It delights me to report that the Oscar-nominated live action shorts aren’t the pure sadistic hell that the previous year’s nominees were. After last year’s collection, which included no less than three brutalized children and blackface, the current nominees are a breeze. However, they display the short film branch’s ongoing aversion to positive emotions. (Apparently, joy belongs only in animation.) Yes, dear Oscar watchers, the live action shorts of Oscars 2020 feature dead kids, people in peril, and dire situations. They are generally bleak AF and we expect nothing less from the Academy. However, the Oscar-nominated live action short films are (mostly) worth the gruelling journeys on which they take a viewer.
A Sister (Une sœur)
It seems the shorts branch keeps a slot reserved for films like A Sister. Every year includes a nominee that is comprised of a telephone conversation. It usually features one speaker in peril while the other character, usually the lead, tries to assume control of the situation. Sure, this approach works just fine to accommodate low-budget filmmaking, but we’ve seen nominees like A Sister countless times before. Heck, the 2014 winner was literally called The Phone Call and featured Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent conversing on a suicide crisis hot-line.
The Phone Call, however, proves that the two-people-on-a-call gimmick works with the right actors. Fortunately for A Sister, the film has Veerle Baetens (The Broken Circle Breakdown) to carry the conversation. Baetens stars as a 9-1-1 operator who guides a call with a woman in distress. The film uses coded language and realistic parameters of a domestic battery scenario to invest audiences in the call. While A Sister is the most routine and familiar of the nominees, it hinges on a performance worthy of the award. It’s too bad there isn’t an Oscar for the best performance in a short film.
Montreal-based Tunisian-American filmmaker Meryam Joobeur offers one of the few Canuck connections in this year’s Oscar race. The Canadian co-production Brotherhood might be the short to beat. It packs the most festival wins in its arsenal, including prizes for Best Canadian Short at TIFF and Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema. People obviously respond to its authentic voice and the feat of representation it offers. Joobeur directs actors confidently and composes some arresting images of kitchen-sink realism.
The film goes inside the home of a Tunisian family when it sees the return of its prodigal son. Malik’s homecoming isn’t joyous, though, since his father, Mohamed, isn’t pleased to see him return with a niqab-wearing pregnant wife. Mohamed questions Malik’s motivations and his past actions and leans on his young bride’s modesty. Although the film is a bit too self-conscious with its oblique wordplay, Joobeur builds considerable tension within the domestic setting as Mohamed in Syria. She packs a dense tapestry of family history and cultural tension into each frame. Unfortunately, Joobeur deflates said tautness with a nonsensical ending. It had this reviewer rewinding the playback (twice) to make sense of the climax. Viewers without a Vimeo link might not be so lucky, so here’s Brotherhood in full below for your confused pleasure. But there is much promise to Joobeur’s work and her probable Oscar win could help her become a major talent.
NEFTA Football Club
The category’s second Tunisian co-pro, this time with France, is Yves Piat’s NEFTA Football Club. This delightful film brings a welcome dose of lightness and humour to an otherwise solemn field. Piat demonstrates an excellent hand for tone and character with this story of two young brothers. The boys, played remarkably well by Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari, find good fortune while two older brothers, humorously played by Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah, lose their luck. Both fates hinge on a mule wandering the desert with a pair of headphones and a satchel full of drugs.
While the sombre tone of Oscar shorts lead one to expect the young boys to face dire fates, the film delights by playing against type. NEFTA Football Club is unexpectedly funny as the boys react to their big score with age-appropriate innocence. The film triumphantly lets kids be kids and play without fear. The delicate simplicity of the film makes its final sight gag an uproarious delight.
Saria director Bryan Buckley has the distinct honour of helming the most random movie that ever landed in my screener pile during awards season. That film is the laughably ham-fisted The Pirates of Somalia starring Al Pacino and Barkhad Abdi. The reason I mention this gong is simply to note Buckley’s effort at a good campaign. His willingness to run the gauntlet for films with no realistic chance of getting an Oscar nomination pays off.
Saria, unlike the other nominees, heads into the Oscars with virtually no presence on the festival circuit. The others all built strong word of mouth and pedigree with considerable festival laurels. (Brotherhood, for example, debuted in 2018 and is still going strong despite an online release.) Saria is easily the lesser of the nominated shorts (in any category) by a fair margin. But it probably benefits from schmoozing a crowd of voters eager to champion the representational aspects of cinema. The film dramatizes a true tragedy at Virgen de la asuncion safe home in Guatemala where 41 young women died in a fire. However, the strength of a film doesn’t rest on the significance of its subject matter. Saria is slickly shot and well-intentioned, but it’s incoherent, forced, stiffly acted, and flat. The victims deserve a better account of their story. I didn’t feel a thing while watching it.
The Neighbors’ Window
Marshall Curry’s first three Oscar nominations were for documentaries. After Street Fight, If a Tree Falls, and A Night at the Garden, his first win could and should be for this drama. The Neighbors’ Window gets this reviewer’s vote as the strongest contender among the Oscar-nominated live action short films. It is a masterfully executed study of life, love, mortality, and urban alienation.
The Neighbors’ Window features a committed tour-de-force performance from Maria Dizzia (Late Night) as Alli, a wife and mother who finds her security and satisfaction with life shaken when a hot young couple moves into the apartment opposite her family. Alli and her husband (Greg Keller) love to watch the fit young folks bang day and night. The new neighbours don’t have blinds on their windows, but they have sensational sex drives that make the elder couple jealous. But playing the voyeur gives Alli a startling reality check about the importance of cherishing her family and relish each day she shares with them.
Curry unfolds the film with impeccable dexterity. The Neighbors’ Window is a highwire act with tone. Alternatively hilarious and heartbreaking, the film is a toast to life with Curry’s Rear Window-esque views of the neighbourhood reminding viewers of the stories that unfold imperceptibly around them. The impact of the film lingers long past its 20-minute running time as it inspires a viewer to carefully consider the lives around the block.
The Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts open in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Jan. 31.