Good Things in Small Packages: a look at this year’s Oscar Nominated Short Films

Note: This article was updated on 2/14/18 to reflect updated information regarding the screening of this year’s Documentary Short nominees.

Although I’m sure some people see short film categories as a potential pitfall en route to winning the office Oscar pool, the nominees for Best Animated, Live Action, and Documentary shorts always showcase some of the most accomplished filmmaking from the past year. Not only are most of these nominees worthy of awards contention, but they’re also worth checking out in a cinema, a place where few short films often play outside of festivals. Once again, Toronto audiences can catch the nominees in the Best Live Action and Best Animated categories on the big screen at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Speaking directly to the current cultural climate and necessary conversations, three of this year’s five nominees in the Best Live Action Short category are based on true stories featuring prominent black characters.

DeKalb Elementary

American filmmaker Kevin Wilson Jr.’s My Nephew Emmett revolves around one of the most infamous, heinous, and widely remembered of the true stories from the Jim Crow south. A tale of racial prejudice and violence in small town Mississippi, My Nephew Emmett tells the tense story of Mose Wright (veteran character actor L.B. Williams) trying to shield his Chicago born nephew – Emmett Till (Joshua Wright) – from a pair of white racists who want to “teach the boy a lesson.” The name Emmett Till and the 1955 incident that led to his death should be burned into the memory of every American, and while Wilson’s approach to the story is narratively and technically simple, that doesn’t make My Nephew Emmett any less powerful, stirring, and pointed.

Equally intense, but dealing with a different form of prejudice is the German produced and Kenyan set Watu Wote/All of Us. Set in December of 2015, an embittered, Christian woman embarks on a lengthy bus ride that will lead her to the increasingly dangerous Kenyan/Somali border, a place where terrorist activity and sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians is at an all time high. Director Katja Benrath takes time to set the stage and develop the deep rooted prejudices of the main characters before building to an intense stand-off between the bus passengers and a band of terrorists. It’s a bit broad and somewhat manipulative, but there’s a lot of technical and storytelling craft on display here that can’t be discounted. It’s certainly effective.

The biggest standout from this year’s nominees is American writer-director Reed Van Dyk’s layered, constantly escalating thriller DeKalb Elementary, which gets its real life inspiration from a school shooting incident and lockdown in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s essentially a two person movie, as a mentally disturbed white man (Bo Mitchell) with an assault rifle has taken a predominantly black school hostage, and it’s up to the receptionist in the main office (Tarra Riggs) to act as a liaison between the shooter (who hasn’t actually hurt anyone) and the police. Essentially a low-key, but nonetheless harrowing game of mental cat and mouse, Van Dyk’s film gently coaxes out information a little bit at a time instead of rushing into any sort of conclusion. The receptionist knows as much about what’s going on as the viewer, and things could go sour at any time. It’s intense, but also rather thoughtful, acting as a testament to how the best of educators and administrators can use their skills to protect the children entrusted to their care.

While those three shorts share common levels of intensity and thematic material, the other nominees in the category feel like outliers. The better of these outliers – and the second best short overall – is British filmmaker Chris Overton’s The Silent Child. Rachel Shenton writes and stars as a social worker brought in to help an overworked upper-middle class family with a deaf toddler. The kindly instructor helps four year old Libby (Maisie Sly) to understand sign language, a form of communication that could serve the young girl better in school than lip reading. But the family’s mother (Rachel Fielding) remains unconvinced, preferring her daughter engages in speech therapy in a bid to make the child appear more normal. Shenton’s script packs a real punch, examining not only the treatment of disabled children, but also the lines between various levels of parental expectation. There’s always a sense of foreboding that will suggest that this story won’t have the happiest or most constructive of endings, but that’s also one of the film’s most fascinating aspects.

And then there’s the Australian produced comedic short The Eleven O’Clock, a sort of “Who’s on First” style roundelay between a psychiatrist and a patient who has delusions of grandeur and THINKS he’s a psychiatrist. Josh Lawson (who also scripted) and Damon Herriman play the duelling shrinks, and Derin Seale keeps things sharp, snappy, and silly. Compared to the other shorts, this one is more of a triumph of performance and production design than a look at striking themes through the eyes of sympathetic characters, but it’s also undoubtedly the film from these nominees that’s the most fun to watch. It has a snowball’s chance in an Australian summer of winning this year’s Oscar, but that doesn’t make it any less delightful, especially in an otherwise emotionally taxing program of shorts to sit through.

Lou

This year’s animated selections generally stay away from headier social themes and political asides in favour of more straightforward storytelling with strong pedigrees.

Dear Basketball comes from writer/creator/producer/narrator and subject Kobe Bryant, renowned animator Glen Keane (a staple of Disney’s 80s and 90s golden age), and composer John Williams. It’s mostly a chance for Bryant to deliver an open love letter to the game that made him a superstar and how hard it is for him to retire. The animation – which blends pencil drawings, clever tricks of light, and bursts of well placed colour – is gorgeous, and the names associated with the film are almost enough to give this thing the Oscar sight unseen, but this is also one of the less interesting of the nominees in the category. Bryant’s reflections are somewhat trite and skin deep, never going into any greater context beyond a blanket “thank you,” and William’s relentless, fence swinging score isn’t adding any necessary juice to the material so much as it’s distracting from the subject’s heartfelt, if underdeveloped words. It’s fine, but not excellent.

Also less than successful, but still engaging is Revolting Rhymes, the lengthiest of this year’s nominees, a British produced piece based on the titular work from esteemed young adult author Roald Dahl. It’s a computer animated revisionist mash-up of classic fairy tales Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and The Three Little Pigs set in modern day England. It’s a testament to the strength of Dahl’s imagination that this one remains engaging as it does, but nothing is being done to elevate the material beyond something simply made to delight the kiddies. It also frustratingly cuts off in an awkward place after thirty minutes, mostly because this was originally the first part of a two part story, but only the first part was nominated for an Oscar and not the second, probably because stringing them together would have turned it into a feature offering. It’s silly, slight, and a good bit of fun, especially Dominic West’s sly turn as the voice of the narrating Big Bad Wolf.

More engaging and poignant in a much shorter amount of time is Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata’s French produced, stop motion rendered short Negative Space, which is less likely to win any awards than the two nominees listed above, but tugs at the heartstrings nonetheless with the story of a man recalling how the simple art of packing a suitcase reminds him of time spent with his oft travelling father. Visually inventive in terms of how it takes an everyday object and easily translates it into a metaphor for life and death, this one takes a potentially weighty subject and distills it to its essence with great elegance and poise.

Every year, there’s one animated short that’s borderline inappropriate for the younger crowd, and this year’s slot for that unofficial award is another French produced effort, Garden Party, a film that starts off innocuously enough with a bunch of photorealistic frogs and toads having the time of their lives taking over an apparently abandoned luxury estate. What starts off as a tale of animals getting a taste of the good life subtly turns malevolent through ominous musical cues and small visual clues that suggest that the frogs’ fun might be at the expense of something awful that happened at the mansion. Dark comedy is hard to pull off through animation, but the team behind this one makes it a subtle blast that builds to a conclusion that’s definitely not suitable for the kiddies. Adults will probably get the biggest kick out of this one, unless they hate frogs.

And it probably sounds cliché at this point, but I’m still convinced that the best of this year’s nominees in the Best Animated Short category comes courtesy of Pixar. Lou, which screened before Cars 3 last year in a case of a preceding short being a lot better than the following feature, is one of the kindest and sweetest short form works ever produced by the studio. This clever charmer about an anthropomorphic pile of junk from a lost and found coming to life to teach a schoolyard bully a lesson treads upon ground previously covered by Pixar, but it does so here with the kind of comedic gusto and set pieces that the studio usually reserves for their feature efforts. I’m not ashamed to say that I still enjoy the small scale delights of Lou more than I’ve enjoyed the studio’s most recent features.

Also, since animated shorts take up less space than their live action counterparts, the theatrical exhibition of these nominees will be padded out by three bonus shorts that are noteworthy despite a lack of a nomination. These extra films includes one of the best shorts across all three programs: the moving Australian made Lost Property Office. Animated in stop motion with nothing but recycled cardboard, this blend of silliness and sadness follows the day to day life of a caretaker in a transit system’s lost and found department. Lost Property Office now feels like it was robbed of a potential nomination when placed in comparison to Revolting Rhymes and the star power of Dear Basketball.

 

Heroin(e)

While moviegoers in Toronto can catch the Oscar nominated Animated and Live Action shorts across a lengthier run at TIFF Bell Lightbox, the nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject will get a special one night only screening on Thursday, February 22nd, with nominees divided into two programmes (Program A at 7pm, Program B at 9:55pm). But if you can’t make it out to see these special nominees in one shot on the 22nd, there are plenty of other ways to catch them.

Traffic Stop (screening in program A) is an HBO Documentary Films production directed by Kate Davis that will debut on the network Monday, February 19 at 8:00 EST/PST. It’s the harrowing first person account of Breaion King, an elementary school teacher from Austin, Texas who one day found herself the victim of a grotesque act of police brutality. After being pulled over in a Wendy’s parking lot for speeding, the arresting officer escalated an easily navigated situation by forcibly removing King from her car, throwing her to the ground, and repeatedly threatening to taser her. We know that King wasn’t fighting back because the entire encounter was captured by Officer Bryan Richter’s dashboard camera. A frightening look at trauma, racial bias, and why many black people remain fearful of the police to this day, Traffic Stop speaks bluntly to a power structure that rules through fear and inequality. King should be highly commended for sharing her story with Davis and the rest of the world.

Filmmaker Thomas Lennon’s Knife Skills (which is currently available for free on YouTube via The New Yorker‘s channel and screens as part of program B) takes a look at the launch of a unique restaurant concept. Edwins, located in the heart of Cleveland, Ohio, a city not exactly known as a culinary hotbed. Seeking to become one of the best restaurants for old school French cuisine in the world, it hopes to accomplish those lofty goals with a staff made up entirely of former prisoners recently released from jail who’re in need of a second chance and a safety net in a society that’s almost designed to make the previously convicted reoffend. Lennon’s following of the restaurant’s launch probably should have been a feature length documentary, but the stories contained within the walls of Edwins are moving, realistic, and openly confront issues and opportunities that employers should discuss more often.

Executive Produced in part by the unlikely duo of Cher and Steve James (who finds himself with a hard earned and long overdue Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature with Abacus: Small Enough to Jail this year), Laura Checkoway’s romantic and heart-wrenching Edith + Eddie looks at the lives of 96 year old Edith Hill and her 95 year old husband, Eddie, a pair of elderly, interracial newlyweds who met at a bingo hall and fell in love at first sight. Not long into their marriage, however, one of Edith’s daughters threatens to take Eddie’s wife away and force the elderly woman to live in Florida against her wishes. A painful and sometimes infuriating look at petty familial squabbles over money, the immeasurable power of love, and the dark downside of appointing legal guardians for the elderly or infirm, Edith + Eddie will leave viewers sad and angry in equal measure. Currently, the film is available to stream for free on Vimeo for a limited time, but those in Toronto can catch a screening of the film theatrically with a Skype Q&A from Checkoway on Friday, November 16 at 5:00pm , as part of the Toronto Black Film Festival at Carlton Cinemas alongside several other short films. Checkoway and co-producer Karina Rotenstein will also provide a Skype Q&A for the film when it screens at TIFF’s event as part of Program A. It’s impossible not to be rocked to one’s core by this one. Definitely catch up to it if you missed it at Hot Docs last year.

Over on Netflix, those playing Oscar catch-up can catch Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Heroin(e), an on the ground look at North America’s currently out of control opioid crisis. Set in Huntington, West Virginia (known less than affectionately as “the overdose capital of America”), the documentary follows three women –a judge, a first responder, and an outreach worker – as they attempt to help and save the lives of drug users during the deadly rise of Fentanyl and animal tranquilizers as additives and more fatal ways of getting high. Focused mainly on education, compassion, and common sense, Sheldon’s film has picked three strong women to help viewers navigate often misunderstood waters. Despite the dark subject matter, it’s also a film with a huge heart about people with a genuine desire to help their community through action and advocacy instead of harsh penalties and fear mongering. It screens in program B at TIFF’s event alongside Knife Skills.

The final and most easily accessible of the Documentary short nominees is the lugubriously titled Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, which is currently available to stream for free on YouTube through IndieWire’s channel. Frank Stiefel’s gently comedic and emotionally stirring look at the healing power of art centres around 56 year old Californian Mindy Alper, a kind soul who suffers from severe anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and has a speech problem caused by electroshock therapy. Alper looks back on her life through her artwork, and explains what her doodles and papier-mâché sculptures mean to her ongoing process of self-care and recovery. Mindy is warm and likable, so rooting for her success as she attempts her first ever gallery showcase is easy, but she also serves as a perfect example of an artist capable of turning their inner pain into something instantly gratifying to anyone who sees it. Stiefel almost doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting because Alper is that charismatic and beguiling, but he always treats this woman and the art she creates with the utmost care and respect. It’s in the A program for TIFF’s special screening of the nominees.

Many of the short films contained within these three often overlooked categories are more interesting than some of their long-form counterparts at the Oscars, and many of this year’s crop of contenders certainly earn that distinction. While this rundown might have given you somewhat of an edge in your “pick the most winners” pool, you should probably just see these films for yourself. I assure you that they won’t take up too much of your time.

The Oscar Nominated Live Action and Animated Shorts are now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts will screen in two separate programs for one night only on Thursday, February 22. Tickets for that event are on sale to TIFF Members on February 14th, and to the public on February 15.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.

Leave a Reply