Review: 15 Oscar-Nominated Short Films Present Variety of Styles, Emotions and Artistry

It’s probably impossible to know how many short films are made in a single year. From student films to viral TikToks, the format is often a filmmaker’s way in to the art form, and every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences nominates 15 of them (across three categories) for the chance to win an Oscar. Unlike feature films that must be released in theaters to qualify, short films find their way to qualification through selection at specific film festivals. So it’s only in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards that the nominated films finally get their shot at the big screen, as the live action, animated and documentary short films screen as a full program.

Each Oscar category neatly puts films among their peers where format is concerned, but this year’s nominees couldn’t be more different from each other. Particularly in the animation category, there’s everything from hand-sketched middle-aged ennui to a heartwarming holiday story told in slick stop-motion animation. With the Academy Awards (Sunday, March 27) just a few weeks away and several theaters throughout Chicago screening the nominated short film programs, there’s no reason not to give these deserving productions the same attention their longer counterparts get.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Documentary Shorts

In Audible, filmmaker Matthew Ogens follows students at Maryland School for the Deaf, specifically a selection of football players, through a tumultuous senior year in the aftermath of the suicide of one of their close friends. The film is both a snapshot of normal high school life—the lunch tables, the prom dates—and a moving portrait of overcoming trauma; and perhaps too obviously, the film is sound designed to the nth degree, emphasizing how the deaf students rely on vibrations and signing their plays to conquer their adversaries.

Perhaps the most moving of the five nominated films, Lead Me Home explores the country’s growing homelessness problem through the lens of those experiencing it and those trying to provide the resources to help them. Over an extended period of time in San Francisco and Los Angeles, filmmakers Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk provide an unvarnished look at those who’ve fallen on hard times for one reason or another, allowing them to tell their stories in often deeply emotional ways. Though the film only briefly touches on the potential solutions to solving homelessness, it’s nevertheless a striking reminder that we could be doing better by our fellow humans.

With a warm charm and infectious laugh, Lucy Harris recounts her life of firsts as a women’s basketball star in the 1970s, long before anything like the WNBA existed, in The Queen of Basketball. Directed by Ben Proudfoot, the film concisely and movingly chronicles the 6-foot-3 athlete’s boundary breaking college career, with glimpses into her frame of mind as she led her team to victory after victory. A sense of the bittersweet permeates the proceedings, however, as Lucy acknowledges the life she could’ve had, if the world had been more ready for her and her talents. Hers is an inspiring story, and it’s fitting that this touching film exists to honor it.

The only foreign film in this year’s documentary short film nominees, Three Songs for Benezir truly transports audiences to an unfamiliar place: a war-riddled Afghanistan where a young husband yearns to join the army in order to provide for his beloved wife. Filmmakers Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei use a gentle, observational touch to follow Shaista and his wife, Benezir, as they find small joys in the simple life they lead together. When Shaista learns he won’t be able to join the army, his life changes in ways no one could have anticipated, making his wife’s love and support all the more important.

Jay Rosenblatt goes the navel-gazing route in When We Were Bullies, a self-indulgent exploration of long-ago memories that relies on tired filmmaking conventions to come to self-righteous conclusions. It’s not a bad film; far from it. But it’s hard to see in it the depth that Rosenblatt intended when so much of the film is specific to a moment in time only he and a select handful of others even experienced. In attempting to understand a grade school bullying incident, the filmmaker reconnects with schoolmates he hasn’t spoken to in decades, an endeavor that proves interesting only to those involved.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Animated Shorts

Directed by Joanna Quinn, this British romp is proof positive that not all animation is made for kids. In hand-drawn sketch style, main character Beryl (Menna Trussler) recounts her own path to embracing her artistic side and the way her family does (or doesn’t) help her along the way. Often as gross as it is goofy, the film isn’t afraid to look at the ugly bits that help make us more appreciative of the beautiful ones.

A gritty and dark stop-motion animation short, Bestia is an Argentinian film that puts a woman’s traumas, both internal and external, on display. Told entirely without dialogue, it’s easy to lose the thread of the narrative, but filmmaker Hugo Covarrubias ensures there’s a lot going on under the surface. The film is centered by Ingrid’s relationship with her dog (and her own body), and it’s not always treats and games of fetch.

From Russia, Boxballet juxtaposes two worlds that rarely cross (and, fittingly, are referenced in the title): the brutality of boxing and the gracefulness of ballet. When just that happens and a surly boxer (getting beat up in great animated detail) meets a lithe ballerina (in creatively drawn dance scenes), the two fall in love and we discover there’s more to both of them than we might assume.

Perhaps the most approachable of this year’s animated films, Robin Robin features a star-studded cast in a heartwarming holiday story about a robin raised by mice who comes to discover their real value and uniqueness. And it’s a musical! It’s a wonder this one isn’t a full-length feature film, as it easily could be; as is, it’s a quaint bedtime story sure to be an annual Christmas classic with kiddos.

Filmmaker Alberto Mielgo layers animation over moments of everyday life to captivating effect in The Windshield Wiper. Rather than a traditional narrative, this contemplative short film asks, “What is love?” and attempts to answer its own question in its 14-minute runtime. Often so realistic it’s easy to forget the images on screen are animated (they were likely stylized after being filmed), The Windshield Wiper is a brief but poignant reminder of the wonder that exists in ordinary life.

The Dress

Live Action Shorts

A young woman strives for a better life than what her small town in rural Kyrgyzstan can provide in Ala Kachuu (Take and Run). In a culture where girls are expected to grow up to be wives, young Sezim just wants to attend university and build a different life. But her family’s pride and traditions aren’t that easily sidelined, and writer/director Maria Brendle shows us to just what degree they’ll go to keep Sezim down. With dreams and plans larger than her family’s expectations, even their borderline abusive insistence on her compliance can’t keep her from exhausting every option to live the life she imagines. Strong performances and Sezim’s indomitable spirit are at the heart of this one.

It seems every year there is at least one short film that’s just a bit too on the nose for my taste (one year it even won in its category, but I’ll leave you to guess which I mean). This year’s live action short film category features two such examples, Denmark’s On My Mind and the UK’s The Long Goodbye, two films that think they have a lot more to say than they really do. The former follows a man distraught over the impending loss of his dying wife; he heads to a dive bar to drink his sorrow away only to discover their karaoke machine features her favorite song. The latter, starring and written by Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed, imagines the worst when it comes to the ever-growing far right faction and their hatred of immigrants and anyone considered “other.” Both tug at emotions with cheap dramatics, and The Long Goodbye bogglingly features a song already highlighted prominently in Mogul Mowgli, making it feel like a retread of ground that’s already been covered.

At one point in The Dress, a Polish film about a woman with dwarfism who yearns to be loved both emotionally and physically, a man she’s flirting with mentions he’s driving his truck into Kyiv. It’s a simple line of dialogue, but it’s striking after the events of the last week, a memorable moment in a captivating film about the lengths we’ll go to for the love all of us deeply crave. Actor Anna Dzieduszycka is mesmerizing as a woman who puts up a strong, cynical front always just an inch away from a breakdown. Her desperation leads to poor (and sometimes scary) decisions, and though she’s surrounded by friends who support her, writer/director Tadeusz Lysiak smartly avoids tying anything into a neat little bow at the film’s end.

Starring Erick Lopez (“Crazy Ex Girlfriend”) in a dystopian future state where every step of the “judicial” system is automated, Please Hold is only funny in the tragic “funny because it’s true” kind of way. Mateo is minding his own business on his walk to work when he’s inexplicably detained by a police drone, sent to jail and forced to contend with the bot on screen in his cell to get everything from his daily meals to the legal help he’s entitled to. A send-up of our very broken criminal justice system, the film creatively satirizes much of what’s wrong while still giving its audience plenty to think about.

Presented by ShortsTV, the Oscar-nominated short film programs are now playing in select theaters in Chicago.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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