The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Shorts, Reviewed

Oscar Nominated Shorts Hair Love / Brotherhood / Walk Run Cha-Cha

From live-action to animated to documentaries, we flip through the Academy Awards’ shorts offerings to see what we think should win.

Ah, the shorts — the most overlooked categories of the Academy Awards. Everyone’s got opinions on who should win everything from Best Picture to Best Makeup (Hint: not Joker), and most folks at least pretend to know the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. But shorts are a different story; a lot of people, myself included, are guilty of discounting shorts as ‘less than,’ or at least the last on our list to consider stories of considerable quality. The 2020 Oscar-nominated shorts are no exception.

But if you’re lucky enough to live in a city, chances are there’s an arthouse theater playing a montage of the 2020 Oscar-nominated shorts near you, and I highly recommend going. It almost takes a different sensibility to watch shorts than full-length features; filmmakers have less time to make a large impact, so you have to be on the look out for big ideas, tight plotting, and rigorous investigative reporting (in the case of the docs). The Landmark Theatre is currently showing presentations of the live-action and animated shorts, and if you’re in Chicago, the Music Box Theatre is showing the documentary shorts leading up to the Oscars on February 8th.

Whether you need to beef up your Oscar betting pool, or even just want to know which shorts are worth watching, we at The Spool have you covered.

Animated

Matthew A. Cherry’s “Hair Love”

With a few exceptions, the Academy Awards went for stone-cold bummers this year for almost all the categories, hard-hitting shorts about everything from death to betrayal to the cold isolation of our failing memories. The animated shorts were the sole exception, with a few bittersweet gems to cut through the emotional devastation that surrounds it. But whether the tears are happy or sad, they’ll come for all five either way.

The Czech Republic’s “Dcera (Daughter)” and France’s “Memorable” are two hard-hitting animated shorts about ailing elders and the women who love them, both told with bold stop-motion animation styles. The former, about a daughter sitting by her ailing father’s hospital bed and remembering a lifetime of emotional disconnect, contrasts its metaphorical vividness with sharp, cinema-verite techniques like handheld camera work and shallow focus shots. It’s wordless, but powerful. The latter, though, is a true tear-jerking masterpiece, taking us into the mind of a French painter suffering from dementia, losing his grip on the permanence of shapes, time, and eventually, his own wife. It’s perhaps the most effective use of its medium, weaving the increasing abstraction of impressionist painting through the world of a gradually frightened man facing a world he can no longer recognize.

The animated shorts aren’t afraid to get political, either; China’s eight-minute-long “Sister” feels like a short, artful companion to One Child Nation, a charming coming-of-age tale about a young boy lamenting the quirky little things his sister does to annoy him during their childhood in mainland China. That is, until we’re reminded that China’s one-child policy means that this sister never came into his life. The felt animation is an incredibly simple, effective means of telling the story, which makes the over-reliance on narration a bit unnecessary. Perhaps it’s because it’s surrounded by other masterfully wordless shorts, but this short too could have relied on the strength of its images a bit more.

But enough of the sad stuff, let’s see some happy tears! “Kitbull”, Pixar’s entry this year, is an unconventional return to 2D animation, but the effects are charming enough. The story of a stray cat who befriends a pitbull, and their eventual escape from the dangerous junkyard in which they live, is irresistably adorable (my cat, for one, was a fan of all the bottle cap play and the kitty’s adorable meows). But compared to the hefty themes of the other shorts, this one doesn’t quite have the same impact.

The likely winner of the Oscar, unsurprisingly, is Matthew A. Cherry’s “Hair Love,” based on the children’s book of the same name. An accessible and aspirational story of a young Black girl and her father learning to navigate the titanic task of wrangling her natural hair, “Hair Love” feels capital-I Important in small but crucial ways. The bright, bold colors and vivid 2D animation evoke the storybook on which it’s based, and it’s beautifully designed. What’s more, one imagines it’s vital representation for Black girls who need to learn that their natural kinks and curls are beautiful too, and also for fathers who can learn that doing their daughter’s hair isn’t ‘women’s work.’ It’s not the most thematically vibrant, or the most startlingly animated film of the fest, but just try to get through the final scene without a tear in your eye.

Live-Action

Unlike the animated films, though, the live-action shorts are almost all stone-cold bummers. We might as well start with the one comparative exception, Tunisia’s “NEFTA Football Club”, a Coenesque crime comedy about a pair of football-playing boys in Tunisia who come across a literal drug mule in the desert. The older brother steals the cocaine in the mule’s saddlebags(the little brother assumes it’s “laundry detergent”), which sets up a long-form gag as the drug traffickers wander around looking for their mule, and the older brothers’ attempts to sell the drugs himself ends in hilariously frustrating circumstances. It’s short but sweet, and never threatens to get too heavy.

Another short is slightly less heavy, the Belgian thriller “A Sister”, in which a kidnapped woman bluffs her captor into letting her call emergency services under the guise of checking in on her sister. What follows is a tense chess game between the captive, her captor, and the operator, as the women on both sides of the line try to communicate vital information like location, level of safety, and so on without giving up their game to her captor. Thrillers work best by mining simple premises and limitations for all its worth, and this short explores all the permutations of this concept to nail-biting effect.

“The Neighbors’ Window” starts as your everyday, average American indie mumblecore short, as a settled thirtysomething couple with three kids peer in on the young, attractive, perpetually horny couple who moved in across from their building and lament how unexciting their lives has become. Then it takes a far more emotional, gut-punching turn, and Matthew Curry’s short suddenly becomes a meditation on valuing the things we often take for granted, and the unexpected connections we make with others.

“Brotherhood” is another aching chasm of despair, this time following a Tunisian farm family whose prodigal son returns, with a devoutly Muslim (burqa and all) wife in tow. The father is bitter at the son’s absence, and even more so that he left to fight for ISIS during his time away from home instead of helping keep the family farm afloat. Shot on film and captured in a confining less-than-Academy ratio, this short is one of the most daringly shot, richly textured as it explores the complicated emotions of duty, the religious schisms of Islam, and the gnawing sensation of familial betrayal. Real harrowing, complex stuff.

But the most heart-wrenching of the live-action shorts may well be “Saria”, a docudrama about the 41 young women who died in a neglected fire at an orphanage in Guatemala in 2017. Until its true subject is made clear, “Saria” is an intimate, layered look at life in captivity, and the women’s attempts to maintain a sense of normalcy amid squalid conditions and unflinching confinement. There are vivid characters, and a daring escape plan, and then things get so much worse in the short’s disquieting final moments. It’s a beautiful, tragic work of cinematic activism.

Documentary

First, let’s start with the hard-hitting journalism, and then settle on the cute human interest stories, hm? South Korea’s “In the Absence” is a searing indictment of the South Korean government’s bureaucratic ineffectiveness during the 2014 sinking of a passenger ferry that saw the deaths of more than 300 people, most of them teenagers. Told through a disquieting combination of helicopter footage and talking-head interviews of parents, survivors, and divers, Yi Seung-Jun collages these elements into a rage-inducing portrait of a government ill-equipped to handle such a quickly-moving disaster. Captured audio reveals unqualified safety workers going through the motions to look good in front of an unqualified president, in some of the most unbelievable admissions of bureaucratic incompetence I’ve ever heard. An angry warning to all of us that the people at the top may not know what they’re doing.

Netflix’s “Life Overtakes Me” brings our attention to another harrowing issue: Resignation Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon specific to children of refugee parents feeling violence in their home country, only to be left in limbo wherever they’d like to stay. All three families we follow have kids who’ve become catatonic from despair and hopelessness, fed through feeding tubes and manually exercised by their parents. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s doc is disturbingly quiet, making use of the desolate, snow-white Swedish environment to convey the bleakness of these refugees’ situations. Like the families at the center of the doc, you too feel like you’re floating through oblivion, unsure what’s to happen next. Show this to the next person who doesn’t seem like they get the hell that refugees go through when we turn them away from safety.

Two other shorts, “St. Louis Superman” and “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” are admirably anthropological looks at people making the most of their violent circumstances. In the former, we follow battle rapper (and former Missouri state representative) Bruce Franks Jr., practically the only black man (and Democrat) in the state legislature, in his efforts to pass a bill meant to address the root causes of youth violence in his community. In the latter, we follow an indoor skate park in Kabul called “Skateistan”, and how its literacy and skating programs help actualize the young Afghan girls who partake in them. Both are strong, uplifting docs, even if the latter’s graphics work is a little lacking compared to the others.

But maybe the most uplifting and rewatchable of the nominated docs is “Walk Run Cha-Cha”, a New York Times “Op-Doc” by Laura Nix that follows Paul and Millie Cao, a Vietnamese couple who had to separate when Paul fled communist Vietnam for America in the ’90s. Years later, Millie was eventually able to follow suit, and the two reunited in California, where they rekindle their relationship with their shared love of dance. It’s tender and well-manicured, and its stakes are a bit less immediately harrowing than some of the other docs on the list. But there’s something so charming and sneakily beautiful about the Caos’ love for one another, and the unexpected beauty of their moves on the dance floor. And the short’s climax, a passionate tango to The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun to Live”, is enough to make you curl into a ball of tissues and sign up for a dance class. It’s a slyer endorsement of the moral worth of immigration, but one that, as the kids say, is liable to give you the feels.

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