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Short Films in Focus: The 2024 Oscar-Nominated Short Films

The short film categories used to be the last vestige of true indie filmmaking represented at the Oscars. Over the years, that feeling has changed quite a bit, with Nexflix, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other major studios and publications putting their names on the most high-profile films. This year, it’s quite possible Wes Anderson will win for Best Live Action Short, which takes away a major victory for a bright, new up-and-comer. Same with Jerusha and Jared Hess in the Best Animation category. Meanwhile, a big portion of the Best Documentary Short nominees feel made to accompany a TED Talk. Remember that mesmerizing short with the walruses last year? You really felt like you were taken to a part of the world you never dreamed existed. No such discoveries this year (“Island In Between” comes closest). There are admirable stories being told in all three categories, certainly, but everything feels sanitized for our protection. No “My Year of Dicks.” No boots-on-the-ground risk-taking. The indie spirit, for the most part, has been lacking over the years and I imagine it will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future. 

DOCUMENTARY

“The ABCs Of Book Banning” - The film opens with the startling fact that 2,000 books in public school libraries across 37 states are banned. We then hear from grade school students in Florida who have read many of the banned books and what they think of them. Books by Amada Gorman, Judy Blume, the infamous picture book “And Tango Makes Three,” the graphic novel “Gender Queer” and books about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., among them. The kids are the stars of the film as they talk about the futility and stupidity of the Florida school boards’ policies. The movie means well, but it’s artless in its approach. It preaches to the choir for twenty-seven minutes, but never provides any answers on how students or parents at these schools can fight the policies or obtain copies of the banned books elsewhere. This is the kind of film you show on day one at a Library Science 101 class, a power-point, listicle version of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” I agree with everything it’s saying, but as a documentary, it lacks power and substance. Directed by Sheila Nivens. (27 min. Available on Paramount+).

“The Barber of Little Rock” - From the New Yorker, a profile on Arlo Washington, who founded the Washington Barber College in 2008 as well as the People's Trust loan institution, the only Black-owned community development private institution in Arkansas, where 95% of its borrowers repay their loans on time. His sole purpose is to “Advance equity, build opportunities, build community.” Washington is a compelling figure and the film is at its best when it focuses on him interacting with his clients and students. The film’s most memorable scene comes when he has two of his students stare into each other’s eyes and see each other’s history. I wish the film had more scenes like that and a little less of the usual talking heads saying the obvious. It could also use a more narrowed focus with the people who come to the college and who borrow from the Trust. A feature-length version would probably be better suited to provide a more satisfying overview with narrative throughlines. We walk away hoping there are more Arlo Washingtons out there, but wanting to know more about the people he helps. Directed by John Hoffman and Christine Turner. (34 min. Available on YouTube)

“Island In Between” - The title refers to Kinmen, an island that connects China to Taiwan, just six miles away and the most vulnerable to any kind of military conflict should China decide to invade. Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang (“Our Time Machine”) returned to Taipei as an adult just before the pandemic and remained there during those three years, getting back in touch with this island that is rich in history, made evident by the stunning visual of a tank sinking into the sand on the beach, not far from where army recruits continue to test their armor, just in case. Chiang crams a lot of information and strands into this nineteen-minute piece that gives viewers a good overview of this island, one that warrants curiosity from anyone who has never heard of it (myself included), but the challenge comes in trying to figure out what the ultimate take-away should be here. It’s Chiang’s personal story, while also being another pandemic doc and basic history lesson. You get the feeling there’s a lot more he can do with this. Directed by S. Leo Chiang. (19 min.)

“The Last Repair Shop” - Since 1959, Los Angeles has provided newly repaired musical instruments to public school students. A dwindling number of repair people help maintain the program. Four of the people who fix these instruments share stories of their past and how they ended up here, what inspired them, how music saved them during times of personal turmoil and helped realize the American Dream was possible. In between, students who benefited from the program talk about how music helps them and what they hope to achieve from playing it. The film treads dangerously close to treacly sentiment, but these are interesting stories being told and we feel lucky to meet these people. I’d like to know more about how the program functions, who funds it and how long an average repair can take, but the filmmakers just want you to know that it exists and maybe that’s enough. It’s certainly a movie made with heart by people who feel close to the subject matter. DIrected by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, who also wrote the closing symphony performance. (40 min. Available on Disney+)

“Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó” - What’s not to love about spending time with two grandmothers who live together, dance together, watch movies together, drink together and put up with each other’s farting during bedtime? Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó are the grandmothers of filmmaker Sean Wang, who filmed them during lockdown and helped them get in touch with their younger selves again. We get a peak into their pasts and become more and more charmed by them as the film goes on. Many viewers will take to heart their view on how to spend the days of a life, either through pain or joy. Wang makes it clear he’s orchestrating a lot of these funny moments, but they’re having such a good time, whatever criticisms you might have of that device or manipulation will dissipate and you’ll wish you were in the room with them. I don’t know if these two are still alive or able to travel, but wouldn’t it be great to see them at the awards ceremony? Directed by Sean Wang. (17 min. Available on Disney+)


LIVE ACTION

“The After” - A man (David Oyelowo) grieves the sudden and violent death of his wife and child. One day, while on the job as a rideshare, he picks up a family that has a startling effect on him. That would be enough for any short film, but this one makes two lapses in judgment about what to show. The opening scene might elicit some unintended laughter once the shock dies down, since what happens plays out so outlandishly and unconvincingly, the viewer isn’t so much horrified by the violence so much as the screenwriter and director left it in in the first place. Subtlety is not this movie’s strong suit, despite a strong performance by Oyelowo at the center of it. His efforts are admirable and lift this movie up a notch, but the contrivances of the script are hard to ignore. Directed by Misan Harriman. (18 min. Available on Netflix)

Invincible- This French/Canadian film tells the story of Marc (Léokim Beaumier-Lépine), a young teenager who has just entered into a juvenile detention center and isn’t off to a promising start. The film is based on a true story, recounting the last 48 hours of this boy’s life. At first, we think the movie made an error in showing us the end of the film at the beginning, robbing it of suspense in the latter half, but that often overused device justifies itself in the film’s final moment. Beaumier-Lépine is often filmed in close-ups and brings just the right amount of intensity, desperation and sadness to the role, filling Marc’s journey with moments of joy that, tragically, won’t be enough to save him. A short film worthy of its 30-minute running time and nomination. Directed by Vincent René-Lortie. (30 min.)

“Knight of Fortune” - Another movie about grief, though far more refined, endearing and moving than “The After.” A man (Leif Andrée) visits a morgue to view his wife’s dead body, but looks for anything to distract him from the heartbreaking burden of opening the casket to say goodbye. A stranger (Jens Jørn Spottag) helps him out, but not before one slight misunderstanding takes place. Unpredictable, universal and unexpectedly funny, “Knight of Fortune” is certainly my favorite of the bunch as we witness a new friendship being formed out of a shared grief, one of the last vestiges of male bonding a man can have late in life. Acted to perfection by all involved and earning its tears, it’s too bad it won’t win anything, since this award only ever goes to English-speaking films. Directed by Lasse Lyskjær Noer. (25 min.)

“Red, White and Blue” - What starts out as a sensitive and well-acted portrayal of a single mother of two (Brittany Snow)--working as a waitress and in need of an abortion–quickly dissolves into a horrifically wrong-headed sermon on the issue in the United States. Snow is quite good, as is Juliet Donenfeld, the young actor playing her daughter, it’s such a shame to see these performances go to waste in a film that overstates the obvious, with a twist ending that will leave every viewer gobsmacked at the end instead of enlightened, angry or motivated to help make change. Roger Ebert famously said a movie isn’t what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it. The voters this year don’t seem to care about that latter part (have they ever?). Directed by Nazrin Choudhury. (23 min.)

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar - Your enjoyment of this will depend greatly on how much you love Wes Anderson’s work, particularly the last ten years or so when he and his co-writers overstuff the narratives. This is no exception. Told like an audiobook on 1.5 speed, every actor (Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley) tells Roald Dahl’s story directly to the camera, almost word for word, with the backgrounds playfully changing behind them via stagehands, mechanical levers, pulleys and rear projection. It’s all so very, very Wes Anderson and many will grow frustrated the longer it goes on, while his devotees will remain delighted at every turn. Personally, I used to be a fan, but I’ve grown tired of all of it over the years. I much preferred last year’s Oscar-nominated, Anderson-adjacent “Le Pupille” to this, but for those who feel the opposite, you can always refer to Glenn Kenny’s more favorable review on this site. Directed by Wes Anderson. (40 min. Available on Netflix)

ANIMATION

“Letter To A Pig” - An elderly Jewish man recounts his days hiding in a pig-infested barn for years during the Nazi occupation to a classroom full of bored high school students. As he becomes more impassioned about the aftermath and his need for revenge, the film shifts perspective and dissects the relationship between the past, present, how stories are interpreted and made more personal. Or maybe it was all just a dream. Either way, this is a gorgeously rendered piece that will likely confound many viewers, but still leave them moved and transfixed. Best to watch this either with headphones or with a state-of-the-art sound system. Directed by Tal Kantor. (16 min.)

“Ninety-Five Senses” - I confess I had no idea Tim Blake Nelson was the narrator of this one and I started off not liking the vocal delivery of whoever this was. Too broad. As the man’s story went on, though, I settled into it and forgave the big choices. His tale has a twist midway and becomes about how our senses trigger memories and the parts they play in our final moments. It’s hard not to be affected by this one as we see a man’s life play out, the mistakes he made and the life he could have lived, if only. Now I see that Nelson’s delivery is just the right thing to throw viewers off and, in the end, it works in the film’s favor. The animation varies between simple, retro 2-D (the past) and more detailed, expressionistic layers (the present), all working together seamlessly. Directed by Jerusha and Jared Hess (14 min.)

“Our Uniform” - This opens with a disclaimer that the film is not a criticism of anyone who wears the hijab in Iran. It is an examination of what it feels like to not have to wear one, as told by many anonymous women who share their perspectives on wearing different styles and fabrics and how it affects their lives. The tangible nature of the animation is really strong, with many fabrics, sewing tools and threads telling the stories in a charming, fast-paced style. Such subject matter often gets a much darker treatment, but this film isn't out to hit you over the head with stories of misery. It’s more about how where you were born can determine what you have to be versus what you are. It might not be deep, but it’s worth a watch. Directed by Yegane Moghaddam. (7 min.)

“Pachyderme”  - A woman recounts her summer living with her grandparents in a rural area where, we gradually learn, a dark, sinister element is at work in her experience. The animation style has a lovely picture book quality to it where everything looks like a painting. We kinda know where the story is going, but the journey there is a subtle and quiet one and sticks with the essential elements of the story. Directed by Stéphanie Clément. (11 min.)

“WAR IS OVER! Inspired By the Music of John and Yoko” - Maybe I liked this more than others because it was the last one I watched and, for once, it wasn’t someone narrating a story about their past. And maybe because I’m a sap for the song. I get why people roll their eyes at the end, and I think I did at first, but I eventually found myself going along with its heartfelt sincerity, just like any Lennon/Ono song that wears its heart on its sleeve. The artists at WETA digital collaborated with Sean Lennon Ono on the piece and it tells a good story no matter how hamfisted the ending may be. I went into this thinking we’d be getting a music video treatment of the song, coupled with obvious present-day footage to make a point. This was a refreshing change of pace, both for the program and the approach. Directed by Dave Mullins. (10 min.)

The Shorts programs are available in theaters now. For more information, please visit https://shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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