Oscars: 2019 Live Action Short Nominees

Normally the shorts are what I really get excited for when it comes to the Oscars. I’ve traveled into New York to see them and, as they’ve become more accessible, I’ve purchased them and had viewing parties, or even just shown personal top picks during Oscar night with friends. But this years crop of live action shorts were, by and large, astoundingly brutal. Like, most of them are about horrible things happening to children, children doing horrible things, or children doing horrible things to other children.

So I’m going to format this in an extra-judgey way and actually rank them. I don’t like to approach film this way, or really any review of any media, but maybe this will help people get the most out of the offerings this year.

Canada/19 Mins/2017
By far the best film in this year’s nominees. And not just because it’s up against some shorts that I actually hated. This Marguerite is a great little film. It’s about an older woman and her nurse. While making small talk, the nurse reveals that her partner is a woman, and not a man as expected. There are a lot of directions their polite relationship could go after this revelation, but it takes a slow and gentle turn toward introspection and honesty. I love it because of the connection these two women make at different parts of their life, and how this connection is framed differently due to their ages. It’s a simple and quiet film and my pick for winner.

Madre (Mother)
Spain/19 Mins/2017
Madre is a strange entry. It’s almost more of an exercise in film making than a film unto itself. Woman is having a casual, and somewhat humorous, conversation with her mother when she gets a phone call from her son. Her son is supposed to be staying with his father in France (she’s in Spain), but is currently alone on a beach. Over the course of the film she tries to find out where he is and what is happening without being able to physically be there. Marta Nieto, as the boy’s mother, is great. Her arc from lighthearted to concerned to panic really carries this short. The end feels very abrupt, and that lack of a conclusion is what makes this feel like an exercise intended to illicit an specific emotion in the audience rather than to convey a full story.

Canada/16 Mins/2018
Two boys play around in abandoned settings, from a husk of a train to an open pit mine, in this Canadian short. Clearly there are complications. This one is quite good. I go back and forth with how much I liked this movie. I saw it right after Madre, so I may be a bit harsher on it due not so much to the film itself, but maybe because it was watching this one that made me realized the theme of the night was going to be watching cringe-inducing things happen to children. It’s less experimental than Madre, but on the other hand that means it functions better as a complete story. The acting is superb, and the setting allows for some striking visuals, especially with the dusty hills surrounding the pit mine. I would not be surprised if this film wins the Oscar.

You can watch the full short below.

Ireland/30 Mins/2018
Detainment is based on an actual event. Transcripts of interviews between the police and two children after the body of a toddler was found in 1993. The two boys are under suspicion of abduction and murder.

Honestly, this story would have been better served with a documentary. The kids are great, but some of the flashback/recreations have some ugly editing that brings to mind mid-90s true story exploitation series. The narrative could have gone a few ways (cutting between the two boys, or switching between their testimony and scenes of what actually happened), but instead tries to do all those and more. The result is that the tension between the boys is undercut, and the flashbacks can’t be trusted as they are from the conjecture of the detectives, rather than simply reflecting the claims of the children. Add on to that the fact that the last third keeps cutting to lines of text to explain the historical context and information not found in the interviews, and the movie doesn’t seem to function on any level. It’s not focused enough to tell an emotional narrative of these kids and their parents, nor is it edited together in a way that makes it more compelling than a straight forward documentary would be.

USA/20 Mins/2018
A young boy being raised by a white supremacist father and apathetic mother witnesses his father’s attack on an innocent black man in a supermarket parking lot, as well as the consequences of that action. Also, this movie is garbage.

This was the easiest to rank. It’s last. It doesn’t really matter what else I saw that night, as there are very few things this could be put up against and not come in last. This movie clearly wanted to make some sort of statement about how violence begets violence, but ends up trying to equate a black man shopping for groceries with a roving band of neo-Nazis by the end. I knew this was going to be a disaster by the amount of time spent on showing the parking lot attack, and the amount of brutality and blood made explicit on screen. The act of the attack would elicit disgust no matter what, but the way it was filmed crosses the line into attempted titillation. After that, it turns out that the man is not some random innocent, but rather a random gang member. Or perhaps he’s just a black man with friends, but they’re all filmed as if they are a gang. They abduct the father and take him back to their house (which is much more expensive looking than the white supremacists. Is that to say something about class struggles? No, it’s completely ignored and has no bearing on anything). Once there, they take out a strange and absurd revenge which is filmed like it’s about to turn into a rape scene at any moment. The victim’s young son, about the same age as the neo-Nazi’s boy, helps them take out their revenge.

This movie is gross. While it doesn’t sympathize with the neo-Nazis, it does seem to equivocate the victim with the assailant. This short made me feel gross not just because of what was happening, but also because of how it was being shown to me. Would it have been better served with a different director? Probably not, as the story simply doesn’t work, the ending is both eye-rolling and laughable, and the acting did not rise about anything else about the production. Still, maybe in the hands of a better director the film would have been shut down after they read the script and actually thought about filming it.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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