Short Film Review: 2018 Oscar Live Action Short Films.
For a second year in a row, the contenders for the Oscar nominated short films were uniformly impressive.
Lost among the big five awards are a myriad of smaller categories that contain criminally neglected films. It is a shame that no matter how hard you look, it’s nearly impossible to find the foreign language nominees, and often any nominated animated film not released by Pixar is likewise hard to catch (like last year’s favorite, The Red Turtle). Fortunately, Shorts.tv and Magnolia Pictures have stepped up in recent years to collect and screen the Oscar nominated short films. This week I caught the live action contenders, and I have to say that I was blown away by the selection.
2018 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action.
1. DeKalb Elementary (USA.)
Story: An elementary school receptionist endures a terrible ordeal as a mentally impaired gunman takes her hostage and initiates a stand-off with the police inside the front office of the school.
Director Reed Van Dyk uses a very light touch to allow the gravity of the situation to unfold naturally. This approach is aided by the excellent performances of Tarra Riggs as the secretary who is forced to handle the situation, and Bo Mitchel, who plays the obviously unwell gunman. The events themselves are abrupt and chilling, and unfortunately all too current.
2. The Silent Child (UK.)
Story: A deaf girl is cut off from society due to the fact that her parents refuse to acknowledge her disability. A young social worker forms a bond with her, gradually teaching her sign language, but the parents resist making any concessions to her special needs.
This short is meant to tug on the heartstrings and get a bigger message across, but despite those pretenses is thoroughly engaging. Director Chris Overton takes a much different approach than the first short, relying on striking visual and sound work to put you emotionally at the center of the drama. It reminded me of 2016’s short nominee, Stutterer, in the way it isolates your senses. The acting is solid, though I didn’t find any one performance to warrant singling out.
3. My Nephew Emmett (USA.)
Story: A dramatic recreation of the events of August 28, 1955 – the night when white supremacists lynched Emmett Till despite the efforts of his uncle to protect the young boy.
My Nephew Emmett is terrifically effective due to the emotive power of L.B. Williams, who plays Emmett’s uncle, Moses Wright. The emotions carved upon his face and the way he carries his body give voice to his inner state, allowing the film to leave much unsaid but implicitly understood. Director Kevin Wilson Jr. carves out tiny islands of compassion and tenderness amidst a constant background of dread in his portrayal of family life for the Wrights. Long before the cowards arrive in the dead of night to take Emmett, you know the danger this family must live through every day. A powerful short that has the heft of a full feature film.
4. The Eleven O’Clock (Australia.)
Story: A temp secretary arrives at the office of a psychoanalyst, only to find two men there who purport to be the doctor. The real doctor’s itinerary reveals that the eleven o’clock patient is a delusional man who thinks he is a shrink – but which man is the doctor and which is the patient?
After three emotionally fraught films, we get a comedy from Australia. You’d think that a vaudevillian premise of mistaken identity would be a liability when going up against movies filled with hot-button cultural issues, but it’s a testament to the excellent pacing, strong performances, and sheer pluck of this film that it stands shoulder to shoulder with the other films. I enjoyed Derin Seale’s comedy of errors immensely, especially the excellent timing of the two leads. The word play is frenetic and resembles the classic “Who’s on First” gag from Abbott and Costello, but with more at stake. It’s a great short film that begs to be watched repeatedly to catch every joke.
5. Watu Wote/ “All of Us” (Germany & Kenya.)
Story: Based on a real event, a busload of pilgrims on the border of Kenya are stopped by a faction of Muslim extremists intent on killing any Christians on board. The Muslim passengers disguise a Christian woman and refuse to reveal her identity, even when the militants turn on them.
Katja Benrath’s moving short film is the one that seems most “Oscar worthy” in its scope and presentation. If you saw it before it was nominated, your reaction would likely have been “of course!” I bring that up because it speaks to the level of polish to the film-making, but it also renders the film less immediate than the other dramas. Every aspect is impeccable, but it wound up making the whole experience feel a touch too tightly scripted. Perhaps if this film had come first in the ordering I would not have felt a slightly off-putting distance to its presentation, since this is a strong film.
And the Award Goes to…
As much as I enjoyed the short films from last year, I can honestly say I haven’t seen a selection that was so roundly excellent across the board. As a whole, 2017 was a fantastic year for shorts, ranging from individual offerings like The Ningyo to streaming services like Dust that put tons of indie short films at your fingertips. These five films are all worthy of your attention, and picking between them is a hard choice. My two immediate favorites are DeKalb Elementary and My Nephew Emmett.
L.B. Williams almost wins my vote on the power of his performance alone, and My Nephew Emmett is hauntingly beautiful and emotionally fraught simultaneously. That being said, after seeing the first film, DeKalb Elementary, I knew it was going to be my pick. It has two very genuine and mesmerizing performances and it feels shockingly unscripted and real. Even before hearing the news of the latest agonizing tragedy involving a school shooting, this film felt immediate and raw in a way that grabbed me. You feel like you’re in the lobby watching these two people in an actual life and death scenario instead of watching a dramatic recreation. It’s one of the best short films I’ve had the pleasure to see.