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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

Here are some brief thoughts on all 15 of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. 

Starting with Live Action there is DeKalb Elementary, a film that starts tense and barely lets up. It’s based on a real 911 call that took place after an unstable young man wandered into an elementary school office with an automatic weapon. From there, it’s up to a scared but collected secretary to try and calm him down. The secretary part is very well performed. Overall, it’s a nice piece about empathy. It’s unfortunate that a black woman has to coddle a white dude, but that kind of reinforces the message. On a side note, I’m 99% sure this was shot at my kid’s school, which didn’t alleviate any of the inherent intensity.

My Nephew Emmett isn’t any lighter. It’s the tragic story of Emmett Till told from his uncle’s perspective. The best part of this short is how it captures the horror and terror the uncle feels when he merely hears what Emmett has allegedly done. He instantly knows what’s coming and that in the world he inhabits, he’s helpless to stop it. Beyond that, it felt like the story deserved to be bigger and stronger. Some of the acting isn’t that great and some of the lighting choices aren’t much better. This year’s Mudbound is a perfect counterexample of how to impressively tell this kind of story.

The shortest and best of the nominees is The Eleven O’clock. It contains a perfect short film hook. A psychiatrist is about to see a new patient. Hilariously, one of his symptoms is that he thinks he’s a psychiatrist. A snappy screwball comedy unfurls from there. It’s sharp, funny, and quite brilliant. It doesn’t overstay the premise or reach for something profound. It settles for being perfectly executed.

The Silent Child is solid for most of its runtime. It’s about a deaf little girl and her new teacher. The girl’s mother isn’t convinced that sign language is the best path forward for her kid. She’s also more than a little jealous of the new bond she sees forming between her daughter and the teacher. The film stays quite muted. It’s bolstered by a strong performance from Rachel Shenton as the teacher (she also wrote the script). But it never really adds another layer. It’s just sad, and ultimately a propaganda piece created solely to raise awareness for proper deaf education. On one hand it’s successful, I just wish it was a more dramatic success.

And then there’s Watu Wote (All of Us). It’s based on the true story of a bus in Somalia being attacked by terrorists. The terrorists demand to know who is a Christian and who is a Muslim so they can execute the correct infidels. It’s an intense scene but it takes forever to get to it. It’s meandering and then over too soon. It’s also distractingly similar to another short nominee from 7 years ago, Na Wewe. That older nominee was about a van attacked by terrorists in an African-country who demanded the passengers split into two groups, and it was made by Europeans who seem way too proud of themselves. It’s familiar and it’s fine.

Moving on the Animated Shorts, PIXAR returns with Lou. This one played in front of Cars 3 and it’s a cute and heartwarming CG short. It’s about a lost and found bin at school coming to life to teach a bully a lesson. It spins its wheels in the middle with an okay chase, but it is fun enough. It’s not pushing any new tech or experimenting wildly and that’s okay too. Garden Party is probably my favorite animated short of the group. It’s an almost plotless film innocently following around frogs outside a giant mansion. Slowly it reveals its more sinister intentions and its audacious and dark sense of humor. I’m kind of in awe of what it pulls off and of how beautiful the CG animation it creates to pull it off with. It’s nuts. Revolting Rhymes is from the same previously nominated studio that made The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. It’s a polished adaptation of Roald Dahl’s fairy tale twists. But it just never feels fresh enough to justify another go round with Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs. The house style is nice, but not that special. Negative Space is a weird little stop-motion film. It’s a narrated poem about how packing for trips was the only way a boy could bond with his dad. What starts as a giant “who cares” deftly turns existential and beautiful. An impressive feat of brevity. Dear Basketball has absolutely no business being nominated. It’s Kobe Bryant’s self-produced ode to himself. Kobe clearly knows the right people in town. It is hand drawn by a legendary Disney animator and scored by John Freakin’ Williams. So yes, it’s easy on the eyes and ears. But if you set aside Lakers fandom (yes, I am a fan, and I assume local animators must be too for this to have made it in), and the questionable past allegations, especially at this moment in time, you’re still left with a piece that has no business anywhere else but inside Staples Center.

This year’s least interesting Documentary Short is Edith + Eddie. It’s about interracial nonagenarian newlyweds and the family squabbles that interfere and conspire to separate them. The short doesn’t have much to say about them or their situation. At first it’s just neat. The kind of story you used to see get 500 words in your local paper. Then it starts to feel like we’re eavesdropping on someone’s very personal business. The 5-minute stretch of black with audio only, because the cameras were forced off, only emphasizes this feeling. Love is powerful. I get it. Try as it might, this film doesn’t strengthen that old cliché. Traffic Stop is a little better. It takes on the racial prejudice of the local police. It uses the case of Breaion King whose YouTube video you might have seen on the news. Thankfully her case didn’t end tragically like so many others, but it’s still gross and shocking how she was treated. The most disturbing part being when a different officer who wasn’t involved with her assault begins “rationally” explaining that black people have violent tendencies. However, the film doesn’t really do a whole lot besides let you get to know the victim. She gets to tell her story, share some of her life, and reclaim her time. It’s extremely one-sided, and there just isn’t 30 minutes of material here.

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is as strange and hard to understand as its subject matter. It’s about Mindy Alper, an LA artist who makes weird sculptures and strikingly odd drawings. She recounts her life story but because she is clearly mentally ill, the film jumps around, overshares, drops other details, and forgets to fill out the whole picture. For instance, the film is well into the story before we even know the artist’s name. We get a lengthy explanation of all the medication she’s on, but we’re never told what specifically is wrong with her. Is this how she’s always been? Did she used to be better? How does she take care of herself? The only context we’re given is if she gives it to us and she’s clearly an impaired source of information. The art is fascinating and she’s a compelling character but the movie could stand to be clearer.

The best two doc shorts are Heroin(e) and Knife Skills. The former is about the opioid epidemic in West Virginia. Rather than a doom and gloom story about death and societal failure, the film chose instead to follow 3 women who are out there trying to do something to better their community. There’s a fire chief who can barely sit down for an interview without being pulled away for another 911 overdose call. There’s a judge running a special “drug court” to help convicts with rehab. And there’s a good Christian who started a program that hands out food to prostitutes living on the streets. Hollywood could instantly turn fire chief Jan Rader’s story into a dramatic feature film starring Jodie Foster. It’s very compelling, and the whole short is structured wonderfully. It’s an inspiring and balanced look at a real issue without falling victim to histrionics. It’s impossible not to root for real fucking heroes, unassumingly just doing the work. Finally, there’s Knife Skills. It’s about a restaurant/culinary school in Ohio that runs a program to help train and hire ex-cons. It plays out like a cross between MasterChef and The Wire. It knows just how much kitchen drama to mix in with all the hard knocks. It could use a little more context and background on the program as well as the man who runs it. For instance, how much if anything are the employees paid? Or does the government assist the program in any way? No matter. This and Heroin(e) are really smart and interesting stories of people trying to help people.

And now I try to make some predictions. 

For Live Action, I find it difficult to go with anything other than The Eleven O’clock. It’s clearly the best and maybe since it’s the only comedy and the shortest that’ll help it win too. For Animated, PIXAR won last year and Lou is hardly a top tier work from them. I’m left thinking the unique Garden Party ends up standing out amongst the rest of the field. And for Documentary, it seems to always be pick your pet issue: opioids, criminal justice reform, Black Lives Matter, old people. I think Heroin(e) gets an extra boost for being widely seen on Netflix and feeling the most refined. I realize I just went with my favorites, which I hate to do, so I’m guaranteed to be wrong. Oh well. Go see the films for yourself. They’ll be in theaters starting February 9th.

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