Review: 2019 Oscar-Nominated Short Films (2020)

2019 Oscar-Nominated Short Films


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Daria Kashcheeva (Dcera (Daughter)), Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., Bruce W. Smith (Hair Love), Rosana Sullivan (Kitbull), Bruno Collet (Memorable), Siqi Song (Sister), Meryam Joobeur (Brotherhood), Yves Piat (Nefta Football Club), Marshall Curry (The Neighbors’ Window), Bryan Buckley (Saria), Delphine Girard (A Sister), Yi Seung-jun (In the Absence), Carol Dysinger (Learning to Skateboard…), John Haptas, Kristine Samuelson (Life Overtakes Me), Sami Khan, Smiriti Mundhra (St. Louis Superman), Laura Nix (Walk Run Cha-Cha)


Daria Kashcheeva (Dcera (Daughter)), Matthew A. Cherry (Hair Love), Rosana Sullivan (Kitbull), Bruno Collet (Memorable), Siqi Song (Sister), Meryam Joobeur (Brotherhood), Yves Piat (Nefta Football Club), Marshall Curry (The Neighbors’ Window), Bryan Buckley (Saria), Delphine Girard (A Sister), None (In the Absence), None (Learning to Skateboard…), None (Life Overtakes Me), None (St. Louis Superman), Laura Nix (Walk Run Cha-Cha)


15 min. (Dcera (Daughter)), 7 min. (Hair Love), 9 min. (Kitbull), 12 min. (Memorable), 8 min. (Sister), 25 min. (Brotherhood), 17 min. (Nefta Football Club), 20 min. (The Neighbors’ Window), 23 min. (Saria), 16 min. (A Sister), 28 min. (In the Absence), 39 min. (Learning to Skateboard…), 39 min. (Life Overtakes Me), 28 min. (St. Louis Superman), 20 min. (Walk Run Cha-Cha)


None (Dcera (Daughter)), Issa Rae (Hair Love), None (Kitbull), Dominique Reymond, André Wilms (Memorable), None (Sister), Mohamed Grayaa, Salha Nasoraoui (Brotherhood), Eltayef Dhaoui, Mohamed Ali Ayari, Lyès Salem, Hichem Mesbah (Nefta Football Club), Maria Dizzia, Greg Keller, Juliana Canfield, Bret Lada (The Neighbors’ Window), Estefania Tellez, Gabriela Ramirez, Veronica Zniga (Saria), Veerle Baetens, Selma Alaoui, Guillaume Duhesme (A Sister)

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Animated Short Film

Dcera (Daughter)

A stop-motion animated short about a young girl who reflects on the disconnected life she had with her single father while watching him in his hospital bed, Dcera (Daughter) is an exploration of grief and regret. As the girl stares at her father’s body, she remembers back to the wounded bird she once tried to rescue, but which her father was incapable of showing the necessary remorse the young girl desired.

The animation is superb, using a papier-maché-like medium. When the film comes to a close, it does so a bit late. We’re left wondering if the young girl has realized her mistake just in the nick of time or too late to be of any use. It’s a compelling idea, but the dialogue-free narrative can’t quite stick the landing. The impermanence of memory may or may not be a key element to the film’s narrative, but that lack of clarity hurts the film more than it helps leaving the animation alone to carry the work as a whole.

Hair Love

Hair Love started out as a successful Kickstarter project and the end result is a wonderful blend of humor and pathos. The story revolves around a young girl wanting to have her hair done in a fascinating, but complex style, one that her Youtube inspiration has done previously. However, she is unable to get her hair to do what she wants it to do with her father also trying to tackle the mess of hair, but facing his own battle to tame her mane.

As the short plays, you begin to suspect the reason why the child is upset about not being able to get her hair to respond appropriately and why her father’s inability to help exacerbates the problem. Those expectations, however, are subverted in the last sequence, which is as poignant as it is satisfying. The animation is wonderful and creative while the narrative is immensely unforgettable.


When you look at an animation style and wonder why it would be an Oscar nominee, especially opposite so many other more detailed and fascinating projects, there has to be something else that sets it apart. That distinctiveness of Kitbul won’t reveal itself until the last third and it will more than make up for any misgivings the viewer might have had about the applied style.

The story is that of a stray kitten returning to its abandoned box home on the streets with a tasty treat, but her territory is soon threatened by an aggressive pitbull. As the two unfamiliar creatures play a subtle game of cat and mouse (or is that dog and cat), we learn more about why the pitbull is there and how one or the other might maintain the upper hand. This film is emotionally gutting in the best possible way and might just be the best of the five animated features, though Hair Love is a also strong contender for that title.


The pain and misery that result form Alzheimer’s Disease have been explored countless times on the big and small screen. In Mémorable, the man who’s suffering from the deteriorating condition is a painter, which explains the influence behind the stop-motion animation.

As the surface of his and his wife’s characters shifts throughout the film from one painting style to another, the audience is provided all the information they need to understand just how far this man is slipping and how easy it is for those not around him to forget the debilitating nature of it. The animation is absolutely lovely, though the narrative is a little too familiar. That doesn’t prevent the short from feeling like a gorgeous piece of art.


Another stop-motion short, Sister tells the story of a young Chinese boy and the life he has shared with his sister. With the terminal twist re-setting everything we know about the story, Sister touches briefly on an important social issue facing the Chinese people. The fuzzy stop-motion animated design seems ill-suited to the concept at hand and the use of black-and-white as a palette doesn’t help connect the piece to the viewer.

The weakest of the five animated short nominees, Sister allows the narrator to pull us along the story with dull, albeit creative animation. The inventiveness of the embellished by the style, allowing the short to stand out more than it otherwise would have. Unfortunately, the core of the narrative, while interesting and heartbreaking doesn’t connect emotionally and the evocation that could have been had is all but muted.

Live Action Short Film


Brotherhood explores the fractured relationship between a Tunisian shepherd and his son who left to fight alongside ISIS in Syria. When he returns home the fractures deepen as the father must decide whether to embrace his son and his new wife or betray them both to his own political leanings. In failing to yield a more comprehensive ending, Brotherhood largely falters.

This short film lingers not in the mind or heart, but in the tedium of its length, giving us scenes that feel both unnecessary and out of place. The audience wants to get into the meat of the story immediately, but is instead required to wait for it to get to the point. When it does, the admirable refusal to explain itself in detail also inhibits the audience from understanding what they are seeing. Some members of the audience should be able to read between the lines, but the end results will be unrequited.

Nefta Football Club

Another North African-set film follows two football-obsessed kids who happen across a drug mule in the middle of the desert and take the contents of its satchels back to their home. Explaining the plot beyond that might risk ruining the rather simplistic denoument.

A short film like this could have done well speaking to the dangerousness of the drug trade in this region of the world, but tries too hard to find the humor in the situations. The semi-bumbling drug runners who’ve lost the mule don’t add significantly to the plot except to extend the length of something that could have been truncated a bit. There’s little substance to the film, which makes it difficult to understand what the point of it all was, since it doesn’t seem to tackle any important issues.

The Neighbors’ Window

This is the kind of short film that can successfully subvert expectations and pay off its viewers’ attention in unique and fascinating ways. The crux of the story is that of a couple with three children. The pair find their lives frustratingly mundane and stagnating. A chance glance across the street into a neighboring apartment sees a newlywed couple in the throes of passion.

As the couple becomes engrossed in the lives of their neighbors, living vicariously through them, the tension between the pair begins to fray their relationship as neither feels that the other has been devoting enough attention to their marriage. New events begin to unfold across the street, which force the wife to reexamine their voyeuristic approach and the life she leads in comparison to that of their neighbors.

It’s a narrative short film that takes the audience into unexpected territory with a devastating conclusion. This is the kind of inventive storytelling that establishes new voices in the realm of filmmaking. It’s a production that while uneven in part early on, more the delivers in its conclusion.


A heart-wrenching story about a Guatemalan orphanage where young boys and girls are treated like prisoners, forced to perform chores to their matron’s specification, and who dream of nothing more than finding freedom on the other side of the wall.

Based on the tragic story of a fatal orphanage fire, the director and stars of this short film bring the audience into their lives for a short period of time, exploring their hopes, dreams, and expectations for the future. It’s a look at the aggravating conditions faced by young children around the world trapped in orphanages for myriad reasons, not all of which are related to having no parents. Saria spends just enough time getting into the story and then getting back out again that the final moments are utterly devastating.

A Sister

An emergency services operator receives a call from a young woman who feels endangered by the man who has agreed to give her a ride home. As the story unravels, we learn a great deal about the woman and the sister that the emergency operator pretends to be so that she can keep the young woman on the phone long enough to carry out a rescue.

The film starts off unevenly, but builds its tension quickly and honestly as the audience fears for the young woman’s life. Director Delphine Girard doesn’t turn the driver into a moustache-twirling villain. In fact, she portrays him at first as just a concerned boyfriend driving his girlfriend home; however, as the film progresses, our concern for the woman builds, coloring our perception of her captor.

This subversion of expectations helps deliver on the notion that a potential harasser or assaulter may appear outwardly innocent, but that perceived innocence is what keeps men from being thought capable of such heinous crimes. We only get snippets of the driver and the woman’s faces, requiring the emergency operator to carry the bulk of the tension on her own face, a task at which she excels.

Documentary Short Film

In the Absence

In South Korea, In the Absence looks at the deadly 2014 ferry disaster that sank in Sewol and the bungled emergency response that toppled a presidential administration. The short unfolds linearly as the events unfold, using archive footage and survivor interviews to explore the incredibly tone-deaf rescue effort that resulted in the deaths of 304 passengers and crew, 250 of which were high school students.

Like Titanic itself, the audience is gripped by the gravity and tragedy of the incident. As the boat slowly sinks, we hear recorded conversations between the emergency management bureau and the first responders who are hesitant to act without orders while the desperation of the situation becomes exceedingly apparent. Somehow, watching the incident happen almost in real-time makes the awfulness more resonant and even after years of trying to avenge their loved ones, the continued lack of support from the government only exacerbates the situation. As the short finishes off with aspects of the trial of president Park Guen-hye and her administration, the damage is done and the audience merely awaits a hopeful conclusion. This is an engaging and enraging slow-burn documentary that benefits greatly from the eye-witness footage and post-event commentary.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

In Afghanistan, a war-torn country where the Taliban has been struggling for control, the smallest act can be seen as an act of defiance. Learning to Skateboard details the stories of several young girls in Kabul who attend a special school called Skateistan where they learn to read, write, do math, and skateboard. Excited to learn, these children act in defiance of conservative law by gaining an education and learning courage in the process.

Laudatory in its aim, Learning to Skateboard focuses mostly on interviews with the girls, their parents, and their teachers, all of whom express the concerns and frustrations of a people constantly living in fear of being killed simply for not adhering to tradition and for allowing these kids to learn when doctrine would dictate that they did not. Although the film does a solid job presenting the environment in which these girls are growing up and learning, the whole films feels more like a point-by-point examination of its subject rather than an emotionally-investing production. That keeps the film from feeling more significant than simply important.

Life Overtakes Me

In Sweden, a surprising number of Syrian immigrant children have fallen into comas as the stress of moving and the prospects of being turned away cause their brains to shut out the world around them. The film examines the lives of three families who are facing life with one of their children unresponsive and their own plights tenuously connected to whether the Swedish government wishes to grant them asylum.

The primary story here is one couple who describe in jarring detail the events that led them to seek a better life far removed from Syria. He ran a telecommunications company being harassed by the government to shut off service to certain areas in an effort to minimize the dissemination of dangerous (to the government) information. After his escape to Sweden, his wife and children must join him after those same individuals who threatened him began harassing them, threatening their deaths if he did not turn back up. It’s these stories that grip the audience as the comatose children are worrisome, but a byproduct of the situation rather than the cause. The documentary does an adequate job getting the audience acquainted with the characters, but then spends far too long looking at gorgeous Swedish scenery as the tales are unspooled for the audience. It’s a poignant, but almost facile way to handle the narrative’s structure.

St. Louis Superman

In St. Louis, Missouri, United States, a young father embarks on a journey to stop the spread of teen violence by becoming a part of the system he despises. As a member of the state house of representatives, Bruce Franks Jr. shifts from activist and battle rapper to politician in an effort to declare youth violence a public health emergency while bringing closure to his own childhood trauma surrounding the death of his older brother.

As the film progresses, we follow Franks through his time as a member of the state house and his concurrent activism. The documentary seems to want to focus on two stories, one the pervasiveness of teen violence, and two the trauma Franks has been through with his attendance of numerous children’s funerals. That mental health issue is brought to bear in the film’s latter minutes, shifting the documentary’s focus. That change in directions, speaking differently towards the subject on display isn’t incredibly well woven into the whole. While both subjects are compelling and important, that failure to focus one or the other makes it all feel a bit imbalanced.

Walk Run Cha-Cha

In Los Angeles, California, United States, a middle-aged Vietnamese couple has reunited after 40 years separated with him in the United States and her back in Vietnam. We learn their story and about their passion for one another as the pair takes ballroom dancing lessons. Walk Run Cha-Cha is the least politically oriented of the five nominees for Live Action Short Film, but what it lacks in relevancy, it more than makes up for with verve and fervor.

With scenes of the pair’s daily lives with friends and in the tutelage of two dance instructors, we watch as the couple rediscovers themselves and their lost youths while embracing each other on the dance floor. This documentary may not seem like it has a lot to say, but it’s a passionate exploration of ruined youth, lost love, and hopeful re-connection. The rhythm of the cha-cha that they are learning helps punctuate the short’s zeal and ends with a wonderful dance routine as the two finally unify in ballroom style. The documentary feels like the most cohesive and connective of the five and bringing the audience successfully into this couple’s lives, which is proof of its concept and execution.

Review Written

January 28, 2020

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