Review: Oscar Nominated Short Films (Live Action)

Hello, all! Instead of writing about singing cowboys this week, which you can find here, I’ll be writing about the Oscar-nominated short films. I already covered the animated shorts here, and I’ll be covering the documentary shorts on Friday. Right now, you can watch the shorts either at the links I provide, at your local independent theater, or on the ShortsTV streaming service (in a combined package). There are also five runner-up nominees on the shortlist, but even though I watched the animated shortlist, I didn’t have time/couldn’t find all of the live-action runner-ups.

Feeling Through
Written and directed by Doug Roland
US, 18m
Available for free on YouTube

This short is about a young homeless man named Tereek (Steven Prescod) who encounters a deaf-blind man named Artie (Robert Tarango) at a bus stop on a night where he has nowhere else to go. The short unfolds over the night, where he helps Artie get home after a date and bonds with him. Tarango is apparently the first deaf-blind actor to star in a film, and his performance is very good. Executive produced by Marlee Matlin and supported by the Helen Keller Foundation, the film also offers an interesting look into the life of a deaf-blind person. Artie and Tareeq’s newfound connection is crucial to the film’s success, and I would watch many sequels about how they help each other. (For more about the making of the film and Tarango’s performance, watch this video.)
Rating: 9/10

The Letter Room
Written and directed by Elvira Lind
US, 32m
Available on the streaming service Topic (with free trial) and for $7 purchase here

This short film stars Oscar Isaac (writer-director Lind’s husband) as a prison corrections officer who is a little too nice for the job. Wanting to help the prisoners with therapy and nonviolence courses, he applies for a new job in the prison, only to be reassigned to the letter room, where he scans the prisoners’ incoming and outgoing letters for objectionable content. Eventually, he is taken in by a series of love letters written by the girlfriend (Alia Shawkat) of a prisoner on death row (Brian Petsos). The writing tries its best to make the situation light and humorous while still being realistic, and I ultimately didn’t really laugh at any of the jokes. The decision to film on all handheld cameras gives the short a naturalistic feel, and the all-bongo score is entertaining as well. A climactic conversation between Isaac and Shawkat elevates the film. The issue of the systematic inhumanity of prisons is brought up, but quickly dropped, and the ending feels a little unsatisfying in terms of Isaac’s character’s growth. Ultimately, the longest short film feels a bit too slight.
Rating: 6/10

The Present
Directed by Farah Nabulsi, written by Nabulsi and Hind Shoufani
Palestine, 24m
Available on Netflix

A dad (Sareh Bakli) living in the West Bank takes his daughter (Mariam Kanj) into Israel to pick up a fridge for his wife. Most of the film is a slice of life about what being Palestinian is like, but the two border crossing scenes along the way, while realistic, are much more tense. The film makes the wise choice to not wallow in violence or misery, instead showing how the father and daughter find happiness in small moments and connect with each other even as they are being dehumanized in small and large ways. Bakli’s performance is very empathetic, and an exciting climax punctuated by a strong ending help make this short shine.
Rating: 8/10

Two Distant Strangers
Directed by Travon Free, Martin Desmond Rice, written by Free
US, 32m
Available on Netflix

Vile. It’s incredible that anyone making this thought it was a good idea. This is the official description of the film.

The film follows Carter (Joey Bada$$), and his thwarted attempts to get home and feed his dog after a promising one-night stand. Every morning, he wakes up in the bed of the same beautiful woman, and every day the same white cop shoots him.

I was not too thrilled about reading that synopsis, but I wanted to give this the proper benefit of the doubt it deserved. Instead, it was much worse than I feared. Seeing the violence is uncomfortable at best and exploitative at worst, with long scenes and montages of explicit violence. Bada$$ is quite good in the opening five minutes, which show his conversation with his partner; they feel warm and lived-in and funny. Similarly, his first interaction with the police officer is promising as well, as it uses performance to show the aggression and profiling that cops are allowed to do, without belaboring the point. Then he dies, grotesquely and violently, and we’re off to the races.

The film breaks time loop logic several times in a way that frankly makes zero sense. For example, Carter is initially threatened by the police officer because the police officer notices his cigarette and accuses him of smoking weed or something worse, which is a smart way for a police officer to instigate a violent situation. In order to try not to get killed, Carter stays in his partner’s house and hides out: yet the cop breaks down the door with a battering ram and kills him anyway. Why? We don’t know! I don’t need a science-fiction explanation, I just need things to happen that follow basic internal logic. The lack of any coherent premise or rules for the time loop make the whole film nonsense. Eventually, the white cop is portrayed as so cartoonishly evil that it’s easy for an audience to forget that the filmmakers are trying to tell you this is a systemic issue. If you’re going to make movies about police brutality, make the cops faceless goons instead of just one mustache-twirling villain. And maybe don’t show so much graphic violence. Don’t watch it.
Rating: 2/10

White Eye
Written and directed by Tomer Shushan
Israel, 20m
Only available through the shorts package

A man (Daniel Gad) has lost his bicycle. The film opens with him finding it. Chained to a lock, he needs to prove it is his in order to unlock it, and he wants to find out who stole his bicycle. What starts out as a simple mystery turns out to be yet another film about finding empathy in unexpected places, as the story is bigger than it seems, and there are other victims of the bicycle theft. The film is overall fine, but the last minute is a letdown.
Rating: 7/10

It’s interesting that, in their own ways, all five films are about finding empathy with other people. Feeling Through and White Eye are both about two disadvantaged people (homeless/deaf-blind in one case, a poor person and an immigrant in the other) working out their differences and getting along, The Present is about the victims of a nation that encourages dehumanization finding humanity with each other, and The Letter Room is about those in power working to help foster empathy between those who are not. Oh, and Two Distant Strangers briefly asks “why can’t a black man and a cop be friends?” before turning around and taking a big shit on the audience. I don’t necessarily think there’s a frontrunner (Isaac’s star power might help The Letter Room, and the Netflix bump might help The Present and Two Distant Strangers), but the shorts branch of the Academy definitely picked some common themes that they want to see succeed.

The Shortlist
Bittu: written and directed by Karishma Dube, India (Hindi), 17m, not available online
Da Yie: directed by Anthony Nti, written by Chingiz Karibekov and Nti, Belgium/Ghana (Akan/English/French), 20m, available online here for $4
The Human Voice: written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, US, 30m, available in select theaters
The Kicksled Choir: written and directed by Torfinn Iversen, Norway, 25m, available online for free here
The Van: written and directed by Erenik Beqiri, France, 15m, available on Amazon Prime or here for $1