For the climax of MostlyFilm’s final week of existence, we’re bringing you an entire weekend of Oscar coverage. On Saturday, you’ll get a full list of our predictions: on Sunday, our team will be with you throughout the night covering the awards ceremony in as live a fashion as they can manage. But to start things off, here are Indy Datta and Spank The Monkeydoing their usual schtick of reviewing the nominees in the short film categories.
Indy Datta on the live-action shorts
So I won’t do the greatest hits of previous years thistimearound, bitching about how the Academy’s eligibility rules for this category are wildly outdated, the conservatism the nominees skew towards as a result, how often the films are, really, pretty poor, and how long they tend to be. I like long films! But short films should be short, innit.
This year’s crop isn’t bad, to be fair, as these things go. Ironically, the one that most conspicuously outstays its welcome is the shortest, the Australian The Eleven O’Clock (directed by Derin Seale and written by and starring Josh Lawson) – an overextended, if slickly mounted and performed comedy sketch about a psychiatrist taking an appointment with a man who believes that he is the psychiatrist.
The other four films are all hot-button social issue dramas, three of them are based on true stories.
The British The Silent Child is the frankest about its consciousness-raising intentions, and there is authenticity in its presentation of a young deaf girl and the sign-language teacher who makes a connection with her (played by the film’s writer Rachel Shenton; the director was her erstwhile on-screen Hollyoaks colleague Chris Overton – this is his first directorial outing). I was less taken with the cartoon villainess of a mother the film uses to make its point. The American My Nephew Emmett is about the night in 1955 that 14 year old Emmett Till was taken from his great uncle Mose Wright’s Mississippi shack and brutally murdered by two white men. The film concentrates on evoking the dread felt by Wright when he hears that Emmett had been seen whistling at a white woman and his powerlessness to stop what’s coming. Writer-director Kevin Wilson Jr’s stately film-making echoes the work of Dee Rees on the nominated feature Mudbound.
The German Wotu Wate (All of Us) – directed by Katja Benrath and written by Tobias Rosen – is a competent depiction of a 2015 incident in Mandera, Kenya, in which a bus carrying both Christian and Muslim passengers was ambushed by Al Shabaab militants, and the Muslims concealed the Christians amongst them, even at the cost of some of their own lives.
For me, the nominated film whose film making most significantly elevates the impact of its script – and the only one which feels fully realised as a short film of exactly the right length for its story (and neither an overextended sketch or a proof of concept for something more expansive) – is the American DeKalb Elementary: a tight, spare, real-time dramatisation of a real-life incident in which a school receptionist tries to talk a gunman down from mass murder. Writer-director Reed van Dyk builds carefully on a real-life incident recorded as a 911 call made by the receptionist, and frames and stages the action without a wasted gesture, shooting in a single room. This is obviously the best film here, but I’m predicting My Nephew Emmett as the winner.
Spank The Monkey on the animated shorts
It was so much easier when we first did this back in 2013. A collection of the Oscar-nominated animated shorts was released in arthouse cinemas across the UK, and even if the programme never made it to your town you could see them all for free on YouTube. Nowadays, the only way to see these shorts legitimately in the UK is to buy Shorts TV’s digital download package of the nominees. But unlike the equivalent live-action selection, two of the five animated shorts have been withheld from the package owing to rights issues. Admittedly there are other methods of watching those two, but it’s still a complication that shouldn’t really be there.
Inevitably, one of the withheld films is the Disney entry. Usually, their submission for the animated short Oscar is based around some sort of technical breakthrough, but Dave Mullins’ Lou is a fairly average piece of work for Pixar: then again, it was only ever intended to be a supporting feature for Cars 3, so it didn’t need to be that good. There’s some neat visual imagination in the way that the contents of a lost and found box anthropomorphise themselves in multiple configurations, but very little of interest beyond that.
The other film not included in the package is Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s Revolting Rhymes, as seen on BBC TV. Roald Dahl’s creepy reworkings of old fairy tales still retain their notorious darkness, most notably in the decision to release this first part of a two-part series as a standalone film, bleak cliffhanger and all. But Quentin Blake’s illustrations have been smoothed out by cutesy CGI so that they won’t freak out a Christmas Day telly audience, which makes for an unsettling disconnect between image and subject matter. Also, at 29 minutes this is four times as long as each of the other films here, which shouldn’t affect its chances in a popularity contest but probably will.
Once you get past the corporate behemoths of Disney and the Beeb, there’s still a lot of dull visual slickness on show in this shortlist. Although Kobe Bryant could, I guess, be called a corporate behemoth in his own right: Glen Keane’s Dear Basketball takes Bryant’s narration about what the sport’s meant to him, pumps it up with subtly enhanced hand-drawn animation, and then deflates it all over again with an overly sugary John Williams score. It may mean something if you’re an NBA fan, but it’s likely to leave everyone else cold.
It’s a surprise to discover that the two best shorts this year both come from France. Garden Party, the graduation film of half a dozen students from the MoPA animation school, follows a small group of amphibians as they make their way around an apparently abandoned mansion. Most of the pleasure comes from the amazingly photorealistic depiction of the creatures, to the extent that in another context an audience might not accept it as being animation at all. But there’s also a keen storytelling intelligence in there, as a subplot is slowly revealed in background details.
For me, the best of the five is another French film, Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata’s Negative Space. It’s notable for being the only nominee that isn’t aiming for technical perfection: in this company, its hand-modelled look seems positively charming. Its central character – alarmingly, a dead ringer for Jacob Rees-Mogg – reflects on his relationship with his father, as seen through the lens of their shared interest in suitcase packing techniques. It makes for some delightful visual metaphors, along with a splendidly dark punchline. If you’re looking to bet on a winner, this is the one for me: although bear in mind that the last time I did this in 2016, it was the film I liked the least that won. Dear Basketball, then…