Film Review: Oscar Nominated Live Action and Animated Shorts

Short films still have a nearly impossible time finding an audience outside of a film festival setting (or even during one). The good news is that over the last couple of years, various theater chains (including Landmark and AMC theaters in Chicago) have made a concerted effort to package the nominated short films in all three categories (Animated, Live Action and Documentary) and release them a few weeks before the Oscars telecast.

Although a two-part Documentary program doesn’t open until February 23 at the Music Box Theatre, the nominated Animated and Live Action shorts are being released this week, and both programs are well worth checking out.

The Animated contenders might feature the toughest competition, beginning with the inevitable yet always-enjoyable Pixar contender, which this year is Lou (which debuted in front of Cars 3, so I’m guessing most of your haven’t seen it), about a schoolyard bully and a very lively Lost & Found trunk. I love the imagination and the way the animators play with motion when bringing to life a creature that has no permanent form.

garden party
Image via The New York Times

My personal favorite of the bunch is the wordless French offering Garden Party, concerning a group of frogs and toads that seem to have infested the aftermath of a swanky mansion party. And as we follow their gradual creeping around and inside the palatial home, we get clues that something went horribly wrong at some point during the festivities. It’s a mystery, comedy and stunning animated work that looks so lifelike, I thought the animators had cheated.

The sentimental favorite might be Dear Basketball, co-directed by Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant, which features narration by Bryant on the eve of his retirement from the sport that has brought him everything, over spectacular sketches of him in action as a child, teenager and 20-year NBA legend. As if that weren’t enough, none other than John Williams composes a lovely score to accompany Bryant’s moving poem devoted to his love of the game.

Although smaller in scale, the equally moving French work Negative Space relates a sweet story about young man who was never close to his father, but he still feels linked to him even as an adult when he packs his suitcase for a work trip in the precise, efficient manner his father taught him. These memories unlock a series of recollections and emotions that are undeniably touching.

Based on rhymes written by Roald Dahl and illustrations by Sir Quentin Blake, Revolting Rhymes (from the UK) is a curious and most enjoyable mash-up of characters and situations from several popular fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk) in a new adventure that unravels the source material and shows us just how demented they are and how much more so they can get. It’s the least interesting of the bunch, so naturally it runs far longer than the other four. Since the running time of the five nominated shorts alone is less than an hour, the program is fleshed out with a few other animated works that were short listed in the category, pushing things to a palatable 80 minutes or so.

In the Live Action package (which runs closer to 100 minutes), my personal favorite is easily the harrowing DeKalb Elementary from director Reed Van Dyk, a based-on-a-true-story re-enactment of an exchange between the receptionist at an elementary school and an unstable, somewhat confused man who walks into her office with a semi-automatic rifle and few reasons to carry on living. In only 20 minutes, the filmmaker dives headfirst into a tense situation but comes out the other side, illustrating the role compassion and humanity can play in an unthinkable situation.

dekalb university
Image courtesy of Premium Films

Another deeply moving and real-life story is My Nephew Emmett, an account of the day in 1955 Mississippi leading up to two white men barging into a preacher’s home and grabbing up a 14-year-old  visiting from Chicago, Emmett Till, who was accused of whistling at a white woman and was found beaten to death days later. Director Kevin Wilson Jr. shifts the burden of the story to Till’s uncle, Mose Wright’s perspective, as he knows full well that if he allows Emmett to leave his home, he’ll never be seen alive again. It’s the perfect drama and would certainly be worthy of feature treatment one day.

Set in Kenya, still another true-life story, Watu Wote (All of Us), tells the story of a Christian woman who must travel through a dangerous part of her country with Muslim passengers who make her nervous, especially when the bus is attacked by a group of terrorists demanding that their fellow Muslims turn over any Christian passengers.

Keeping up the dramatic lean of this year’s program, the UK short The Silent Child concerns a four-year-old deaf girl’s struggle to not feel like an outcast among her own family (all of whom are hearing), who seem intent on forcing her to learn to lip read and speak, when she’d rather learn and have them learn sign language. She’s supported by a social worker who teachers her to sign and advocates for her future education, but the girl is clearly in danger of getting lost in the system because her family simply can’t be bothered.

The program’s sole comedy is The Eleven O’Clock from Australia, co-directed by Derin Seale and actor Josh Lawson, who also stars as one of two men who believe they are psychiatrists seeing a patient who believes he also is a psychiatrist. The back-and-forth is quick and funny, but the whole piece is a bit predictable and slight, which makes me wonder what didn’t get nominated. But it does add some much-needed levity to the proceedings, so I’m glad it was included for that reason alone.

In the city, both of these programs are opening today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and the AMC River East, and likely other theaters outside Chicago.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.