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Short Films in Focus: The Oscar-Nominated Short Films of 2023

One of my favorite yearly traditions in doing Short Films In Focus is getting to write about the Oscar-nominated shorts. These showcases (as with any short film program) treat movie-lovers to an unpredictable batch of films from all over the world, with a variety of themes, tones, and textures. Often, short films get made with little to no regard for monetary gain, but these 15 films below managed to make enough of an impression on many viewers and voters to propel them into the Oscar circus. I can’t say I agree with all choices (I never do), but this year’s batch is pretty strong. 

The shorts programs will be in theaters starting February 17th. They will also be available on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. For more info, visit Shorts.tv.

Animated Shorts

"Ice Merchants"

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse” - A boy and a mole become friends in a snowy wilderness. An encounter with a fox becomes an opportunity rather than a threat. “One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things,” says the Mole. They eventually befriend a horse as they travel toward a cluster of lights in the distance that might be a home. Based on the bestseller by Charlie Mackesy, who also co-directed it with Peter Baynton, this gentle film is probably best watched in a melancholy state, but I imagine it works wonders no matter what. The characters speak knowingly about the virtues of kindness, bravery, and love while also expressing their personal doubts and fears. Some will find the fortune cookie nature of it a bit too much to bear. I guess I watched it at the right time. Whatever the case, it could very well win the night (it helps that J.J. Abrams and Woody Harrelson are producers and Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne provide voices). (32 min.)

“The Flying Sailor” - In this short from Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, a sailor gets a little too close to a disaster and sees his life and death flash before him. "The Flying Sailor" thwarts expectations at nearly every turn, starting off as a lighthearted catastrophe-in-the-making and gradually becoming something much more serene and spiritual. The film’s final coda will also surprise you. While the animation will captivate any viewer, the film’s soundscapes should be experienced on the best sound system you have available, including headphones. The score complements the interiors and exteriors of the sailor’s journey as he travels through a fractured narrative that represents all our lives until the moment we float away into the void. Pair this up with “Bardo” and see what you think. (8 min.)

“Ice Merchants” - For a while, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of João Gonzalez's wordless story. It tells of a father and son who live in a house built on stilts along the side of a steep mountain, but eventually it becomes quite clear that the location becomes too perilous for them. Like “The Flying Sailor,” "Ice Merchants" uses animation to take the viewer on a spiritual flight through a dream that started out as a nightmare. Sound is also key here and Gonzalez creates immense tension with just the sound of wood creaking its way toward certain death. A terrific film. (15 min.)

“My Year of Dicks” - In the last two years, the Academy has strayed from its tendency to award the Best Animated Short Oscar to the most kid-friendly film, which means this might have a shot at winning after all. (Plus, we all kinda want to see a movie with this title win a prestigious award, don’t we?). Politics aside, this is a wonderful collection of episodic shorts based on a memoir by Pamela Ribon, chronicling her misadventures in the summer of 1991 in which she tried to lose her virginity. The situations are all painfully familiar, particularly the final chapter, which I won’t spoil. The animation style never sticks to one thing, but it also maintains a consistent tone and color palette throughout. Director Sara Gunnarsdóttir has created a wonderful piece all around that earns its nomination. (24 min.)

“An Ostrich Told Me The World Is Fake And I Think I Believe It” - By now, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing a quick time-lapse, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the hands-on process of making stop-motion animated films. Laika Studios normalized it and it has always been a satisfying coda to their features. Lachlan Pendragon’s short makes it part of the story about an office worker who loses his senses as his co-worker’s faces come apart and the night sky gives way to a mysterious green screen. Is it a dream, a nightmare, or are larger forces at play? Pendragon’s film will invite obvious comparisons to Charlie Kaufman, but stop-motion fans (like myself) and artists will be delighted by the idea of an arduous artistic process taking over the livelihood of everything it comes in contact with. (11 min.)

Documentary Shorts

"Haulout"

“The Elephant Whisperers'' - Bellie and Bomman are a couple who raise orphaned baby elephants in the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in South India, which has been around for 140 years. The central elephant in this story, Raghu, gets walked, bathed, and treated as a member of a family in this gentle, gorgeously shot film. "The Elephant Whisperers," available on Netflix, relies too heavily on an overbearing score and recycled shots to make it truly memorable, but many will find its elephant footage fascinating enough. And even though it's overlong, this uplifting short takes us to a part of the world we would likely never see otherwise, painting the lives of this couple as a spiritual journey that happens to involve elephants. (41 min.)

“Haulout” - Every year, marine biologist Maxim Chakilev travels to a remote area of the Russian arctic where he has a small cabin and awaits the yearly haulout of walruses, who arrive at this area in need of icy tundra. All they find is warm water, which causes trampling and hundreds of deaths. The footage of 14,000 exhausted walruses is stunning and one can feel helpless watching it without having anyone over explaining it. We learn everything we need to know at the end, after we’ve lingered and meditated on this microcosm of the bigger climate crisis. Directors Maxim Arbugaev and Evgenia Arbugaeva have only one drone shot in the entire film and it serves a great purpose. (25 min.)

“How Do You Measure A Year?” - You might remember Jay Rosenblatt from last year's Oscar-nominated short, “When We Were Bullies.” This film is more satisfying, even if its simplicity might not seem Oscar-worthy. A “Boyhood” in miniature, Rosenblatt filmed his daughter Ella every year on her birthday from age two to eighteen, answering his questions, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes with an eye-roll (we share in every one of her eye-rolls). This is basically a home movie where Rosenblatt eventually makes it more about him; any parent watching will apply the film’s 29-minute runtime that covers 16 years as a metaphor for their time spent with their own kids. Your mileage may vary on this one. It’s not terribly profound, but don’t be surprised if it wins. (29 min.)

“The Martha Mitchell Effect” - Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy’s documentary arrived on Netflix around the same time as the Starz series "Gaslit," another project about the courage of Martha Mitchell. Mitchell was the outspoken wife of cabinet member John Mitchell during the Nixon administration, and many credit her as being responsible for bringing the Watergate scandal to the forefront. "The Martha Mitchell Effect" gives viewers a fascinating glimpse into the ways in which the media and politics intertwined half a century ago. Lest you think this is another obvious essay about how nothing has changed, Alvergue and McClutchy remain focused on the outward media figure and the interior mindset that went into being Martha Mitchell and all the blessings and curses that came with the territory. Those who don’t know Mitchell's story will come away grateful; those familiar could have a change of heart on how they once viewed this fascinating figure whom Nixon feared the most. (40 min.)

“Stranger at the Gate” - Ex-marine Richard McKinney once plotted to blow up a mosque in Muncie, Indiana where he lived. His life and blind hatred changed once he met the Muslims who attended the mosque. Director Josh Seftel gets the story from McKinney as well as his ex-wife, stepdaughter, and many Muslims who still know him today. The message comes in clear, as well a sense of the devastation that could have occurred if random acts of kindness didn’t intervene. It’s also refreshing how Seftel doesn’t use any footage of McKinney’s speaking engagements and opts for something more intimate, even if he relies too heavily on repetitive drone shots of Muncie. One also gets the feeling that there’s much more to the story of McKinney’s connections to his past, his inner turmoil, and what it might take for him to forgive himself. Everyone gives a good testimonial, but you want to see more of these people in everyday life to get the full effect. (30 min.)

Live Action

“Ivalu” - This year’s “kids in peril” film involves two sisters, one of whom is missing. The other is left to search through the icy tundra just outside their village in Greenland to find her. Their father seems suspiciously uninterested. This may sound like an adventure story, but Anders Walter’s film takes on a more meditative quality as young Pipaluk (Mila Heilmann Kreutzmann) ponders the idea of finding her and then not having her in her life anymore. Through flashbacks, we get a bigger story. This is not a mystery, but a tale of mourning. Walter’s film elegantly depicts loss with wide vistas that seem to dwarf every living thing, even the ever-present raven. This beautiful film is based on a graphic novel with its own visual sensibilities to match. (17 min.)

“An Irish Goodbye”-  As the title suggests, this wee Irish film tells the story of two brothers who reunite after their mother’s funeral. With her ashes in tow, they head to her house, which they have to try and sell. In the process, they do their best to fulfill their mother’s bucket list of sorts, resulting in some much-needed brotherly bonding. Tom Berkeley and Ross White’s film looks like the odds-on favorite for Oscar voters, given the organization’s prejudice against giving the gold statue to any short that doesn’t speak the English language. That and its feel-good, folksy nature will win over anyone not in the mood for a challenge. It can be grating at times and the short film format doesn’t allow the audience to truly bond with these characters the way we should. Everything happens a little too quickly. It’s cute, a little too precious even, but I suspect some viewers won’t mind one fecking bit. (23 min.)

“Night Ride” - Eirik Tveiten’s film is the kind of simple, well crafted, self-contained comedy that few shorts filmmakers conceive these days. Ebba (Sigrid Kandal Husjord) accidentally starts up a tram and puts it in motion after the driver stubbornly refuses to drive so he can take a long break. As she quickly learns what each button does, she picks up passengers and an unexpected conflict arises. Some may take issue with how Tveiten depicts transphobic violence and how he lets the film go there in the first place, but it doesn't feel like he wanted that to be the core issue. Rather, it's a story about a woman who feels ignored and decides to not let others in peril feel the way she often does. Pretty simple, really, but make of it what you will. (16 min.)

“Le Pupille” - I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this one in a concise way, but Alice Rohrwacher’s endlessly charming and inventive short has me stumped. Basically, it’s Christmas Eve in this Catholic boarding house for girls during WWI. There are prayers to be answered, sacrifices to be made, and cake to be eaten. The nuns have little compassion for these girls, but we’re sure they’ll be outsmarted soon enough. Rohrwacher gives us surprises at every turn, and made me want to see what else she has done. Alfonso Cuarón co-produced this short, which will warrant some curiosity, but Rohrwacher is the real deal; the cast, literally and figuratively, sings. If the voters watch this on Disney+, which defaults to the (badly) dubbed version, maybe they’ll be tricked into thinking they watched an English-language film and end up giving this the gold, which would almost be like an extension of this film’s own narrative. (38 min.)

“The Red Suitcase” - An Iranian teen in an airport carrying a red suitcase has to go through customs, but has no desire to see what’s on the other side. I’m going to keep this short vague since much of the tension lies in the discoveries of what she has to confront and escape. Cyrus Neshvad’s film has a nearly perfectly construction as it gradually builds suspense, while exploring a tough subject without getting heavy-handed. The final shot gives it extra heft, signaling Neshvad as a director to watch. The less said, the better, but "The Red Suitcase" is certainly one of the best films, short or feature-length, nominated this year. (18 min.)

The shorts programs will be in theaters starting February 17th. They will also be available on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. For more info, visit Shorts.tv

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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