2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live-Action
2020, NR, 104 min. Directed by Various.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 31, 2020
Considering the wealth of short films that end up playing the international festival circuit every year, it’s always puzzling – to this critic, anyway – how often the Academy Award-nominated short subjects category ends up being a mixed bag. There’re always several entries that truly, cinematically soar and surpass audience and critical expectations, but you’d think with an entire planet’s worth of 24fps (or more often these days, digitally shot) micro-masterpieces vying for this most coveted of awards that the full slate of chosen nominees would be monumentally memorable to a one. That is, however strange, rarely the case, although it must be said that each of this year’s five nominees in the live action narrative category have their own particular, often regional, frequently sociopolitical strengths.
Opener "A Sister" from French director Delphine Girard is a compact, taut thriller that plunges the viewer into an initially confounding situation that rapidly accelerates into a crash course in how to build nail-gnawing suspense with little more than some expertly executed cross cutting and a single sterling performance. That’d be the work of Veerle Baetens as a 911 dispatcher who, working the graveyard shift, receives a call from a nameless woman who initially seems unable to adequately express the gravity of her situation. We know that she’s a passenger in a car rocketing down a lonely stretch of French countryside and we know that the driver, a man, is at the wheel. What Baetens’ character, along with the viewer, finally parses from the lopsided cellular conversation is that the woman has been kidnapped (or is in transit against her will, at least) and must speak in a roundabout code to the dispatcher so as not to alert the driver, whose actual intentions are maddeningly unclear. It’s 16 minutes of sweaty, copper-flavored fear as Baetans and her fellow dispatchers frantically attempt to pinpoint and resolve a seemingly unresolvable situation.
Canadian-Tunisian co-production "Brotherhood" by directors Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon tackles a familiar familial theme from an altogether new angle but still manages to drag at a relatively short 24 minutes. A pair of Tunisian brothers are reunited at their ancestral home when one of them returns from fighting in Syria, possibly for ISIS, although his true allegiances are left unclear. The reunion is overshadowed by their stern, chain-smoking paterfamilias and complicated by the arrival of the soldier-son’s 14-year-old wife, whose ominous black burka portends … something? There’s a compelling story here, somewhere, but it’s lost in a welter of flashbacks and too little of a backstory as to what’s really going on.
A second French nominee, Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi’s "NEFTA Football Club," fares far better, with a light comedic touch grazing a potentially grave outcome. Two little boys, football (i.e. soccer) obsessed brothers (Eltayef Dahaoui and Mohamed Ali Avari, both excellent) are out riding their bike in the Tunisian hinterlands when they stumble across a fancifully absurdist scene: a donkey wandering along with a pair of cherry-red headphones covering its ears. The ass turns out to be a literal drug mule(!) hauling a sackful of cocaine through the desert with the narcotics owners not far behind. Engagingly crafted in a way that recalls more than a little early Francois Truffaut vibe, this charming little comedy of errors ends with a terrifically memorable comic twist.
Based on actual events, American co-directors Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebvre's "Saria" is impressive for its ambitions but also uneven in the telling. Saria and Ximena (Estefanía Tellez and Gabriela Ramírez) are adolescent sisters stuck living in a run down and outright brutal Guatemalan orphanage. That orphanage, the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home in San José Pinula, suffered a calamitous fire that claimed the lives of 41 young girls in March of 2017 (the events surrounding the tragedy were recounted by writer Francisco Goldman in The New Yorker). "Saria" dramatizes the friendship between the two girls and their plan to exit their grueling, beyond-Dickensian lives via a poorly thought out plan involving a mass protest amongst the orphans and escape via tree. Nothing goes as planned, however, and while Tellez and Ramirez’s performances leave you shaken, the sheer scale of the tragedy seems done a disservice by its brief 23-minute running time.
Thankfully, Marshall Curry’s "The Neighbor’s Window" is a stellar little slice of New York City apartment life that starts out as a riff on Hitchcock’s Rear Window but quickly morphs into a quirky, funny, and ultimately tremendously moving meditation on marriage, maturity, and counting one’s blessings while one – or two in this case, actors Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller – still can. It’s a near-perfect gem of a short film, the kind that sticks with you long after some of the other, lesser 2020 nominees.