Each year, the three Short Film categories at the Oscars wield tremendous power – which is to say, they tend to make or break a lot of Oscar pools. Predicting winners in these categories tends to be slipperier than so many of the major categories, for a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. We spend six months parsing all the major feature contenders, whereas most of us don’t have visibility into the shorts until the nominations announcement. And it’s not as though there is, like, a Short Films Guild that gives us unique insight into the industry thinking ahead of Oscar Night (though Pixar’s Piper did win the Animated Short prize at the Annie Awards, for what it’s worth).
Historically, the Short categories have been hard to predict simply by virtue of the fact that they were so difficult for Oscar civilians to see. That is no longer the case, now that each category is packaged as a single program and given proper theatrical release in the weeks leading up to the Oscars. So at the very least, folks now have an opportunity to know what they’re predicting when they fill out those Oscar pool ballots. But perhaps that’s something of a rude awakening, since as any Oscar guru can attest, knowing what one is predicting doesn’t necessarily translate into making accurate predictions.
Make no mistake, though: seeing all the nominated shorts is essential. These three races lack the traditional politics that figure into the major features in the Oscar race (except, of course, Pixar generally has a visibility advantage in Animation), so opinion can be more of a determining factor when making predictions in the short categories. I used to say a good piece of advice was to “pick what you loved,” assuming that one person’s informed opinion might provide a hint towards the Academy consensus choice. However, the wreckage from two years ago, when my favorite Animated Short (The Dam Keeper), Live Action Short (Parvaneh), and Documentary Short (Joanna) all lost to lesser quality, higher profile works, I disabused myself of that false notion.
Basically, it’s hard to pin down Academy consensus on the short films. But watching them all is among my favorite parts of each Oscar season.
With a focus on celebration more than prognostication, here are some thoughts on this year’s Oscar-nominated short films.
The Doc Short category this year is a blessing and a curse. The curse: it’s a hell of a challenge to pick a winner from this group. But that’s because of the blessing: they’re all great. To refresh, here are the nominees:
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets
You’d be hard pressed to find a more relevant and powerful group of nominees in any category this year. Four of the films center on escaping genocide, and two of them are set in Aleppo, the central city in the Syrian Civil War. All of them, however, acutely and painfully highlight our shared struggle to steal humanity from the clutches of inhumanity.
4.1 Miles is commonly recognized as “the New York Times doc,” and it is indeed a stunning work of close-up journalism, which captures the harrowing struggle of refugees to surmount the 4.1-mile journey from the coast of Turkey to the island of Lesbos in Greece. These refugees, frightened and confused, seeking survival above all else, are fully at the mercy of the Greek Coast Guard, and the chaos of their plight is captured in close-up by filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki, whose work redefines the word “unblinking.” To witness such selfless humanitarianism on display in this new American era of hate, discrimination, and prejudice is cathartic but also deflating, for I now live in a country that wants to keep people out rather than welcome than in.
Extremis, by Dan Krauss, focuses on a different kind of horror – those moments when a family must determine how to proceed in the face of a family member’s terminal illness. Such decisions are commonplace in the Intensive Care Unit at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, and Krauss offers a brief glimpse into the struggles of two families at they face the critical moments of determining how to end the lives of people they hold dear. In a space where Republican lawmakers are on a mission to take health insurance away from those who need it the most, the film’s relevance is heightened and its power galvanized.
Joe’s Violin is the warmest and most accomplished of this category, a film about survival and legacy. Directors Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen tell the story of Joseph Feingold, a Holocaust survivor who offers his beloved violin to the New York Public School system during a donation drive. The 70-year-old instrument is given to Brianna Perez, a student in the Bronx whose talent is matched by her passion. The film tracks not only the transition of the instrument from one violinist to another, but also the parallels in their stories, and how the music brings them together.
Watani: My Homeland, the most sprawling and complete of this group, is the first of the two films set squarely in Aleppo, Syria, which makes it essential viewing for Gary Johnson. Filmmakers Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis track one Syrian family over a period of years, documenting the fear of living in a warzone, the uncertainty of potential escape, and the struggle to acclimate to a new home.
The White Helmets is a remarkable portrait of heroes in action, providing a first-person perspective of the now-famous civilian humanitarian force in Syria, who are often the first responders after bombings and attacks. The stats are stunning: this unarmed civilian force has saved over 60,000 lives since 2013, and are only expanding in their numbers and training. Directors Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara capture stories from a wide swath of these heroes, who put their own lives at risk to save those in peril.
This year’s Animated Shorts are sort of the antithesis of the Doc Shorts, which to say they aren’t particularly relevant, and a couple of them are downright disappointing. The nominees are:
Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Blind Vaysha is the most thematically of this group, an allegory about a girl who can see only the past out of one eye, and only the future out of the other, rendering her blind to the present that’s right in front of her. In a purposeful rough-and-tumble style, filmmaker Theodore Ushev draws a parallel to our modern world, imploring us to see the world in front of us and not stand helpless dwelling in the past or viewing the future as an inevitability.
Borrowed Time is likely the weakest of the nominees, and if it seems like watered-down Pixar, that’s because directors Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj are Pixar veterans. The look of the film is fine, if conventional, but the story is a relentless downer, taking the high concept form of many past Pixar shorts but splattering it in blood and clouding it in surface-level sadness.
Pear Cider and Cigarettes, by Robert Valley, earns points for its edgier vision – it’s basically a confessional noir – but loses steam by letting its narrative go on…and on…and on. The clearly talented Valley is aiming to make something dark and hardcore, and after a while that feels like a put-on, as if the film is always looking to punctuate itself as “animation for adults.” It doesn’t help that the piece is nearly longer than the other four nominees combined, stretching its stream-of-conscious-memory tale well past the point of tolerability.
Pearl is most notable for that which I could not experience – it’s the first VR film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Viewed on a traditional screen, the visual experience is obviously not as potent, but the story is about as true and warm as any film nominated this year. Directed by Patrick Osborne, the film tells a father-daughter story through the songs they create and the rusty old hatchback in which they travel across the country, first as a mobile home, and later as a totem of a life lived to the fullest. It’s a beautiful concept, one I’d like to experience in its truest form.
Piper is about as wonderful as you’d expect coming from the Pixar folks, telling the story of a young hatchling who is at first scared of the crashing ocean waves, but who grows her confidence after befriending a tiny crab who is a well-versed veteran in the ways of the sea. It’s a very slight coming-of-age tale, but no one can match Pixar’s ability to take threadbare concepts and spin them into animated delight.
Live Action Shorts
This year’s Live Action Shorts offer a mixed bag of whimsy and crushing reality. The nominees:
La Femme et Le TGV
Ennemis Interieurs, from France, is a period piece with modern relevance. In the 1990s, in the midst of the Algerian civil war, a French police officer fiercely interrogates a French-born Algerian man who is seeking naturalization. Selim Aazzazi’s film uses the crackling tete-a-tete to underscore rising political tensions as the officer goes on a witch hunt to uncover potential terrorist ties and his subject begins to feel equal parts righteous anger and guilt by association. It’s a fascinating drama about entrenched bureaucracy working to incite nationalist fervor.
Le Femme et Le TGV, from Switzerland, is light and airy, a fantastical fairy tale about an aging woman whose spirits are rejuvenated through her correspondence with the conductor of the express train that passes her house every day. The film’s attempt to leaven the frothy fantasy with downbeat drama doesn’t always work, but the film is nevertheless a sweet journey, well-made by director Timo van Gunten and propelled by a great central performance from Jane Birkin.
On the contrary, Silent Nights is a quite uncomfortable bit of manipulation, made worse by its hastened running time. Directed by Aske Bang, the Danish film tells the story of a homeless shelter volunteer who falls in love with a Ghanan refugee. That base set-up is intriguing, and the romantic material is actually quite lovely, buoyed by fabulous performances from Malene Beltoft and Prince Yaw Appiah. It’s all of the surrounding implications the screenplay builds in that derails the whole enterprise. The film’s depictions of racial tensions are staggeringly on the nose, far too overwrought to wield any thematic power, and the romance is made horribly uncomfortable by the fact that the refugee is married, and therefore basically taking this poor Danish girl for a ride. Maybe these themes could be deepened by extending them to feature length, but in short form, Silent Nights creeped me out.
Sing, the Hungarian entry directed by Kristof Deak, is a highlight of this category, and fully claims the title of “Best 2016 Film Named Sing.” It tells the story of Zsofi, whose transition to a new elementary school appears to be smoothed when she joins the school’s award-winning choir. Zsofi loves to sing, but the choir teacher attempts to silence her, advising that she should lip-sync during performances in order to maintain the group’s overall strength, and therefore contend for awards. But Zsofi forms an unlikely alliance with the choir’s star performer, and together they hatch a plan to make sure every voice is heard. Sing is sweet, earnest, and defiant, a ray of light amid many of the other nominees.
Timecode brings some pedigree to this category, having won the Palme d’Or for Short Films at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. And it makes good on that pedigree, this oddball tale of parking garage security monitors who dance with one another in the most unconventional of ways, a dalliance of messages marked on security tape timecode. If it sounds weird, that’s because it is, but there’s real charm in this premise, and director brings this elegant dance to an invigorating crescendo.
In terms of winner predictions, I feel as though I can narrow each category down to two. In Animation, Piper is the favorite, with Pearl a legitimate upset possibility. In Live Action, Sing feels like a very accessible shoo-in, though Ennemis Interieurs is riveting and relevant. The docs are all good enough to leave anyone in a quandary, though the immediate relevancy of The White Helmets and the humane emotional wallop of Joe’s Violin feel as though they stand above the others. As of this writing, I’m leaning toward the following:
Animated Short: Piper
Live Action Short: Sing
Documentary Short: Joe’s Violin
That’s a solid trio on which to hang one’s hat, but there’s enough uncertainty to warrant plenty of second-guessing. My final predictions will post this weekend, and I’ll just have to let it ride.