Oscars 2020 short films reviewed: Live action and animation
Selection - not a single duff one9
Enjoyment - new names to discover9
Laurence Boyce | On 12, Feb 2020Reading time: 7 mins
The 2020 Oscars were ground-breaking and surprising, with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite becoming the first non-English language film to win Best Picture (among numerous other firsts). Those au fait with the short film world also had their own little surprise when Meryam’s Joobeur’s Brotherhood failed to win the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. After a hugely successful festival run – including nabbing Best Canadian Short at Toronto and the Short Of The Year from the Short Film Conference (a network of short film festivals from across the globe) – and with its powerful story of radicalisation and family, many considered it an almost sure thing to walk away with the statuette.
So it was a mild upset when Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window was the film that triumphed on the night.
This is not to say that Curry’s film was not a deserved winner. It’s a subtle piece of work that follows a comfortable, middle-class and middle-aged couple, who notice the neighbours who have moved into the apartment across the street from them. The neighbours are a typical young couple, enjoying sex, house parties and maybe a little bit more sex, as our protagonists see them as an avatar for their own disappeared youth – a reminder that the carefree days are now bogged down with work, children and a hurtling road towards the twilight of life. But is their neighbours life as idyllic as it seems and is the grass always greener on the other side? Curry’s film knowingly plays with the tropes of Rear Window, as our protagonists voyeuristically spy on those opposite, but instead of crafting a thriller, he creates an introspective drama in which the characters yearn for a past and future that may not exist. It’s a clever and thoughtful film.
Brotherhood justifies its sparkling reputation on the circuit. The film follows Mohamed, a shepherd who lives in rural Tunisia with two of his sons. When his eldest son Malik returns after fighting in Syria – with a veil-wearing wife in tow – tension is rife between father and son. As the days pass, things come to a tragic head. While Brotherhood would ostensibly be an examination of a radicalised youth, it ultimately becomes a treatise on the fraught relationship between a father and a son and their refusal to communicate in any meaningful way. It’s this failure to communicate that is the real tragedy here – the failure to talk leading to devastating consequences. Meryam Joobeur’s film has a nervous energy to it and it’s replete with some excellent and naturalistic performances.
Naturalistic performances also abound in Bryan Buckley’s Saria, this time with a cast sourced from an orphanage in Guatemala. The film tells the tragic true story of the events that led up to a fire that caused the death of 41 girls. We see orphanage life through the eyes of two sisters who plan to escape the daily regime of physical abuse and domestic servitude by running away to America. But when riots and instability give them the chance to make good on their bid for freedom, their attempt does not go totally to plan. The film is very much one of two halves. The first is a grim expose of the reality that the girls face. The latter is all nervous energy and confusion, reflecting the elation and terror at the heart of the girl’s escape. The final moments have an air of grim inevitability about them, and the film is darkly affecting.
Belgium film A Sister manages to keep things tense with its story of a woman held hostage while she’s driving a car. Ringing her “sister” (in reality an operative at an emergency call centre), she must try and convey what is happening without her captor realising. This wonderfully taut affair makes the most of the discrepancy between sound and image as the banal descriptions from the protagonist belie the terror of her situation. Director Delphine Girard keeps everything claustrophobic and sparse – the film either concentrates on the interior of the car or the call centre – and the film works as a brilliant, economic and cinematic thriller and as an examination of power structures and the human will to survive.
With many of the films on offer being emotionally draining affairs, NEFTA Football Club is something of a relief. Director Yves Piat provides more of a comedic sensibility. It’s tropes are ostensible serious – a group of young Tunisian children come across a bag of drugs – but Piat keeps delivering unexpected twists and turns and the film ultimately ends up being both amusing and captivating, thanks to marvellous performances from the young cast. The final few moments of the film are particularly glorious as the film does well to balance some serious issues with a genuine air of the feel-good.
Over in the animated nominees, ultimate winner Hair Love is an effective and emotional work that many may have seen when it was attached to screenings of The Angry Birds Movie 2. Mostly eschewing dialogue, the film tells the story of an African-American father who must style his young daughter’s hair for the first time. There’s an earnestness to the film with all its sentimentality feeling genuine, as the father and daughter’s relationship is lovingly portrayed as well as the final revelations about the rest of the family feeling honest. It’s a big, bold and glossy Hollywood slice of animation that wears its heart on its sleeve.
The same can be said for Kitbull, a product of Pixar, about an abused pitbull that forms an unlikely friendship with a stray kitten. Director Rosana Sullivan does place a little bit of darkness in the work as well. There’s perhaps little new here, but it still remains a simple and uplifting piece.
Much darker is Daria Kashcheeva’s Daughter. The Czech animation is another that has already had a popular reputation on the festival circuit, winning a Student Academy Award and a plethora of festival plaudits. Her puppet animation is a dark and impressionistic piece about a woman sitting next to her dying father, as she reminisces about their past. Inspired by her own relationship with her father, Kashcheeva’s work has a sense of the surreal that shifts between serene beauty and jagged ugliness. But it’s tjose extremes that make it so affecting, with the idea that even in the darkest moments there can moments of joy and happiness to be found. It’s a powerful and confident film and one that marks Kashcheeva out a major talent in animation.
Sister also has a mixture between light and dark, as director Siqi Song tells the story of a man who remembers a young life growing up with his sister. There’s a childish aesthetic here – with characters made of wool-like material and remembrances of silly exploits – which serves well for the film’s closing revelations about its true nature. Yet it never tricksy or exploitative and the film is a carefully crafted, thought-provoking work.
The final nominee in the section is Memorable, Bruno Collet’s examination of an artist who is slowly sinking into the throes of dementia. Using ideas of disintegration as well as recalling the style of the likes of Van Gogh, the film is a remarkable technical achievement, with Collet creating a visual depiction of the loss of memory and clarity that dementia can bring. Yet, for all its undercurrent of sadness, the film is also a paean to the power of love and companionship as well as the healing power of art.
The Oscar selection of shorts in both live action and animation are a diverse selection, but there are underlying themes – among them youth, remembrance and the triumph of the human spirit – that unite and tie both programmes together. There’s not a really bad film among the selection (with the Oscar animations also coming with a bonus selection of ‘Highly Commended’ films that didn’t make the final shortlist) and it’s an opportunity to discover a myriad of exciting new cinematic talents both in front of and behind the camera. A worthy purchase for when you’re not in the mood for a feature and a box set just doesn’t excite.
The 2020 Oscar nominated shorts are available to buy on iTunes as a box set including Daugher, Sister, Memorable, A Sister, Brotherhood, Saria, Nefta Football Club.