For short films to get any less respect, they’d have to be hired as public-school teachers. Although the Academy Awards are one of the few remaining vehicles that can validate and offer exposure to this specific little medium, Johnny Oscars made a fart noise and booted all three categories of shorts (live-action, animated, and documentary) off the live network broadcast. Gotta make room for more pointless montages!
As someone who has long defended the concept of and need for (not the execution of) the Oscars, this is a real bummer. It is wildly unsurprising that the Academy has decided to launch a Quixotical pursuit of ratings points instead of doubling down on its position as the American ambassador for cinema of all varying types. Those hollow “We care about diversity” speeches are going to ring particularly false when you consider the truly wide-ranging backgrounds of the artists involved in these categories. Oh well! The important thing is that the beneficiaries of nepotism all get sweet swag bags.
None of this is going to stop me from giving you a brief review for each of these little fellas. You can catch each of the individual blocks, which range from 90 to 160 minutes, down at Film Streams. But should you? Let’s see…
Best Live-Action Short
Ala Kachuu – Take and Run
As if working retail wasn’t bad enough, a young Kyrgyz woman is kidnapped while at her job and forced to marry a young man she doesn’t know. This is a thing that happens to real women in real life that is real bad! The harrowing, taut flick is a depressing snapshot more than an unpacking of religious and cultural normalization of monstrous behavior. That’s a lot to do in under 40 minutes.
Grade = A-
On My Mind
A man walks into a bar and absolutely nothing funny happens, only very very sad shit. Henrik (Rasmus Hammerich) convinces the owner, Preben (Ole Boisen), and bartender, Louise (Camilla Bendix), to let him do some Elvis karaoke in the middle of a workday. That is barely acceptable behavior in the wee hours of an alcohol-soggy weekend. Turns out, Henrik has a reason. And his reason is, again, just preposterously sad. Nothing revelatory but plenty tear-jerking, you’ll get to snifflin’ if you’ve ever felt anything close to ole Henrik.
Grade = B+
This is my favorite type of short! It’s a modestly insightful idea that likely wouldn’t sustain a full feature film but is fascinating for 15 minutes. A young man is picked up by a police drone, tossed into solitary confinement, and forced to navigate an automated version of our already offensive “justice” system. The tone gets a little iffy, as it can’t quite decide if it wants to be cheeky about the state of our rabidly pro-prison culture or thoughtful about the gross inequities. Still, it’s a clever carceral quasi-cartoon that is the precise thing I love seeing recognized.
Grade = A-
A downtrodden maid in Poland named Julka (Anna Dzieduszycka) gets her hopes up for love, despite her better judgment, in this beautifully ugly mini-movie. In one of the best moments, Julka dryly chides a rude, bigoted clerk at a thrift store who tries to disparage Julka for being a little person. My biggest problem with the film would be a spoiler, so I can only say that I wasn’t surprised that a young dude directed this one. We gotta do better, men!
Grade = B-
The Long Goodbye
This ends in a minutes-long slam poem/rap by Riz Ahmed about the violent oppression of minorities. I’m pretty sure the Academy just FedExed the award right over after watching, as it meets both criteria of having a recognizable star and being just insanely heavy-handed about an inarguable sociopolitical point. I say “inarguable,” but I guess some folks are fairly clearly in favor of ski-mask wearing fascists snatching up families that look different. Hahaha, we’re in hell!
Grade = B-
Overall Block Grade = B
Best Documentary Short
This incredibly slick, deftly produced look at a deaf high-school football team’s final games runs through a buffet of themes, grabbing one scoop of every social issue. These include ableism, suicide, queer sexuality, small-town religion, educational challenges, and sportsing. Much as eating some of everything at the slop wagon, back in the beforetimes when buffets weren’t “DIY home infection kits,” imbibing of that much doesn’t leave a lot of room to digest. It almost certainly guarantees an Oscar win, though, especially since its mommy and daddy are Netflix.
Grade = B+
Lead Me Home
The other child of Netflix in this batch, this is a free-wheeling, casual look at the horrifyingly depressing state of homelessness in several major cities. The short wisely resists the urge to poke and prod its subjects, allowing the unhoused to stand as briefly but fully realized human beings. Every documentary on this issue feels a bit repetitive. That’s because we should have absolutely fixed this problem by now. Nothing here is uniquely insightful, but the subject remains so pressing and the portraits here are so thoughtful, the effect is predictably and depressingly effective.
Grade = A-
The Queen of Basketball
How the living hell have I never heard of Lucy Harris until now?! It’d be one thing if I wasn’t a sportser, but I am. So why didn’t I know that Harris was drafted into the NBA in the 70s, the first woman to score a basket in the Olympics, and a multiple collegiate national champion and possibly completely unstoppable on the basketball court? She’s also a motherflipping delight, with her giggles and nonchalance.
Grade = A
Three Songs for Benazir
When folks talk about Oscar-nominated doc shorts, this is what comes to mind. A peek into the life of an Afghan refugee who is newly married and deciding between joining the Afghan National Army or going into the opium trade, this is every bit as gripping and upsetting as you’d expect. It’s also gentle and beautiful while it slowly and delicately kicks you repeatedly in the teeth. So often, we see global displacement and conflict in terms of statistics. This puts a face to some numbers while doing a number on your heart.
Grade = A-
When We Were Bullies
It seems like at least one of the shorts every year just wildly upsets me for the wrong reasons. This is one of the most wrong-headed, narcissistic, pointless shorts I’ve ever seen. Ostensibly, this is about a filmmaker who remembers taking a small part in a bullying event 50 years prior and trying to get to the bottom of it. In reality, an arrogant doofus humble brags his way through 36 rambling minutes without ever experiencing an authentic moment. As someone who got bullied a lot, it’s a subject rife for genuine reflection. This ain’t it, man.
Grade = D
Overall Block Grade = B+
Best Animated Short
A warning up front: Do nottake children to this animated block. For real. Under no circumstances, unless you’d like them to see depictions of bestiality and elderly scrotums. You’ve been warned.
Affairs of the Art
Okay, but the one with elderly scrotum in it is my favorite. Joanna Quinn’s gorgeously hand-drawn autobiographical look at a 60-year-old factory worker who wishes she was a full-time artist and who is burdened by a son who failed to launch and a best friend who loves taxidermy is just straight-up irresistible. Maybe it’s that we don’t get enough characters like Beryl, who is ghastly endearing, but the result is the standout of the bunch. It will not win because good things don’t happen to even fictional people like Beryl.
Grade = A+
Woof. Like, literally, woof, as this features straight up canine bestiality. Doing some research, which is required because no explicit context is provided, reveals that this Chilean film is based on the real-life story of a monstrous woman who was a secret police agent. Its hallucinatory stop-motion is intentionally unsettling, but without any kind of meaningful context going in, it’s just a quarter-hour of “no thank you, please.” I realize not everything is or should be spoon fed to Americans, but if someone made an animated short about John Wayne Gacy, I don’t think I’d be a fan.
Grade = C
Simple and sweet, a ballerina and boxer meet and connect. That’s really it, but it’s also nearly enough. It’s somewhere between a romantic comedy and a New Yorker cartoon, as the whole “opposites attract” thing walks right up to the line of having a meaningful point and then curtseys and hits the canvas. The hand-drawn style is less sketchy than Affairs of the Art but still wildly preferred to the CGI cleanliness of previous winners. It’s sweet, neat, and fleeting.
Grade = B+
This Aardman Production once again follows adorably misshapen animals as they do humanish things. A bird is accidentally adopted by a family of thieving mice, setting the stage for a “food heist” in which Robin tries to save Christmas. There’s a cat played by Gillian Anderson and sporadic singing. It all feels a bit haphazard and chaotic, but did I mention Gillian Anderson voices a cat? Netflix is likely to bag another Oscar win here. Because Gillian Anderson voices a cat.
Grade = B
The Windshield Wiper
All you need to know is that a dude in a café smoking cigarettes asks “What is love?” If you’re out, I respect that. Hasta la vista, talk to you soon. Somewhere short of a Raymond Carver short story, this rather captivating cel-shaded-ish animated meditation is not going to give so much as one person a new insight or thought about relationships and amor than they had going in. As a visual poem on the subject, it’s fine, but I wouldn’t tuck it inside a Hallmark card on Valentine’s Day.
Grade = B-
Overall Block Grade = B+