The Oscars is such an old, straight, white dude party that Dave Matthews Band should play bros offstage when their self-high-fiving speeches go on too long. And yet, if you can look beyond the fact that ScarJo somehow nomination-blocked both Lupita Nyong’o and J-Lo, you’ll find one small, wonderfully diverse, beautiful oasis.
There are more women nominated for overseeing documentary short films this year (6) than have ever been nominated for best director (5). The majority of the shorts across all categories are foreign. Issues discussed range from an underpublicized condition plaguing refugees to a celebration of black fathers’ love for their daughters. The only thing they have in common is that they will, almost without exception, make your eyes projectile vomit tears.
Here’s a quick review for each of the 15 nominated shorts, along with a grade for the group as a whole, and predictions for who will win. Caveat: Last year, Skin, the worst mini-movie I have ever seen, bar none, in my whole entire life won for live-action. I have no idea what these people are actually going to give the nekkid golden guy to, but I promise to guess really hard for you.
Animated Short Films
Nothing says “this animation block is gonna shiv your feelings” like starting with a daughter staring at her father in a hospital bed. Composed of stop-motion paper-mache figures, this flick doesn’t need words to make you weep. Confronted with her dad dying, a woman stumbles into a memory about a dead bird. The wonky, murky visuals don’t distract from the universal sadness of losing a parent. Are we having fun yet?
Grade = A-
Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver
Another wordless entry, the most upbeat film in this category still features an ending thrown like a gutterball in your tear duct. A young black girl struggles to achieve the hairstyle she desires and eventually enlists the help of her dad. This counter to ugly pop culture stereotypes about black fathers feels extravagantly earnest and supercalifragilisticexpialidociously sincere. Also, that kid’s cute. Real cute. Kid gets an A.
Grade = A
Rosana Sullivan and Kathryn Hendrickson
Sit down, Sorkin, this is yet-another dialogue-free entry. An ownerless alley cat and an abused pitbull become friends. That’s it. If you’re not already on the verge of peeing your eye pants, the internet has ruined you. Like Hair Love, Kitbull is backed by a major studio, has a hand-drawn/2-dimensional visual style, and targets a simplistic and yet wholly effective emotional device. It’s a kitten and a pitbull. It’s a Kitbull. Deal with the cuteness or die by its hand.
Grade = A-
Words! This one’s got words! Those words talk about China’s one-child policy, and one man’s contemplation of what his life may have been like if his mother hadn’t been forced to have an abortion. Unless Pixar is really going for it next year, this is likely one of the few animated films to have abortion at its core. The puffy, stop-motion animation is evocative of a child’s memory even as it discusses definitively non-kiddie content. Although poignant, you do have to wonder about the merits of hearing a dude mourning what he could have had while a government makes his mom abort the daughter she wanted.
Grade = B+
Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre
The best films use the constraints of their medium to better deliver their message. A painter combatting dementia watches his world disintegrate and change around him. Objects morph and melt, as his memories collide with present day and fantasies argue with reality. Using its stop-motion approach to deliver its subject’s disorientation unto viewers, this is easily the most staggering entry of a really high-quality bunch.
Grade = A+
Winner: It’s likely to be Hair Love but watch out for Memorable.
Overall block grade: A
Live-Action Short Films
Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon
This gorgeous, lyrical, methodically paced entry feels longer than it is, which is both a compliment and the opposite of one. This tale of a prodigal son’s return to his family’s farm in Tunisia is complicated by the fact that he is returning from ongoing conflict in Syria with his brand new wife: a barely teenaged girl who is pregnant. Featuring the most uncomfortable family meal this side of Midsommar, the short is rife with tension, as a mother and father walk the knife’s edge of compassion and raging disappointment. The gut-punch ending is overly ambiguous, as the whole thing feels like cramming a multi-hour contemplation into a sitcom-length experience.
Grade = B+
NEFTA Football Club
Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi
Am I, a middle aged Midwesterner, allowed to say “cheeky?” Because this shit is cheeky as hell. It is also set in Tunisia, which hasn’t been this popular since George Lucas made Mark Hamill get a blue milk mustache there. Two brothers find a donkey packed to the ass with drugs. One bro begins trying to leverage the score for his family’s gain. His younger sibling has, let’s say “other plans.” Like a kiddie flick by the Coens, this is maybe the only short film totally devoid of weepy moments. Savor that respite. Remember how it feels not to cry for a while.
Grade = A-
The Neighbor’s Window
This. One. Ruined. Me. Like, I tried to recap what happened in the film a full 24 hours after watching it, and I got the snotty sobs. A couple on their way to Noah Baumbach’s vision of marriage get new neighbors across from them. Said new neighbors are young, virile maybe-exhibitionists who have less use for curtains than the GOP has for impeachment witnesses. The slightly older husband and wife voyeuristically pine for a younger life. Right up until they don’t. The obviousness of what unfolds is made graceful by the constraints of the short, and the result is a “grass is always greener” lesson that made it so I couldn’t sleep for several nights.
Grade = A
Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebvre
Based on a true story, a phrase that will hurt you by the time the film is done, this is the tale of sisters in a Guatemalan orphanage, a place definitely not known for super-happy-fun times. The girls flirt with boys, plan their escape, and dream of a world better than the one they know. The jump to the climax is jarring as hell but also a small mercy. Had we spent a full feature-length running time with these vibrant, spectacular actresses, the conclusion would have required therapy. Do you appreciate yet how emotionally exhausting this Oscar short-watching experience is? Invest in a poncho and wellies.
Grade = A
This quick flick about an emergency operator attempting to help a kidnapped woman driving in a car with her assailant makes up for its lack of originality with a trunkload of tension. Unlike almost literally any other nominated short, save Kitbull, this one doesn’t have a resonant message other than “taking hostages is bad.” Reminiscent of The Guilty, Denmark’s entry into the Oscar foreign language race last year, A Sister is maybe the worst film out of all 15 entries. I still really liked it. That’s how good these are this year, y’all.
Grade = B
Winner: I mean, they picked Skin last year… So throw a dart? Good money is on Brotherhood, but I’ll be pulling for The Neighbor’s Window.
Overall block grade: A-
Documentary Short Films
In the Absence
Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam
Our brains are hella maxed out on the amount of terrible government-related tragedies they can hold right now. And yet, it sure feels like we should really all remember how, in 2014, a ferry sank in South Korea, killing more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren. With footage recovered from the sunken vessel and interviews with heartbroken families, this short will prove you have actually not already hit your limit at outrage about bureaucracies that cost the lives of children.
Grade = A
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva
Young girls in Kabul are taught the basics of life: how to read, how to write, and how to shred. Maybe it is that my tender heart was a squishy ball, splattered against the wall of tragic short films by the time I watched this. Or maybe watching young women who, for generations, were blocked from education by cowards with guns growing into confident bad-asses is always just a rad way to spend a half hour. The film may not establish a clean narrative flow and often sputters repetitively, but it is still just objectively kick-ass.
Grade = A-
Life Overtakes Me
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
This Netflix original focuses on refugee children in Sweden who have Resignation Syndrome. What is that you ask? Oh, just the saddest thing possible. Healthy, able-bodied kids who have been traumatized by conflict in their home countries suddenly just stop functioning. They retreat into a semi-comatose state for months on end. Easily the most “holy shit, I did not know that this was a thing” entry in this year’s crop, this film adds another item onto the list history is keeping of ways in which we have failed the world’s most vulnerable.
Grade = A
St. Louis Superman
Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan
I want a T-shirt of Bruce Franks Jr. I want his album. I want a school named after him. A Black Lives Matter activist who was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives by a largely white constituency, Franks is also a battle rapper. So, this short doc features a man fighting for his community, grieving and celebrating the tragically short life of his brother, and passing meaningful legislation while also dispatching freestyle opponents. Yes please more thank you.
Grade = A+
Walk Run Cha-Cha
Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt
If you pretend this has nothing at all to do with the New York Times, this story of a couple reunited in Los Angeles after being separated during the Vietnam War is stupid sweet. Dancing was a way for the couple to reconnect, so this has something for everyone, provided everyone wants to watch adorable old people ballroom dance. Maybe this falls short of the profundity of the other entrants, but what it lacks in sophisticated argumentation, it makes up for by not making a person want to ugly cry for sad reasons. At the end of this 15 film extravaganza of emotions, I’ll take it.
Grade = B+
Winner: Probably Life Overtakes Me, but you know I’ll be waiting for Superman.
Overall block grade = A