Review: 2021’s Oscar Shorts run the gamut from maudlin to magnificent

The 15 nominated shorts offer everything from vivid cartoons to complex metaphors and shattering stories of lost lives


OSCAR SHORTS 2021 (multiple directors, multiple programs). Available to stream at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. Rating: NNNN


Remember last year, when passing an Oscar pool around the office was a completely normal thing? The 2020 Academy Awards ceremony was one of the very last normal events of the before-times, and the 2021 version – currently planned as some strange in-person gathering of partially-to-fully vaccinated celebrities in socially distanced circumstances, and absolutely not over Zoom – is going to be a very strange marker for us all.

Nevertheless, those of you participating in this year’s pool – whether it’s an email chain or a Google form – are still looking for an edge, and that’s where the short subjects come in. And because we’re doing our best to maintain a sense of normalcy, here’s our annual guide to all three categories of Oscar shorts. Will the calling card beat the personal project? Will the one with the movie star beat the one with the perfectly executed gimmick? Will the one about the important social issue steal the spotlight from the one about the other important social issue? Honestly, who knows. But we can pass some time guessing.

Animated short subject

Burrow (Madeline Sharafian)

The inevitable Pixar nominee – about a rabbit trying to find a place to call home in an increasingly crowded woodland space – offers lively characters, increasingly clever designs and a none-too-subtle allegory about how cooperation leads to community. It’s a charmer.

Genius Loci (Adrien Mérigeau)

A young woman wanders around Paris, experiencing the city as a hallucinatory cascade of modern art references; it could be a metaphor for mental illness or substance abuse, or something else entirely. It’s an enthralling experience, using familiar images as a means of interpreting an unfamiliar world.

If Anything Happens I Love You (Michael Govier, Will McCormack)

This one’s tricky. On the one hand, it’s an attempt to engage with the uniquely American horror of school shootings through the story of parents left alone with their loss; on the other, it’s shamelessly manipulative and blatantly obvious in its storytelling, as if it doesn’t trust the viewer to get its fairly obvious message. But that’s how Green Book won best picture.

Opera (Erick Oh)

This one’s a genuine stunner, using scale and time to overwhelm the viewer with its impact. In a single unbroken take, Oh – a Pixar veteran doing his own thing – presents an entire society living inside a massive pyramid (which may or may not be a spaceship), occasionally zooming in on one facet or another. I’ve watched it multiple times and still haven’t seen everything on offer.

Yes-People (Gísli Darri Halldórsson)

This Icelandic entry is engaging if insubstantial, intercutting the quiet lives of people living in an apartment building; the only word of dialogue is “yes” – or more specifically, “yo-aah,” delivered in endless permutations. The digital animation, which mimics stop-motion photography right down to the simulated film grain, is very pleasing. But that’s about it.

Should win: Opera. It’s the one film of the five that feels like a fully realized work of art, though I fear voters won’t fully appreciate Oh’s vision if they don’t get to experience it on a really big screen. (Genius Loci is just as artful, but its pastiche concept means it always feels a little derivative.)

Could win: If Anything Happens I Love You has a shot, especially if voters decide its mawkish execution can be forgiven because the subject matter is so important.

Will probably win: If Anything Happens I Love You, because there might be someone out there who isn’t aware that school shootings are bad and this will make voters feel like they’re helping.

Documentary short subject

Colette (Anthony Giacchino)

Giacchino’s doc profiles Colette Marin-Catherine, who fought with the French resistance in World War II and now, at 90, makes a pilgrimage to the German concentration camp where her brother died. It’s an unsentimental look at an unsentimental woman who refuses to be celebrated as a hero, even though that’s precisely what she is.

A Concerto Is A Conversation (Ben Proudfoot, Kris Bowers)

Produced for the New York Times’s OpDoc series, this relatively brief documentary is a small slice of family history for co-director (and Green Book composer) Bowers, who interviews his grandfather Horace Bowers Sr. about leaving Jim Crow-era Florida as a young man, hitchhiking to Denver and eventually settling in Los Angeles, founding a dry cleaning business and trying to reconcile his success with the trauma of his youth.

Do Not Split (Anders Hammer)

The latest political doc from Field Of Vision – which produced last year’s short-doc nominee In The Absence, among others – is a riveting, ground-level look at the democratic protests in Hong Kong, and the increasing police violence that met them. And it lucked into a perfect visual hook: many protestors wore masks to conceal their identities from state surveillance, long before COVID made those masks a different sort of survival tool.

Hunger Ward (Skye Fitzgerald)

After 50 Feet From Syria and the Oscar-nominated Lifeboat, Fitzgerald completes her refugee trilogy with this look at a hospital in famine-stricken Yemen, where medical staff struggle to keep their young patients alive against impossible odds. (A blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia keeps food and medicine from getting into the country.) Fitzgerald isn’t trying to put any sort of upbeat spin on this story; she simply bears witness to unfathomable suffering and grief, showing us the despair of the malnutrition wards and the tireless efforts of her subjects to make the smallest bit of difference. It’s a crushing experience.

A Love Song For Latasha (Sophia Nahli Allison)

The toll of American racism is felt most strongly in this Netflix production, a lyrical and occasionally abstract remembrance of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old shot dead by the owner of a Los Angeles convenience store, who told police she was shoplifting. (The police concluded she almost certainly wasn’t.) Allison shows us the world Latasha left behind, and imagines the woman she would have become if she’d had the chance. It’s a heartbreaker.

Should win: A Love Song For Latasha is timely, artful and quietly shattering, but Hunger Ward and Do Not Split are both powerful works of journalism.

Could win: Voting for either Hunger Ward or Do Not Split would be a political act, and Academy voters do like to acknowledge humanitarian efforts in this category. (And while an individual member might not want to piss China off by supporting Do Not Split, being part of a voting body feels a lot safer, or at least more anonymous.)

Will probably win: If I had to put money on it, I’d go with A Love Song For Latasha, which really is the strongest film in the category.

Live action short subject

Feeling Through (Doug Roland)

Late one night, a teenager (Steven Prescod) finds himself helping a deaf and blind stranger (Robert Tarango) catch the right bus in this delicate two-hander, a subtle character piece about understanding and advocacy that sprang from an incident in writer/director Roland’s own life.

The Letter Room (Elvira Lind)

Movie star alert: Oscar Isaac stars as a corrections officer who’s assigned to monitor prisoner correspondence, and involves himself in the life of a death-row convict as a result. Writer/director Lind builds her spare drama around her star (who is also her husband), hiding his charisma under a vaguely 70s look that plays into the working-class hero vibe of movies like Serpico and Night Moves – and quietly suggesting that things in this story won’t go so great.

The Present (Farah Nabulsi)

In the West Bank, a Palestinian dad (Saleh Bakri) takes his little girl on a shopping trip – which means crossing through checkpoints and putting both their lives in the hands of heavily armed, easily panicked soldiers. Nabulsi’s drama shows us how the indignation and inconvenience can escalate into a life-or-death confrontation on a moment’s notice… even if she does deliver the most palatable version of this particular story.

Two Distant Strangers (Travon Free, Martin Desmond Roe)

Carter, a Black New Yorker (the rapper Joey Bada$$) finds himself trapped in a time loop, always being killed by the same white cop (Andrew Howard). Yes, there are a lot of time-loop stories around, and the 2019 feature The Obituary Of Tunde Johnson played a similar angle. But Free’s script uses the shorter running time to build to a revelation that’s truly unsettling – and then end on a note that’s either triumphant or despairing, depending on your point of view.

White Eye (Tomer Shushan)

In this single-take drama, an Israeli man searching for his bicycle finds it in the care of an African immigrant (Dawit Tekelaeb) who thought he’d bought it legally – but is now technically in possession of stolen property, which puts his status in serious jeopardy. A very clever transposition of Bicycle Thieves to the present day, though this version doesn’t stick the landing.

Should win: Either Feeling Through or Two Distant Strangers – which, if watched back to back, play as responses to one another – is worthy of this year’s prize.

Could win: White Eye has an appealing combination of technical virtuosity and not-so-subtle messaging that might play well with voters.

Will probably win: The Present has a cute kid, a morally upstanding hero and a fraught, suspenseful climax – and it also resolves its story in a way that reinforces the viewer’s pre-existing views on the Israel-Palestine situation, whatever they happened to be. So it’ll win in a walk.

@normwilner

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