Review: 2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films (2021)

2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films

Rating

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Director

Animated: Madeline Sharafian (Burrow), Adrien Merigeau (Genius Loci), Michael Govier, Will McCormack (If Anything Happens I Love You), Erick Oh (Opera), Gísli Darri Halldórsson (Yes-People); Live Action: Doug Roland (Feeling Through), Elvira Lind (The Letter Room), Farah Nabulsi (The Present), Travon Free, Martin Desmond Rose (Two Distant Strangers), Tomer Shushan (White Eye); Documentary: Anthony Giacchino (Colette), Kris Bowers, Ben Proudfoot (A Concerto Is a Conversation), Anders Hammer (Do Not Split), Skye Fitzgerald (Hunger Ward), and Sophia Nahli Allison (A Love Song for Latasha).

Screenplay

Animated: Madeline Sharafian (Burrow), Adrien Merigeau, Nicolas Pleskof (Genius Loci), Michael Govier, Will McCormack (If Anything Happens I Love You), None (Opera), Gísli Darri Halldórsson (Yes-People); Live Action: Doug Roland (Feeling Through), Elvira Lind (The Letter Room), Farah Nabulsi, Hind Shoufani (The Present), Travon Free (Two Distant Strangers), Tomer Shushan (White Eye); Documentary: Anthony Giacchino (Colette), Ben Proudfoot (A Concerto Is a Conversation), Joey Siu, Rocky S. Tuan (Do Not Split), None (Hunger Ward), and None (A Love Song for Latasha).

Length

Animated: 6m (Burrow), 16m (Genius Loci), 13m (If Anything Happens I Love You), 9m (Opera), 8m (Yes-People); Live Action: 18m (Feeling Through), 33m (The Letter Room), 24m (The Present), 32m (Two Distant Strangers), 20m (White Eye); Documentary: 24m (Colette), 13m (A Concerto Is a Conversation), 35m (Do Not Split), 40m (Hunger Ward), and 19m (A Love Song for Latasha).

Starring

Animated: None (Burrow), Nadia Moussa, Georgia Cusack, Jina Djemba (Genius Loci), None (If Anything Happens I Love You), None (Opera), Helga Braga Jónsdóttir, Jón Gnarr, Þorvaldur Davíð Kristjánsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, Kristján Franklin Magnúss, Sigurður Sigurjónsson (Yes-People), Live Action: Steven Prescod, Robert Tarango, Francisco Burgos, Alestair Shu, Javier Rodriguez, Coffey, Jose Toro, Luis Antonio Aponte (Feeling Through), Oscar Isaac, Alia Shawkat, Brian Petsos, Tony Gillan, Michael Hernandez, Eilsen Galindo, John Douglas Thompson, Kenneth Heaton, Larry Smith, Guillermo Estrada, William Merrell (The Letter Room), Saleh Bakri, Mariam Kanj, Mariam Basha (The Present), Joey Bada$$, Andrew Howard, Zaria Simone, Mona Sishodia, Cameron Early, Jeremy Rivette, Trevor Morgan (Two Distant Strangers), Daniel Gad, Dawit Tekelaeb, Reut Akkerman, Amira Bushari, Gosha Demin, and Hameis El-Sheikh (White Eye).

MPAA Rating

N/A

Original Preview

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Review

Animated Short Film

Burrow


Long before Pixar made its name as the preeminent producer of animated features, they had turned out numerous award-winning short films that revolutionized the computer generated animation industry. Every new short film from Pixar is a chance to marvel at their ingenuity and creativity. Over the last several years, Pixar’s short films have continued striking out in new directions, just like their film slate, but with far more duds than before. Case in point is Burrow.

This story of a little brown rabbit who hopes to make her dream home only to discover that her numerous burrowing neighbors have created realms of far more creativity than hers. As she tries to escape their attempts to assist her, she burrows deeper and deeper until she risks the homes of all of the creatures she’s dug through. On the surface, it’s an interesting idea that’s supposed to suggest that small dreams can become big dreams if we just learn to rely on our neighbors, but the rudimentary animation, the wordless runtime, and the lack of emotional investment strike a marked difference from a lot of the studio’s better efforts. This is reminiscent of the failure of The Good Dinosaur, which only showed that Pixar’s feature animation department is fallible. Now we know that this satisfactory, but unexceptional animated short film is a testament to their imperfection in the short animation space as well.

Genius Loci


For the observant and contemplative, Genius Loci is the kind of film that works on numerous levels, but requires complete understanding of its purpose to truly appreciate the work. In this short film, a young woman finds herself scattered as she attempts to flee an unknown situation, lost in her own mind and unable to find a way forward that doesn’t lead towards failure.

The animation here isn’t complex, but its simplistic nature gives way to complex emotional excess at times, helping the audience identify with the chaotic nature of the protagonist’s mind as she maneuvers through a cityscape of potential conflict while her mind is equally endangered by the thoughts swirling about with no outlet. This loner at the center of the story attempts to find her equilibrium, but manages to create more problems than she solves. Is the film about one woman’s failure to rationalize her foibles or is it about the inner turmoil of the perpetually anxious, always finding a way to mess up the best things in life. Identifiable in a fascinating way, it’s not a short film of unparalleled beauty, but it is one of intimate depth.

If Anything Happens I Love You


A common characteristic of three of this year’s animated shorts is exemplified in this simple, yet evocative short film. If Anything Happens I Love explores the grief of two parents whose child has died leaving their connection to each other strained. As the film progresses, we learn all about the lovely young girl that had formed such a core part of the family’s dynamics and eventually reveals the tragedy that took her away from them.

Deceptively simple animation characterizes this short film’s breadth, but it’s the complexity of emotion beneath it all that keeps the entirety unified until its devastating conclusion. If you can avoid detailed synopses of this film, the ending hits with a cataclysmic impact, providing additional depth and relevance to the story. If Anything Happens I Love You is a film that each of us can connect with if we give it half a moment and exemplifies the power of the animation medium, giving the narrative a richness of purpose that symbolically rips the family and the audience apart until it can bring them back together in an effort to collectively grieve.

Opera


Watching this short film requires a great deal of focus as the wordless animation spans several minutes of richly detailed animations that seem independent, but ultimately weave together in fascinating ways. It might require numerous viewings to catch every interconnected detail, but the viewer will certainly be rewarded for that.

The short begins at the top of a pyramid and slowly pans down the massive structure as individual rooms are busy carrying out mysterious duties that eventually become obvious, a contemplation on the ebb and flow of societal constructs, most specifically the hold religion has over its practitioners and its place in society. When the short reaches the bottom, we see the basic needs of civilization reach its cyclical conclusion and then the camera slowly progresses back up the pyramid as the cycle renews again. The lack of an explicatory element at the beginning of the film makes it difficult to pick up on what’s happening until you’ve almost lost the first images at the top of the screen. From that point forward, things begin connecting together and becoming clear to the audience, which is what may prompt the viewer to watch a second or a third time just to make sure they catch it all.

Yes-People


As this unusual short film follows its course throughout a single day in the lives of the denizens of a small apartment complex, we are treated to various types and backgrounds of individuals existing through the tedium and excitement of their various lives. The lone word any of them say, applying various intonations, durations, and exclamatory inflections, is “já,” the Icelandic word for “yes.”

From the aging couple who have a simple, but seemingly distant relationship to the young mother and her teenage son performing the characteristic dance of parent and child to a number of other interesting figures, Yes-People is a slice of life short film with mildly humorous incidents and a fluid animation style. That it doesn’t seem to go very many places and appears content to leave the audience with a matter-of-fact glimpse of simple lives lived simply, this short film may be the most difficult of all to connect to even when we easily empathize with all of the characters’ actions and temporary conclusions. An amusing, diverting time, but not necessarily one that demands excitement.

Live Action Short Film

Feeling Through


This short drama about a homeless Black teen struggling to keep his friends from discovering his secret finds his life turned upside down when he comes across a blind-and-deaf White man looking for assistance in getting onto a bus and getting home. At first, the young man can only think about finding a place to stay for the night, but his compassion for the disabled man leads him to a new perspective.

Tackling a number of issues simultaneously, Feeling Through is a snapshot of two lives that meet at a crossroads, one a Black teen who doesn’t want to become the homeless man begging for scraps from unconcerned passers-by, and the other a simple man whose disabilities don’t keep him from leading as normal a life as he can, but who relies heavily on others for his safety and protection. It’s a touching story that sneaks up on the viewer with the well-told and humane narrative unfolding with grace and compassion.

The Letter Room


Oscar Isaac plays a prison guard wanting to move up in the world, to become an advocate for the prisoners he watches. Unfortunately, he’s trapped in a system that treats the inmates with skepticism and suspicion. In a long-sought-after promotion, he feels he’ll finally have his chance to succeed beyond his current job, but finds himself stuck in an unexpected position reading incoming prisoner correspondence, in which he becomes emotionally involved, especially after discovering one of the letters is written by a young woman who wants to keep her suicide pact intact with her death row inmate paramour.

Isaac is dependably good, but the script is a bit scattershot. The film expects the audience to feel sympathy towards its characters, but doesn’t quite give them the tools to identify with them. Isaac’s character is personable and a regular, lonely schlub, and one of the death row prisoners is given a humane touch, but these characters just cannot get past their thinly developed premises. The short hopes to make a statement about giving those who cannot expect much something to hope for, but ends up feeling unnecessarily voyeuristic and modestly empty by its conclusion.

The Present


A fascinating exploration of tensions between Israel and Palestine, this simple yet evocative story asks the audience to question what is the minimum of compassion we can muster for its protagonist. For their wedding anniversary a middle aged father (Saleh Bakri) embarks on a quest to buy his wife a refrigerator, taking his young daughter with him. Things start off poorly at the Israeli checkpoint where Bakri is subjected to intense questioning and temporarily imprisoned while his possessions are thoroughly checked for illicit goods. Once released, he’s able to buy the groceries he’d also sought and secure delivery of his refrigerator. On the way home, he must once again pass through the checkpoint with a wrenched back, no pain medication, and a weary child wanting little more than some common decency.

The Present explores the fraught relationship between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank where Palestinians are treated with suspicion and harassed when attempting to carry out their usual routines. This shocking short film gives the audience a horrifying glimpse into a situation where the most basic dignity is denied due to a conflict exacerbated by political interests who too often treat their neighbors like criminals rather than human beings. The film will be a tough sell to anyone who favors Israel’s treatment of Palestine, but for those who defend Palestine, it offers a brilliant look at the indignities visited upon people simply trying to exist and enables those compassionate individuals to demand change for fear of one people turning into the oppressors decades after being oppressed themselves.

Two Distant Strangers


Groundhog Day was such a revolutionary film that countless imitators have popped up in the last three decades attempting to capture the feel while trying to break new ground. Two Distant Strangers is largely successful at this as it looks at a chance encounter between a young Black man and the White cop who kills him over and over in this stunning look at bigotry and malice.

Carter (Joey Bada$$) is a successful graphic designer in New York City. As he wakes up in the bed of the woman he slept with the night before, he embarks on the day as any other would; however, the first sign of issue is when he steps outside and is harassed by Officer Merk (Andrew Howard) on suspicion of being a drug dealer. As the conflict builds between them, a helpless street vendor captures everything on video, a cop assaulting and then murdering an innocent Black man. It’s a dynamic we’ve seen play out in the news countless times over the last several years with protestors highlighting these senseless and barbaric acts and demanding change.

Every morning, Carter wakes up in the same situation, each time taking a different tack, usually those suggested by “Blue Lives” supporters for Black people to take in order to avoid being killed, but each and every time the same thing happens, just in various frightening and horrifying ways. Two Distant Strangers does what The Present did in terms of bringing attention to one of society’s biggest problems. This film just happens to feel more in-the-moment, especially considering Tuesday’s verdict in the murder trial of the cop who killed George Floyd. It’s a timely film and while its message and final title crawl is so massively important, it feels like it reaches its conclusion a bit later than it should have. Nevertheless, it’s a potent short film that anyone who defends police should see just so they can understand what every Black person in America feels and dreads when they step outside and encounter a police officer.

White Eye


Another film about societal constructs built to demean a certain “class” of people, White Eye


On a nightly stroll through an Israeli street, a young man discovers that the bicycle that had been stolen from him is locked up outside a small meat processing business. As he struggles to get the police to act to recover his stolen property, the audience is taken on a dizzying one-shot take through the events on the street, including the accusation of an immigrant worker and the built in prejudices that exist around him.

This ambitious short film is a significant technical achievement, with numerous moving parts whisking the audience along with the protagonist (Daniel Gad) as he begins to understand the events that have begun to unravel around him as his own tunnel-vision pursuit of his bicycle may have a lasting impact on all of the lives he’s encountered, a concern that many in his position seldom have to contemplate. A film about consequences, White Eye is a fascinating piece. The narrative is easy to follow and the events are compelling to think about, but the denouement is ultimately frustrating and the slow pacing making for a difficult watch. Still, if you can get around these physical limitations, you’ll find a remarkable piece of filmmaking with an important, if poorly conveyed, message.

Documentary Short Film

Colette


Colette Marin-Catherine is a survivor. As a member of the French Resistance during World War II, she must remember the loss of her older brother in a prison work camp inside Germany. As she recounts his and her tale to the historical researcher, Lucie Fouble, for inclusion in a French installation looking back at those lives lost during the occupation of France, the audience is taken along for a journey to Germany where the pair explore the remains of the camps and facilities in which her brother had been imprisoned and ultimately killed.

When looking back at the Holocaust and the world war that surrounded it, we are most frequently taken into the Jewish experience, a harrowing one of grief and pain. Seldom are we given stories about those who fought against Hitler’s forces in an attempt to subvert their war and bring them to a resounding defeat. It’s fascinating to listen to her courageous storytelling as the film progresses, giving the audience an understanding of another facet of an unforgettable and unforgivable war that took countless lives well before their time. An exploration of every aspect of the war is an important step in explaining to future generations not only what happened, but to help them understand why it should never happen again.

A Concerto Is a Conversation


Kris Bowers, who wrote the score for Best Picture Oscar winner Green Book, sits down for a conversation with his grandfather, looking at his life growing up in the Deep South and his successful move to California where he began working for and eventually ran a dry cleaner. As the two have a close-up conversation about music and its influence over Bowers’ life as well as the inspiration given to the young composer by a man who fought hard to afford himself and his family a better life.

A Concerto Is a Conversation has an interesting subject in Horace Bowers Sr., a confident man who escaped a hostile environment to build a wonderful life for his family, but it’s bogged down with the brief snippets of Bowers’ life as he built a career as a composer. The two stories are given unequal screen time with the elder Bowers rightfully taking up the majority, but the entire film feels like a truncated exploration of a life of worth. They begin discussing the titular concerto and explaining what it has to do with the film, but the explanation doesn’t quite fit with the trajectory of the film itself leaving the audience interested, but ultimately unimpressed by the short’s end. Bowers’ heavy reliance on close-ups of the two men talking to each other, but looking almost directly into the screen, makes everything feel a bit oppressive and distracting.

Do Not Split


Filmed on the frontlines of Hong Kong’s protests against the Chinese government as they crack down on the once free state after its return to Chinese control following decades of British rule. As the young figures in the film discuss their roles in the movement, verbalize the government’s tyranny, and petition a global audience to keep their eyes on a volatile situation, we’re given snippets of information about the government’s motivations, their maneuvers, and ultimately their inflicted violence on these courageous individuals.

Do Not Split takes its name from a command early in the film to protestors not to split off in order to keep them from being picked off one-by-one. It also has a loose connection to the idea that China doesn’t want Hong Kong to formally declare its independence and will do whatever it can to prevent that. Those two disparate messages are a little confusing and a better title should have been thought up. That said, it’s a compelling document of a movement that national audiences are seldom exposed to. It’s a fight that continues to this day for the valiant protestors that are keeping the movement alive, in spite of the lull of the recent pandemic. It’s an important subject, one that does demand attention, but the film’s guerilla style and narrow scope might have been better served by a broader exploration in feature length form.

Hunger Ward


In a hospital in South Yemen, caught in the midst of an endless war, a team of doctors and nurses must try to save countless children suffering from malnutrition and starvation as the worsening conflict chokes off humanitarian aid and deprives the people of adequate safety. We are introduced to Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and Nurse Mekkia Mahdi as they work against immense pressure with frustration and hopelessness from every quarter.

One of the most important elements of documentary filmmaking is bringing attention to events and situations that might not otherwise be recognized. Hunger Ward is a harrowing documentary that highlights the extreme situations the people of Yemen find themselves in with numerous world governments ignoring the conflict and failing to protect those who are unable to protect themselves. The heart-rending events depicted in the short film are difficult to watch, but incredibly important. Filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald does a tremendous job embellishing an ugly situation with superb filmmaking techniques, bringing the audience in from an aerial view before settling them into a challenging situation. Her efforts to elicit emotional responses and ensure the audience understands and empathizes with the situation and perhaps to bring global attention to a horrendous situation are well executed and the end result is one of unflinching and horrifying honesty. The biggest complaint is that there’s a section near the middle of the film that details a funeral that was bombed by uncaring forces. While this information sets a stage for the events, it feels tacked on and immaterial in the grand scope of the film itself.

A Love Song for Latasha


As much a poem as a documentary, A Love Song for Latasha talks with the sister and best friend of Latasha Harlins, a South Central Los Angeles Black teen with grand dreams shot to death by a irrational shopkeeper. It was one of the events that led to the city’s 1992 civil uprising and filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison brings us inside the life of the teenager from the memories of those closest to her.

Apart from the overlong central segment where no images are presented while the voice-overs continue to tell Latasha’s story, this beautifully realized film mixes recollections and emotional responses to bring the audience into the life of a passionate young woman whose life was cut short by the racial tensions that built up through the 1980s and exhibited themselves in an unreasonably frightened populace who believed all the negative things that were being said about Black Americans and fostered the environment in which countless young Black lives were taken far too soon.

The documentary doesn’t have a lot to say about the situation or its development and focuses instead on who Latasha was, requiring the audience to infer a great deal of information that isn’t presented. The reference in the short to the 1992 riots gives some foundation for that extrapolation, but it speaks more to those familiar than it might to any others. Without that foundational information, audiences can still manage to come to an understanding of the significance of this one life lost unnecessarily and expand that to an understanding of just how many such lives were snuffed out because of our nation’s refusal to identify and weed out the kinds of negative stereotypes and harmful beliefs that create a basis in which such violence can continue to flourish. If the film had done just a bit more highlighting this notion, it could have been an even more powerful exploration of a lost life put up as an example of what we’ve done wrong and how we need to change for the better.

Review Written

April 20, 2021

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