A young man emotionally plummets into the chasm made by his separated parents. An old woman in the grips of dementia fights to recover the most basic facts about her daughter. A young woman struggles to fulfill the promise of a life interrupted by tragedy. Folks, these are the animated shorts…
The Academy has officially settled into its emo period. Smearing its black eyeliner on, the Oscars yelled “Fine, we won’t even have a host!” and tried to start an incredibly risky and stupid relationship with a “Best Popular Film” category. What’s crazier is that the sullen rebellion seems to have spread even to the smaller awards. Watching the collection of Oscar-nominated shorts is an annual highlight for me. They’re tiny nuggets of creativity that don’t overstay their welcome and tackle subjects that would never be given full-length budgets. This year is just exhausting and brutal. The live-action nominees feature two films highlighting the death of children at the hands of other children!
To be clear, the content of individual films selected is often quite challenging. These selections just give audiences no respite. With maybe one single “feel-good” flick of the 15 nommed shorts, getting through all of them was an emotional slog that took literally days. What I’m saying is, definitely do see them, but definitely don’t see all of them in a short time frame. Now, let’s get to grading these and picking the winners.
Like Dr. Katz meets, um, Dr. Cats, this film focuses on a group therapy session between various animals. Filled with exactly zero laughable moments and maybe half an insight, it’s easily the weakest of the bunch.
Grade = D
A tiny, sentient dumpling will absolutely wreck your shit. It’s likely the odds-on-favorite because Pixar traditionally dominates this category, especially in a year when Spidey is fixin’ to put the ole whammy on their chances in the Best Animated Feature category. It’s not as courageously original as some of the others, but damn effective.
Grade = A-
One Small Step
I don’t know the order they will show the animation block, but just know that once you start crying, you’re not going to stop. This dialogue-free reminder that children are selfish monsters who don’t realize the sacrifices of their parents until it’s too late is like a calendar alert to call your mom. The vibrant, crisp visual style masks the messy state your heart will be in by the end.
Grade = A
Another animated gem absent spoken words, what makes this one special is how well it balances the unintentional trauma inflicted on children torn between two parental worlds with the sorrow of the parents’ individual journeys. Usually, films nail one or the other, but in just 15 minutes, this short straddles the developmental divide.
Grade = A
The best animation traffics in content that can’t easily be depicted in other mediums. With spectacular colors and shaky sketches, this is immersion into Alzheimer disease in a way that feels wholly original and never cloying or cliched. It’s simple, unpretentious and probably my favorite, although this block is packed with winners.
Grade = A
Will win: Bao
Should win: Late Afternoon
On the surface, it makes sense why someone would choose to explore the two youngest murderers ever convicted as adults. That is, until you realize that means spending a half hour watching children screaming, wailing and explaining how they brutally killed a toddler. Between this and the Ted-Bundy-palooza we’re mired in, I think the answer for why we’re living in the worst possible timeline is that we deserve it.
Grade = C
The other “extremely unpleasant shit happens to very young boys” short, this is a better film but equally as traumatizing. Roughhousing and childlike shenanigans give way to one of the more profoundly upsetting cinematic moments I can remember. I cannot stress this enough: Do not see the Live-Action Oscar Shorts as a family this year.
Grade = B
“What if Get Out, but stupid?” I cannot believe that this is a real thing that I really watched with my real eyes. Tackling the resurgent Nazi epidemic in America is important. Doing so in a way that feels like a Twilight Zone episode based on a Reddit post is not helping. People you will recognize are in this and it makes a very bad argument about important racial issues, so it is the double-favorite to win with Academy voters.
Grade = F-
Now, this is what I’m talking about! This taut thriller simply could not have sustained a feature-length running time without massive changes to its form. A mom gets a call on a dying cell phone from her young son who is alone on a beach he doesn’t recognize. In real-time, we watch a mother’s worst nightmares coming true. Fun fact: I now know I can hold my breath for 19 minutes.
Grade = A
Boy could this one have been bad. An elderly woman engages her nurse with delicate questions about their lives in a way that is ultimately gently devastating. If pretty much every other short this year is a pounding closed fist, this is a gentle open hand. Oh, it’s still going to land an emotional slap right on your kisser, but it’s soft about it.
Grade = A
Will win: Skin
Should win: Marguerite
A Night at the Garden
This isn’t really a short film. It’s just a clip of a time in 1939 that 20,000 Nazis filled Madison Square Garden. Yeah, you read that right. It’s a horrific reminder that the current rise in white supremacy we’re facing is merely a return to visibility for a group that’s never left.
Grade = B
Any film that opens with you watching an actual dead body being hauled away is not going to make you feel better as it continues. This is a look at the people whose job it is to save the lives of refugees crossing oceans to Europe. I know your job is hard, but at least it’s not “pulling the bodies of dead children out of the water” hard. You thought I was kidding about how emotionally trying these films are this year, but I was not exaggerating. Incredibly important but not impeccably made, this is a significant subject not incredibly successfully explored here.
Grade = B-
As someone who struggles with health anxiety, watching a short film about people in palliative and hospice care was like treating Indiana Jones to an all-you-can-eat snake buffet. Grappling with the unshakable reality of mortality is, you know, hard. The passion with which the caregivers approach their work is inspiring, even if it does little to blunt the pain of pondering the ends of the lives around you.
Grade = B
In what should be the least surprising news ever, shutting up and listening to a black person share their dealings with race issues provides the greatest insights into the subject. A young man who is almost impossibly honest about his personal struggles with identity explores his upbringing in England in this extremely well-crafted short. Too often, documentaries of all lengths forget that they are required to not only focus on an interesting subject but to do so with compelling composition.
Grade = A
Period. End of Sentence
We’ve done it: We’ve reached the one inspiring, optimistic, hopeful film in this entire sea of sorrow! Women in a rural Indian village take on the stigma against menstruation by becoming sanitary napkin activists. Not only does this bring attention to an often overlooked issue but it does so in a way that is profoundly uplifting. Oh, to feel something akin to happiness after the almost six hours of somber reflection!
Grade = A
Will win: Black Sheep
Should win: Period. End of Sentence