Between time constraints and Oscar baits, award-hungry short films often forgo nuance to straight shiv you in your soul. And yes, that applies to the animated group too. Don’t believe me? This year’s crop of trophy-seeking teeny-tiny cinema nuggets feature a meditation on existential isolation, a snapshot of school shooting-related grief, and a portrait of the endless, cyclical torture mankind inflicts on itself. Yes, that was the animated group.
Here is a brief look at all 15 nominated shorts, along with my predictions for who will win the shiny, bald, genital-free gold guy, a ranking of my favorites from best to worst, and a grade for each block as a whole. You can rent any of these groups from Film Streams (and you probably should).
Live-Action Short Nominees
Feeling Through – A deaf-blind man tries to catch a bus in the middle of the night with the help of a reluctant teenager. After a year of pandemic-forced separation, this gentle encounter between strangers reads less like excessive melodrama and more like a reminder of basic societal bonds. Those of you who haven’t completely given up hope on fellow human beings are gonna catch some serious sniffles.
The Letter Room – Featuring an abundantly mustachioed Oscar Isaac, this one follows a corrections officer who gets tasked with reading inmate correspondence. For a brief second, you’ll get a glimpse of what Isaac reading fan fiction may look like… America’s repellant, dystopian prison system can’t be tackled in under 30 minutes, but this short whacks at our crass carceral pinata enough to satisfy.
The Present – A man goes on a trip to buy his wife a gift for their anniversary, with the help of their daughter. He just happens to be Palestinian. That means “buying the Mrs. a fridge” includes negotiating machine guns and being treated as subhuman. Staple this powerful, comparatively-understated reminder about what the actual loss of basic human freedoms looks like to the inside of anti-masker eyelids.
Two Distant Strangers – If you’re of the mindset that repetitively watching harm done to Black bodies by police inherently furthers trauma, this is pretty much a nightmare. Joey Bada$$ plays a Black graphic designer who gets murdered by a gleefully evil cop on repeat, Groundhog Day style. Its form is a purposeful commentary on the endless cycle of police brutality, but watching it may emotionally brutalize the very audience it most supports.
White Eye – Easily the most technically impressive film of the bunch, as it was filmed in a single take, a man in Tel Aviv comes across his stolen bicycle in possession of a migrant worker. Predictably, everyone acts like a dick. This tale of orbiting bodies that slowly becomes a collision is a brief rumination on how quickly our understanding of what is morally “right” can change.
Most likely Oscar winner: Two Distant Strangers
Ranked best-to-worst: White Eye, The Present, Feeling Through, Two Distant Strangers, The Letter Room
Overall block grade: A
Animated Short Nominees
Burrow – With its sketchy style and cuddly-creature-centric events, Disney/Pixar’s entry is the least substantial offering at this cartoon buffet. A wee little rabbit tries to dig herself a home but winds up discovering that she’ll have to adapt to the underground neighborhood and not the other way around. It’s a cute little thing that can be read as advocating for mutual aid networks by those of us not content to let cute stuff just be cute stuff.
Genius Loci – A lyrical and intentionally obtuse hallucination about a woman stumbling through surroundings that keep morphing around her, this is one of those “love it or hate it” experiences that will either entrance you or stretch 15 minutes into hellish agony. The visual poetry will be absolutely delightful to anyone who doesn’t roll their eyes at a phrase like “visual poetry.”
If Anything Happens I Love You – The only thing more insane than the existence of an animated short about a couple grieving a child lost in a school shooting is, you know, the continued proliferation of school shootings. Although unquestionably well-intended, this thing is aggressively emotionally manipulative to the point of working against itself. Oh, you’ll be sad and angry at the end, but mostly kinda at the film?
Opera – The best animated short I’ve ever seen, this is somewhere between a looping GIF and a renaissance painting. The entirety of the human experience is synthesized in a pyramid with dozens and dozens of rooms, each offering a different reflection or commentary on a different societal aspect. It is mesmerizing, haunting, and an absolute triumph of the format. So, yeah, no way it wins.
Yes-People – This Icelandic short follows goofy folks in an apartment building doing silly, ordinary stuff. I don’t get it… I am sure it says something about me as a person that I readily embrace existential French ennui and a hypnotic pyramid over wacky, wiggly cartoon dorks. I’m good with that.
Most likely Oscar winner: If Anything Happens I Love You
Ranked best-to-worst: Opera, Genius Loci, Burrow, Yes-People, If Anything Happens I Love You
Overall block grade: B+
Documentary Short Subject
Collette – The delightfully persnickety titular 90-year-old woman and a history student journey to a concentration camp so that the latter can write about the death of the former’s brother. As much as it doesn’t sound like the premise for a wacky Odd Couple remake, what I wouldn’t give to watch a two-hour drama based on these two endearing women reaching for each other across a generational gap filled with trauma and tragedy…
A Concerto Is a Conversation – This is little more than a warm, intimate dialogue between a composer and his grandfather, a Black businessman who overcame racism to start a successful business. Although it compares and contrasts their experiences, it wisely stops well short of a “look at how far we’ve come,” rose-colored-glasses take on systemic oppression in America. Hearing a genuine discussion about the past feels like the not-so-secret key to unlocking a better future.
Do Not Split – Filled with genuinely riveting cinematography that looks almost staged, this glimpse into the Hong Kong protests is jaw-dropping. Few documentaries of any length have been this successful at capturing the feel of being dropped into tear-gassed riots. Somewhere between a call to action and “behind enemy lines” war footage, this one resonates like a rubber bullet to the sternum.
Hunger Ward – The famine in Yemen is an abject failure of all living human beings. That being said, watching malnourished children die in front of you, hearing their mothers wail and gnash, takes this entry completely out of the realm of cinema in many ways. It exists beyond objective appreciation of a film, operating exclusively as a middle finger to everyone failing to help. It is effective, but having it compete for an award feels absolutely disgusting.
A Love Song for Latasha – The most visually ambitious of the bunch, this quickie doc celebrates the life of Latasha Harlins, a teenager whose death helped fuel the fires that burned LA in the riots of 1992. It is at once a portrait that spills into literal animation as well as a sadly timely reminder of how little has changed in the last 30 years. It is equal parts elegy and electric.
Most likely Oscar winner: Collette
Ranked best-to-worst (other than Hunger Ward, which shouldn’t be reduced to rankings/competition): Do Not Split, A Love Song for Latasha, Collette, A Concerto Is a Conversation