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Ballad of Narayama

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Short Films in Focus: The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

In anticipation of the Oscars this Sunday, our short films expert Collin Souter reviews each of the nominated shorts from each category. For more information about each short, click here

Animated

Daughter” - A woman visits her father on his deathbed, and when a bird crashes through a hospital window, she is transported back to a time in her young life to a similar incident. The film’s aesthetic feels wholly unique, as it employs puppetry and stop-motion as well as a hand-held camera. Best of all, there's no dialogue. This is a beautiful, emotional experience made memorable not because of the story and style, but the painted-on expressions on the characters’ faces that ultimately tell the story. Directed by Daria Kashcheeva.

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Hair Love” - A Sony Animation Studios short makes this list over a Pixar title? Weird. But this is another father-daughter tale, though more light-hearted than “Daughter.” Here, a father tries to style his daughter’s hair for the first time, but with mixed results. It’s very charming and the Academy voters tend to lean toward crowd-pleasers that their kids will like the most, so this is not a bad bet if you’re trying to win an Oscar contest. Trivia: this is the only animated short in 2019 to be paired with a theatrical release (“The Angry Birds Movie 2”). Directed by Matthew A. Cherry.

"Kitbull"

Kitbull” - I imagine many will feel that this tale of a kitten befriending a pitbull is a tad innocuous. My bet is that this story will hit home with many dog people and cat people, and well, count me among them. I quite enjoyed this one, but there’s a trigger warning that comes with it: Things get a bit grim in the middle as we learn what this pitbull deals with on a regular basis. Directed by Rosana Sullivan.

Memorable” - This one pairs nicely with “Daughter,” as it deals with memories between loved ones. In this short, memories fade and become distorted as a painter and his wife struggle to deal with his increasing dementia. The characters here are rendered like Vincent van Gogh paintings and that carries through the film, for obvious reasons. It culminates in a stunning visual moment as the artist’s memories both fade and are born again via a new work of art. I imagine many will be rooting for this one to win, and it certainly deserves to. Directed by Bruno Collet.

Sister” - At the start of this short, the enormous burden of having a little sister takes on literal proportions. For a while, it appears that will be the film’s overall concept, but it takes a turn and it ends up being about so much more. I would rather not give it all away (don’t read the IMDb description either), but I found "Sister" surprisingly worthy of its nomination. Visually, it’s mostly gray and colorless, save for some pink and red. But again, there is a perfectly sound reason for that that I will not get into. Directed by Siqi Song.

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Live Action

A Sister” - This is a well-crafted thriller in which a kidnapping victim, trapped in a car with her kidnapper, makes a fake call to her sister. The slow build to nail-biting suspense is quite an accomplishment for a short film format, as there have been many features over the past decade that have attempted this sort of thing to be sustained for 80-90 minutes. This works just fine on its own and the performances really sell it. Directed by Delphine Girard.

Nefta Football Club” - The first of two obligatory “kids in peril” films for this category. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining tale of two boys from a Tunisian village who find a mule carrying drugs in the countryside. They decide to take those drugs home. Peril ensues. The kids here are very good and director Yves Piat weaves a tale that will keep the audience from correctly guessing the story's outcome and its very satisfying punchline. Directed by Yves Piat.

"Brotherhood"

Brotherhood” - This one basks in the silence of big moments, hence the 29-minute running time. Here, a former ISIS member comes back home after a year of absence and brings with him a wife whom his family meets for the first time. His father resents his son’s path and his mother is just grateful to see him again. While it contains strong performances and justifies its running time, some of the editing choices in the final act leave more questions than answers. Directed by Meryam Joobeur.

Saria” - The second of two “kids in peril” movies. This one is based on the true story of the unthinkable tragedy at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala, where several orphaned kids plotted an escape that led to a deadly outcome. While I would hope to someday see a feature-length version that would smooth out some of the editing's flaws, it's hard not to leave this one without feeling a bit shaken and devastated. Directed by Bryan Buckley.

The Neighbor’s Window” - Every year I predict the Oscar will go to the English-language crowd-pleaser and every year, I am proven right. So, here it is. To many, this will feel like a lost episode of Joe Swanberg’s Netflix series “Easy” (of which I am a fan). It tells the story of a married couple with kids who notice their new neighbors across the street are noticeably younger and more free. They spend the next year fixated on their lives. While its accomplishments might seem minimal compared to more ambitious films like “Brotherhood” or “Saria,” it never has a false note. Directed by Marshall Curry.

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"In the Absence"

Documentary

In the Absence” - In 2014, the Sewol ferry departed Korea and sank with about 475 passengers on board, many of whom perished because of poor planning from the coast guard and a captain who jumped ship before anyone else. This startling film consists of found footage from all angles as well as interviews with survivors, parents of the deceased, and civilian rescuers who had to pick up the pieces when no one else would. I wish this tight and compelling short had been a feature. Directed by Seung-jun Yi.

Learning To Skateboard in A Warzone (If you’re a girl)” - This documentary takes place in Kabul, Afghanistan, and is the uplifting story of a skateboarding school for girls in a place where such a thing would be unheard of not too long ago. While it is great to see something so progressive in such an oppressive landscape, the film is a bit too long and feels like a Disney+ doc when it focuses on the skateboarding. Still, thank god this school even exists! Directed by Carol Dysinger.

"Life Overtakes Me"

Life Overtakes Me” - This is a heartbreaking account of families coping with Resignation Syndrome, in which kids retreat from trauma into a coma-like state. The refugee children in this film live in Sweden and all their parents can do is hope and wait. "Life Overtakes Me" is a powerful meditation on the in-between state of being in trauma and being at peace. Directed by John Haptas and Kris Samuelson. Available on Netflix.

St. Louis Superman” - A profile doc about Bruce Franks Jr., a battle rapper turned Missouri state representative who tries to pass legislation aimed at reducing gun violence in the black community. The ghosts of his past continue to haunt him as he tries to raise his son in the wake of the Ferguson riots. The film covers a lot of ground in its 27 minutes as we see the makings of what will hopefully be a long political career. We’ll just have to wait and see. Directed by Sammi Khan and Smriti Mundhra.

“Walk, Run, Cha-Cha” - This is a lovely movie about a Vietnamese couple who got a late start on their marriage due to separation in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but who are now living in California and making up for lost time by taking dance lessons. The film spends a lot of time studying the faces of this couple, and for good reason. The final sequence beautifully sums up a short story that spans decades. Directed by Laura Nix.

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