see each other for 6 years – and were nervous that they wouldn’t still be right for each other after that time apart. But now, they’ve been together ever since. Now, in their twilight years, their daughter is grown, living her own life, they have successful careers – and they spend practically every night dancing the cha-cha. They take lessons, they go to the club. They just love it – and each other. In many ways, this is a gentle film – a small, not very ambitious film. Which makes it perfect for a 20-minute doc (longer would not work). But it’s also quietly profound – and quite lovely, building to a great final sequence that may just bring a tear to your eye. Yes, it’s minor – but it’s so lovely, who can complain?
Life Overtakes Me**** / *****
Directed by: John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson.
Life Overtakes is a timely and powerful documentary about refugee children, living in Sweden, who suffer from something called “Regression Syndrome” - where essentially they fall into a coma like state for months or years at a time. There is nothing medically wrong with them – but they have suffered so much in the past, and the stress of their new existence in Sweden – mainly the stress of not knowing if they’ll be able to stay there, or be sent back to a place where they may be killed, makes them fall into this state. Life Overtakes Me is a documentary that in many ways uses the syndrome as its guiding force – this is a calm documentary, at times a very beautiful one, that takes it time in telling its story. No doubt about it, some of the stories of the families who came are heartbreaking and horrific and the film doesn’t shy away from that – but it is a very quiet film just the same. The film tells these stories, and speculates on why it seems to happen in Sweden – and not elsewhere (although an end title card says that similar cases are now happening in Australia). Whatever the reason, this is a serious issue – and a further reminder of the harm we are doing to children, who just want a better life when they flee with their families.
In the Absence **** / *****
Directed by: Seung-jun Yi.
Seung-jun Yi’s In the Absence is in many ways a very simple film – and yet it is in its simplicity that it finds it powers. The film is about the Sewol ferry disaster back in 2013 in Korea – where a ferry tiled, and eventually sank, killing hundreds of people, most of them students on a field trip. The first third of the film – which is the best part of the movie – documents what happened as the ship slowly sank – where the government seemed more concerned about getting a camera on the ship than rescuing everyone. People did get out – including the Captain – but the response was shockingly slow and inept. From there, the film documents what happened next – the divers who spent months going back in to pull out the bodies, the protests against the President, whose action didn’t help anything that day, and may have hurt (she has other problems to) – to the point where they finally salvage the ship, years later. It is in many ways, simple – but it is a powerful overview of a massive tragedy, that perhaps didn’t get the attention outside of Korea it deserved.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) **** / *****
Directed by: Carol Dysinger.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) is the perfect subject for a short documentary. It is about a group of female teachers in Afghanistan who recruit young girls to come to school – they teach them to read and write and do math – skills that their mothers never learned, because under the Taliban they weren’t allowed, and many families still don’t want them educated. They also teach them to skateboard. Director Carol Dysinger gets great footage of these young Afghan girls – wearing their safety equipment, skateboarding – inside, of course – and slowly getting better and better. It is an inspiration film – watching these girls learn and come out of their shell. It’s also a film tinged with sadness – one girl talking about how her older sisters are not allowed to come here – the Skatistan as it’s called – because when they get older women cannot go outside, and then realizing that one of her older sisters is just 13 – one year older than the girl talking. The film is a reminder about this country – that has been a war for decades, and the struggle that is still going on there – wrapped in a feel good package that offers hope, but not blind optimism.

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