It’s an annual trend that the Oscar nominated live action shorts are the weakest picks from the shorts branch. This year proves no different with the animated shorts eclipsing the live ones. The documentaries, meanwhile, fall somewhere in between even if the category is weaker than usual. This year’s Oscar nominated live action shorts are admittedly much better than recent crops. However, it’s genuinely hard to imagine how voters see some of these five films as the strongest the field has to offer. Undoubtedly, though, they’re all promising works from directors who will go on to better things thanks to the spotlight.
Take, for example, the droll An Irish Goodbye. This fun lark from directors Tom Berkeley and Ross White visits with two estranged brothers saying farewell to their mom. As the brothers prepare to part ways, a decision that will put one under institutional care, they make a discovery. They find their mother’s bucket list. They overcome their rift by checking off goals their mom never made. The boys do yoga together, life paintings, and share a reefer. All the while, their mother’s urn joins the fun. It’s all pretty goofy as the boys squabble and comment upon “fecking this” and “fecking that,” but it’s not exactly The Banshees of Inisherin when it comes to Irish bromance. But if it inspires Oscar voters to check a fecking box for Banshees elsewhere on the ballot, that’s great.
Meanwhile The Red Suitcase is actually quite moving, but I had to do a double take. I swore I saw this exact film among the Oscar nominated live action shorts last year. I stand corrected. It was Ala Kachuu last year, which is not to be confused with Brotherhood from the year before. The “child bride movie” seems to be a favourite among the shorts branch. There’s really nothing wrong with this film: it’s a gripping tale of a young Iranian woman who arrives in Luxembourg on an unwelcome proposal. She removes her headscarf to evade the older man to whom she’s promised, and then makes a run for it. While the film displays firm control from director Cyrus Neshvad, its nomination shows how many Oscar voters are on autopilot. We’ve literally seen this film before—three years running, in fact. It’s good, but nothing groundbreaking.
Likewise, there’s something familiar about Ivalu by Anders Walter, who won the Oscar for the 2014 short Helium. Ivalu nevertheless provides a moving account of grief and loss among the Inuit as a young woman in Greenland confronts the death of her sister. Perhaps the familiarity makes the drama so quietly effective as the young woman yearns for her sister and reflects upon the violence their father inflicted upon her. Striking cinematography and symbolism with ravens let Ivalu grapple with weighty subject matter. Meanwhile, Walter favours a fragmented editing structure that loops the girl’s pain within a cycle of collective loss. Despite the heavy subject matter, the film finds hope as the young girl aches to break the cycle of violence. It’s impossible to fault the execution of this sombrely poetic work.
Best in Show
The Oscar nominated live action shorts lighten the category with Night Ride. This Norwegian short stars Sigrid Kandal Husjord as Ebba, a woman who highjacks a streetcar when she’s tired of waiting in the cold. Husjord has a good handle on the physical comedy required for this story as Ebba fumbles with the controls without giving herself away. As she taxis her fellow Norwegians down the line, she observes a spectrum of human behaviour. Notably, she spots Ariel (Ola Hoemsnes Sandum) in the rearview mirror as passengers harass them. Ebba assumes control of the situation and stands up for them—a TTC driver would never!—and Night Ride becomes a fun show of allyship. Writer/director Eirik Tveiten offers an amiable ride in this minimalist effort. Night Ride uses its single location effectively and finds universal human drama on the transit line.
There’s heart and human to be found in Le pupille as well. Perhaps the most ambitious work of the Oscar nominated live action shorts both artistically and narratively, Le pupille could make a winner out of Italian arthouse favourite Alice Rohrwacher (The Wonders). It could also net Alfonso Cuarón his whopping sixth Oscar after Gravity and Roma. Le pupille offers a delightfully anarchic coming of age story in a boarding school at Christmas. The spirited young actors work marvellously together as the schoolgirls unite in their rebellious quest to bring joy to wartime. The sourpuss nuns who care for them, moreover, create wonderful foils, especially when a well-to-do neighbour (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) brings the girls an extravagant cake that the nuns want to pledge to Jesus (re: eat themselves). Le pupille finds the right balance of youthful playfulness and emotional maturity in this Yuletide story. It gets my vote.