Review: 2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films (2022)

2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films

These short films are available in a program from Shorts.TV, releasing theatrically.

Director

Joanna Quinn (Affairs of the Art); Hugo Covarrubias (Bestia); Anton Dyakov (Boxballet); Dan Ojari, Michael Please (Robin Robin); Alberto Mielgo (The Windshield Wiper); Maria Brendle (Ala Kachuu – Take and Run); Tadeusz Lysiak (The Dress); Aneil Karia (The Long Goodbye); Martin Strange-Hansen (On My Mind); KD Davila (Please Hold); Matthew Ogens (Audible); Pedro Kos, Jon Shenk (Lead Me Home); Ben Proudfoot (The Queen of Basketball); Elizabeth Mirzaei, Gulistan Mirzaei (Three Songs for Benazir); and Jay Rosenblatt (When We Were Bullies).

Screenplay

Les Mills (Affairs of the Art); Hugo Covarrubias, Martin Erazo (Bestia); Anton Dyakov, Andrey Vasilyev (Boxballet); Dan Ojari, Michael Please, Sam Morrison (Robin Robin); Alberto Mielgo (The Windshield Wiper); Maria Brendle (Ala Kachuu – Take and Run); Tadeusz Lysiak (The Dress); Aneil Karia, Riz Ahmed (The Long Goodbye); Martin Strange-Hansen (On My Mind); and KD Davila, Omer Levin Menekse (Please Hold).

Length

16 min. (Affairs of the Art); 15 min. (Bestia); 15 min. (Boxballet); 32 min. (Robin Robin); 14 min. (The Windshield Wiper); 38 min. (Ala Kachuu – Take and Run); 30 min. (The Dress); 13 min. (The Long Goodbye); 18 min. (On My Mind); 19 min. (Please Hold); 39 min. (Audible); 39 min. (Lead Me Home); 22 min. (The Queen of Basketball); 22 min. (Three Songs for Benazir); and 36 min. (When We Were Bullies).

Starring

Menna Trussler, Brendan Charleson, Joanna Quinn, Mali Ann Rees (Affairs of the Art); Bronte Carmichael, Richard E. Grant, Gillian Anderson, Adeel Akhtar, Amira Macey-Michael (Robin Robin); Eboni Adams, Kara Whitfield, Fanny Rosen, Charlie Bean, Jake Bercovici, Zachary Rosencrantz, Andrew Cider, Anka Tiribeia, Alberto Mielgo (The Windshield Wiper); Alina Turdumamatova, Nurbek Esengazy Uulu, Madina Talipbekova (Ala Kachuu – Take and Run); Aybike Erkinbekova, Kanat Abdahmanov, Taalaykan Abazova (Ala Kachuu – Take and Run); Anna Dzieduszycka, Dorota Pomykala, Szymon Piotr Warszawski, Andrzey Glazer (The Dress); Riz Ahmed, Sudha Bhuchar, Nikkita Chadha, Taru Devani, Asmara Gabrielle, Marissa Hussain, Hugo Nicholason, Hussina Raja, Ambreen Razia, Reynah Rita, Rish Shah (The Long Goodbye); Rasmus Hammerich, Camilla Bendix, Ole Boisen, Adam Brix, Anne-Marie Bjerre Koch, Sissel Bergfjord (On My Mind); and Erick Lopez, John Alton, Doreen Calderon, Greg Karber, Dani Messerschmidt, Daniel Edward Mora (Please Hold).

MPAA Rating

N/A

Reviews

Affairs of the Art



Using pencil drawings embellished with color, director Joanna Quinn explores the driving force behind one woman’s push to become more artistically successful. The story is narrated by Beryl (Menna Trussler), an older woman whose passion for drawing is a foundational part of her existence, but which only recently has come into stark focus. Exploring her own creativity, often with her husband taking a lot of physical risks for her art, the film is a beautiful exploration of what it means to be an artist and how it may not always bring you great success, but it will always bring your great satisfaction.

The short pulls no punches as it explores not only Beryl’s journey from childhood to adulthood, but also those of her family, including the successful sister who turned a fascination with taxidermy into a thriving business. The images are simple, yet effective in conveying the underlying theme of the piece and while it might not be a story that fits for everyone, it will be incredibly engaging for anyone who views art in such dynamic terms. Add in the wonderful vocal performance by Trussler and you have an entirely enjoyable production.

Bestia



Chilean animator Hugo Covarrubias brings audiences this harrowing dialogue-free story about a woman who works for the Chilean Intelligence Directorate in 1975 who reflects on the harm she has inflicted as well as her own loneliness in the most hard-hitting short film of this or any recent year. Covarrubias uses stop-motion techniques to present his grim tale to audiences who will wonder what’s going on until the first time his central figure enters the secret interrogation facility. That’s when the audience is forced to take Ingrid, who clearly loves her German Shepherd, as a willing participant in a horrifying series of events that can ultimately lead only to ruin.

While the short seldom delivers graphic content to the viewer, it doesn’t shy away from those issues either. It’s a pointed rebuke of the extreme fascistic tactics employed at the time and forces audiences to realize that such situations were not isolated to dictators with whom they are familiar. There are no pulled punches here and while we at first form a connection with Ingrid because of the warm relationship she shares with her dog, that connection becomes more horrendous as the short progresses. The viewer may occasionally feel as if they should look away, but the thrilling production keeps their attention focused and reviled by what they ultimately see. This is easily the best of the animated shorts on offer, but it’s also not a production intended for children.

Boxballet



In the weakest of the five animated short films, a delicate ballerina encounters a brutish boxer and develops an unusual relationship with him as the short plays out. Anton Dykov directs this fifteen-minute short film that obviously observes that opposites can attract. A traditionally animated narrative follows the young ballerina who must contend with an instructor wanting a relationship with her as she tries to find peace and tranquility while outwardly expressing her more confrontational side.

The giant slab of a boxer has a broken face and a massive body, but hides the tenderness he feels inside, something that he can express with the ballerina. As he tries to win her over, she doesn’t exactly catch his drift in time to avoid potential catastrophe. The themes expressed in this short film are overly familiar. We’ve seen it played out countless times on the big screen, even as recently as Oscar nominee Cyrano. Most other products do it better and this short, while presenting a generally sweet tale, doesn’t give us any new insights into the concepts of redefining stereotypes.

Robin Robin



For the longest of the animated shorts in this year’s program, Netflix pulls Aardman Animation back into the short film game with a semi-musical adventure featuring a robin (Bronte Carmichael) raised by rats and lives by their motto of being quiet and unobtrusive so they can eke out a meager existence. When their latest excursion leaves the family without supper because of her ineptitude, she embarks on a journey to redeem herself in the eyes of the family by breaking into a new house to steal more. On this journey, she meets a magpie (Richard E. Grant) whose interest in objects over food exposes her to a new existence, one that relies on her birdly capabilities.

A stop-motion short that barely reminds of the glory days of Aardman, this 32-minute work is directed by Dan Ojari and Michael Please and features a minimalist song score that is sweet enough, but lacks the punch one would want from a musical production. The storyline is simple and effective and the animation is solid, but at times the short feels like an endurance race rather than a sleek, involving production. In the end, it’s quite the enjoyable show, but everything feels just slightly underwhelming from what we initially expected.

The Windshield Wiper



Using an animated media that looks like traditional oil paints on canvas with the fluidity of motion of computer animation, this is the most visually striking of this year’s animated shorts, a production that’s lovely to look at. It also presents a keenly-observed exploration of the varied types of love, romantic and otherwise. The film opens with a mustachioed gentleman smoking in a cafe as he listens to the patrons around him. This segues into a segment that is titled “Love” under which a pair of smoke stacks come tumbling towards one another after detonations at their bases.

This cafe features the only real conversation we get and it seems like ambient chatter even if their discussions connect to the images on display. These images include a couple sharing a cigarette on a beach, a pair of dating app users in a supermarket oblivious to one another, a couple kissing passionately in an elevator, and a number of other vignettes that tie into the theme of the production. The title may be a metaphor, but it’s a haphazardly chosen one. It may be the least impressive part of the production, which is fascinating to watch with its painterly qualities dominating a simple theme with compelling underpinnings.

Ala Kachuu – Take and Run



Playing like a feature length film, but never overstaying its welcome, Ala Kachuu stands exceptionally tall against the other nominees for Live Action Short Film. This is director Maria Brendle’s haunting look at the state of women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan. The nation’s backwards treatment of women comes into stark focus as a young woman moves to the big city against her parents’ wishes, finds a job, and learns how to drive. When she attempts to protect a coworker from a questionable lot of three miscreants, she’s abducted and forced into a life as a wife for one of them.

From a western perspective, the events of the film are frightening and deplorable, yet for women in Kyrgyzstan and many similar countries, it’s an all-too-frequent occurrence. It shines a light on just how difficult life can be for women in a country where tradition dictates a woman’s lot in life as a wife and mother rather than as an autonomous figure capable of self-determination. Brendle’s richly textured drama is a tremendous accomplishment that highlights just how far our society has to go when an entire tapestry of antiquated institutionality can persist when there is no reason for it to continue.

The Dress



It seems a little unfair to call The Dress the worst of the year’s live action shorts. While it’s not as vibrant or creative as its fellow contenders, the heart of the short film is a subject matter that deserves our attention. Director Tadeusz Lysiak looks at the emotional hardships that face those affected by dwarfism. Anna Dzieduszycka delivers a compelling performance as Julka, a housekeeper in Poland who must contend with feelings of inferiority as she longs for physical and sexual contact. When a trucker passing through gives her a glimmer of hope for her future, her outlook on life changes and what once seemed an impossible dream could become reality.

Dzieduszycka is a riveting actor bringing out Julka’s self-confidence and bitterness with a tinge of hope, pulling the audience into the character’s story where they hope she can find the acceptance and emotional support she richly deserves. Lysiak’s film is simply told and the narrative threads are carefully woven throughout the picture. At 30 minutes, there is some desperate need for trimming, the incessant setting of Julka in front of a slot machine chain smoking makes for tedious viewing. Still, for all of the film’s flaws, it’s imperative that this type of story reach modern audiences. Not just to allow others who face similar conditions to see themselves represented in media, but also to normalize abled attitudes towards these individuals, ensuring that they aren’t seen simply as pitiable figures, but as people who deserve to be treated like everyone else.

The Long Goodbye



Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed wrote the story for this short film with director Aneil Karia as a visual poem for a track on his recent album. The purpose is to draw attention to frightening fascistic attitudes that have emerged in recent years as right wing media and politicians strive to drive wedges between those who are from different cultures and those who have been part of the vocal majority for far too long. The Long Goodbye takes place on a pleasant afternoon in a London suburb where Ahmed and his family enjoy an afternoon together in preparation of celebrating an upcoming event.

As the short progresses, the family largely ignores the white nationalist rally displayed on TV even though they are keenly aware of its impact. When a group of said bigots invade their neighborhood and pull families out of their homes onto the street to face an uncertain fate, the audience is brought crashing down with the family, forced to watch in horror the indignities inflicted upon them. The film ends with Ahmed rapping the song from his album to pull into focus the images we’ve seen. We are fully aware that these aren’t actual events, but that they are terrifyingly close to becoming reality. We’ve seen the vehement rhetoric of these hate groups as they grow in impatience hurling invective at those who cannot possibly understand what it’s like to be losing their grip on the society they’ve so long dominated. While the viewer has to extrapolate a lot of information from the body of the short film itself, it’s very clear what its message is and it’s a stark warning to anyone who wants to allow such vitriol to continues its virulent spread among those who may have a mind to act on those violent impulses.

On My Mind



Next to The Dress, On My Mind is one of the most minimal short films on the list. Set in two locales, Oscar-winning short director Martin Strange-Hansen brings us this simple tale about a man who decides to stop at a local bar and steel his nerves with whiskey before heading off towards a grim event we’re only slowly informed about through narrative events. Rasmus Hammerich is compelling as the heart-stricken figure, Henrik, who decides once he sees the bar’s karaoke machine that he must record a video for his wife before he attends to whatever horrible event that is fast approaching.

Camilla Bendix plays the conscientious bartender who encourages the grating and selfish bar owner (Ole Boisen) to allow the patron to record his performance. For an 18-minute film, the events feel well worn and familiar by its conclusion, our empathy being brought to bear on the bitter fate Henrik is about to face. Even if you aren’t a fan of Elvis Presley’s version of “Always on My Mind,” the song is poignantly captured by a seemingly untrained singer as he gives the tune his very best because of what it will ultimately mean. Of all the short films this year, this is easily the most emotionally involving. It’s a gripping and affecting story that presents itself simply and with few excessive flourishes.

Please Hold



Erick Lopez plays Mateo, a fast food worker who’s accosted on the street by a police drone arriving to arrest him for an unknown crime he knows he hasn’t committed. Forced to abide by the law enforcement tool, he’s eventually delivered into a prison facility with nary a human being in sight to process him through. He struggles to reach someone who can advise him of what he’s being charged with and must figure out a way to get free when he accidentally diminishes his bank account waiting on hold for a live person at the police department. The title of the short film refers to the endless sea of automated phone systems proliferating the world today and the horrifying reach they may some day have. It also slyly pokes at the prison industrial complex and its need for constant monetary infusion.

We spend hours on hold with computer-written code designed to minimize the number of people that touch a file while reducing its workforce needs by automating as much as is possible. This quasi-futuristic story imagines what it might be like in the near term if even the police department and criminal justice system were automated. We all feel Mateo’s frustration as he languishes in a prison cell uncertain if he will ever be free again while working at discount rates to produce clothing for others all in hopes of one day putting together the money for a 5-minute call to his parents. The idea is fascinating and plays well in the short form in which it’s presented, a surprisingly spare 19 minutes. While it has some interesting socio-political ideas to express, the end result isn’t something revelatory. It’s a situation we can all identify with, even if not specifically, but other than being an inventive premise, there just isn’t enough here to warrant an Oscar win.

Audible



Among this year’s crop of documentary shorts, one of them stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. In Audible, audiences are brought into a small Maryland School in its final few games of the football season as its victorious team looks to cap a terrific season with another win. While it might sound like a familiar premise, it’s the details that make it so revealing. The high school in question is a school for deaf teens. The figures we’re introduced to are normal teenagers experiencing life and its transactionary style in a typical educational experience. Yet, their disabilities increase the difficulties they face, but they approach them with courage and determination, wanting others to see them not as differently abled, but as completely normal.

The primary figures in the short are a handful of football players, two in particular given extra time, and two cheerleaders. The primary focus is Amaree McKenstry-Hall whose primary goal is not only to prove himself and his teammates against hearing opponents, but also to celebrate the tortured life of his best friend who killed himself as a result of bullying in a regular high school environment. As these characters explain who they are and what they want, we learn that the onerous proof they must exact from others is unfairly demanded because of their disability. Like The Dress, this is a film that presents characters who have too often been relegated to punchlines and peripheral characters in media. A short like this, presented in the right way, can go a long way towards improving abled attitudes towards those who face tougher challenges than oftentimes they will ever experience. This production is heartfelt, emotionally investing, and ultimately joyful, putting to shame the other shorts in this category.

Lead Me Home



What someone wants from or takes away from a documentary film varies dramatically based on their perceptions of such productions. Lead Me Home could be easily divisive because it presents no answers to the problem it presents. Yet, documentaries aren’t intended to present answers. Like Audible, we’re brought into the lives of the figures in this short film who face a different kind of obstacle, that of homelessness. Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk present an array of individuals who face difficulty in securing and surviving in a world that has priced them out of success and security. Filmed over three years in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the epidemic is presented in stark relief as we see these flawed, but persistent figures attempt to work within a system that isn’t designed for supporting such an overwhelming number of individuals.

While one of the figures is herself escaping violence, the others are in varying stages of homelessness from believing they will never find a way out to those who still have hope that if they work within the system, they can one day find a place to call home. The filmmakers present not just the tribulations these individuals face in finding a place they can call home, but it counterpoints that with images of the wealthy and middle class as they go about their daily lives ignoring the very figures who need their help most. There are no easy answers and this documentary makes that clear. Even in areas that are focused on trying to help as many as they can, we are given brief glimpses into the challenges facing them. One particular scene features those who are comfortable and for want of nothing vehemently opposing the potential appearance in their neighborhoods of individuals they believe will bring crime, violence, and more to their peaceful little areas. We don’t have answers, but when we can see the faces of those who suffer, perhaps we can acknowledge that more needs to be done and sometimes just accepting and appreciating the struggles of those who are homeless is enough to help start the sea change in attitudes that will be necessary to combat the problem.

The Queen of Basketball




What a fascinating person Lusia Harris is. A basketball superstar in college, and an Olympic silver medalist, audiences are introduced to this dynamic woman’s compelling past and varied accomplishments in Ben Proudfoot’s involving documentary. As the first woman to be invited to an NBA team’s draft, Harris is a trailblazer in the world of women’s sports. Not only did she help define the importance and significance of female athletes, she did so when being Black in the south carried with it its own tribulations. Those struggles aren’t given much attention in this short, the directors focusing instead on the importance of this individual.

Like last year’s short documentary A Concerto Is a Conversation, this film stays dialed into a close up with Lusia for almost the entire 22-minute duration. We’re occasionally backed out of her personal narrative into archival footage of her accomplishments, but the lack of variance in the interview window, especially the lack of other voices, makes the film feel stilted and laborious. Even though we are fascinated with this figure and her effervescent personality, there comes a point where you have to step back and look at how others saw her, not just in how she saw herself. Her vacillation between self-deprecation and self-assuredness could have been explored in themselves. The finale seems designed to evoke a particular emotional response from the viewer, which would explain the excessive use of close ups, but it ultimately feels every bit the orchestrated moment rather than the natural destination the film is striving for.

Three Songs for Benazir



When reviewing this short documentary, I have to remind myself of what I said about such productions earlier when writing about Lead Me Home. Sometimes, a documentary isn’t meant to explain a course of action, but to present honestly the tribulations faced by others with whom we may not be familiar. Such is the case of Three Songs for Benazir, a documentary that looks into the challenges faced by Afghan refugees who find themselves displaced from their lives and homes and in desperate need of a future. Shaista lives in a refugee camp with his wife Benazir and family who have been forced to evacuate their lives and hope only to eke out a meager living.

When the only options for survival involve picking poppies for opium production, Shaista looks to the Afghan Army as a possible new direction for his life. He wants to serve his country, but his status as a refugee and his general illiteracy are impediments. The three songs of the title refer to tunes Shaista sings to his wife, two early in the film and one near the end. The ending is where Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei’s documentary falters. While the audience is given a stark picture of life in a refugee camp and the desperation of its denizens, the end tells us about all that one can expect from life in the camp and while it’s dispiriting to say the least, there’s still a modicum of hope. Among this year’s documentary shorts, this is the one that resonated least. That’s not because it isn’t an important slice of refugee life, but that it felt so incomplete. By the end, it feels like the Mirzaeis wanted a particular outcome, but were denied it and we were given whatever we could get. As much as we would like life to turn out like it does in the movies, even an important subject matter can be handled in a clunky, hamfisted fashion that feels like a disservice to its subjects.

When We Were Bullies



When making movies, its imperative for the filmmaker to get outside of their head periodically to make sure that what’s being produced will flow as it needs to. With When We Were Bullies, Jay Rosenblatt’s initial instincts are solid. While writing another production, his memory is thrown back to an incident in fifth grade where he participated in a bullying incident on a school playground when a single kid’s behavior has forced the rest of the class to stay after longer than expected. This documentary was borne out of that recollection and he begins to explore how he and others remember this particular incident in hopes of shining a light on the longstanding schoolyard concept of bullying.

Rosenblatt invites a narrator to his production and soon discovers that they were both in the same class, which accelerates his notion to look back at the incident. For the most part, the documentary is fascinating and involving with interesting uses of visual storytelling to keep things moving. Where it falls down is near the end, which Rosenblatt announces to the audience that he won’t finish the way he had initially intended. That announcement and the subsequent collapse of the short film end the whole thing on a sour note. Bullying is a major issue in schoolyards across the nation and even among adults who continue to act as bullies decades after they were supposed to outgrow it. Yet, those notions are barely touched on here and giving the topic such a superficial view ultimately leads the production to failure.

Review Written

March 1, 2022

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