Oscar-Nominated Live Action and Animated Short Films Offer Somber Themes and Accomplished Filmmaking

Of the countless short films that are made in any given year, it's always a bit of a mystery how the select few find their way to the film industry's biggest night: the Oscars. (It's not, really; there are rules and qualifications and processes...but go with me on this one.) Fifteen films less than 40 minutes in length annually get the honor of being nominated in one of three short film categories: Live Action, Animated and Documentary. Unlike the categories for their feature-length cousins where films from outside the United States are typically separated out, these three categories include films from around the world and, more often than not, display a wide variety of filmmaking styles and approaches.

In this year's narrative categories, Live Action and Animated, the five nominees in each category carry heavier themes and more somber messages than in years' past, but all are interesting, worthy glimpses into the creative process. Programmed as a single movie ticket, these two programs are now playing at the Music Box Theatre in advance of the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, March 10.

Live Action Short Films

In the Live Action category, Wes Anderson is perhaps the most recognizable nominee for his quirky but charming The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the first in a small series of shorts he released on Netflix earlier this year. In the category's lightest entry, Benedict Cumberbatch is Henry Sugar, a wealthy bachelor with a penchant for gambling whose desire to find an edge at the Blackjack table takes him down an unexpected path to enlightenment. It's classic Anderson, stylized and sharp yet thoughtful and, considering it's based on a story by Roald Dahl, with a certain depth. It may be that this name recognition is enough to earn the film the Oscar, but there are four other films in the category worth considering.

Starring David Oyelowo as a grieving widower and father, The After starts brutally with a horrific incident taking the two people closest to Dayo (Oyelowo), a successful executive, away from him. But the bulk of the 18-minute film by Misan Harriman (written by John Julius Schwabach) follows Dayo after the incident when he has started to rebuild his life as a rideshare driver. With distance but awareness, Dayo takes in all variety of passengers, from friendly families to chatty girlfriends and more; he keeps a cool separation between himself and his fares, until one family triggers memories of the past. Oyelow is one of those actors who could read a phonebook and make it riveting, and while The After is much better material than that, it's his performance that makes it exceptional.

Vincent René-Lortie's Invincible also deals with an untimely and tragic death, though in much more stark terms than any other film in the group. Léokim Beaumier-Lépine stars as Marc-Antoine Bernier, a troubled teenager sent to a juvenile facility for his behavioral issues. The half-hour film focuses on forty-eight hours in Marc-Antoine's life as a series of events and miscommunications lead to a tense showdown between the teenager and, ultimately, himself. Though gripping and emotional, the film is most meaningful with some additional context not provided in the narrative, particularly that René-Lortie was close friends with Marc-Antoine.

A Danish film that also deals with death (I told you this group was dark), albeit with a bit more cheek than its fellow nominees, Knight of Fortune is set in a morgue where Karl (Leif Andrée) has arrived to see his now deceased wife. But Karl can't bring himself to open the casket, and instead gets harangued into an unexpected experience to do with others grieving loved ones there, too. He meets a fellow widower, Torben (Jens Jørn Spottag), whose friendship offers him just what he needs to see him through this tough time. It's a slight but sweet film with a message that takes some of sting out of inevitable loss.

The final film in the Live Action category is easily the most timely for American audiences; Red White and Blue, written and directed by Nazrin Choudhury and starring Brittany Snow, puts the country's current divisions over abortion rights front and center. Snow is a hardworking single mom of two in Arkansas who has to find a way to afford crossing state lines for a procedure that's unavailable at home. The film pulls no punches in its main twist or flashbacks (which I won't ruin here), plot points that can feel heavy-handed to those who already believe in a woman's right to autonomy over her own body. But for those still on the fence or against such liberties, the film is perhaps just direct enough to finally get through to some of them.

Animated Short Films

In the Animated short film category, each film is far shorter than their Live Action counterparts (the former taking much more time and money to produce than the latter), but they all pack just as much of a punch. What starts as a stark classroom lecture in Letter to a Pig becomes one young girl's fantastical imagining of said pig's heroic efforts. Filmmaker Tal Kantor mixes pencil-sketched visuals with black-and-white photography to captivating effect for the Holocaust survivor recounting his experiences to a middle-school class. When one girl's mind wanders, the sketching—and the trauma—intensifies.

The shortest of the five nominees at just seven minutes long, Yegane Moghaddam's Our Uniform is perhaps the most uniquely animated of the group, combining stop-motion with traditional illustrations to tell the story of life in clothes other people choose for you. A send-up of the control exerted by others over women's body's, the film's most moving moments are when Moghaddam pulls back the curtain and delves into the interior life of a teenage girl, sans any expectations on clothes or behavior.

With John Lennon and Yoko Ono's music as inspiration, their son Sean Ono Lennon is co-credited as writer with director Dave Mullins on War is Over!, an over-simplification of anti-war sentimentalities. Two soldiers on opposing sides of WWI play a game of chess through pigeons who carry their moves back and forth; when battle breaks out mid-game, this becomes an allegory for the meaningless of war...or something? It's a finely crafted bit of animation, with almost Disney-like emotive characters, but the story falls so flat it's hard to recognize the artistry.

A French offering in the animated mix, Pachyderme offers a lush and painterly presentation for the story of a young woman recalling time spent with her grandparents as a child. But all is not a fairy tale in their rural home, where the house seems to hold secrets in its walls and her grandfather keeps a watchful eye over her—perhaps too watchful. Based on a script by Marc Rius, filmmaker Stéphanie Clément skillfully navigates what is ultimately a sad and tragic story with an earnest narration and illustrative animations.

Tim Blake Nelson stars as a cast of one in Ninety-Five Senses, the most ambitiously animated short film of the bunch. Directing duo Jared and Jarusha Hess take on the short film written by Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer about an inmate recalling his life through the five senses. Each of the senses (and therefore film sections) is animated in a different style, which makes discovering each all the more interesting. And the story Coy (Nelson) tells is as heartbreaking as it is nuanced; he's a man who's not proud of his decisions but also one who, despite his fate, isn't inherently bad.

The Live Action and Animated Short Film Oscar Nominees are now playing at Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone