oscars 2019

Judging the Oscar Shorts: The Good, the Grisly, and Our Picks to Win

Photo: Vulture

The Oscars are on Sunday, and as ever, the shorts categories are a mystery zone for a large percentage of the audience. It’s becoming easier to see the nominees prior to the awards — thanks to efforts to get them into cinemas, and the increasing availability of them online. But there’s always far less talk about them, which can be a shame — there are often more than a few gems among them. Critics David Edelstein and Emily Yoshida have seen them all, and sat down to discuss their favorites, their not-so-favorites, and their picks to win the Oscars. Strap in — there’s at least one genuine masterpiece in the 15 nominated films, and … a lot of child murder.

Short Film (Live Action)

Edelstein: I don’t know about you, but I thought I’d be sick watching the five nominated live-action shorts, a more depressing and/or upsetting selection of movies I’ve never seen, three — count ‘em — of them centering on the murder or death of children.

Yoshida: My God, what a gruesome bunch in this category! I think short narrative films in general are tough to make impactful on a story level just by nature of their run time — so filmmakers often use that time to focus on an incredible performance, or a good joke, or a visual trick. This year’s academy nominees, though more than a few of them are impressively produced, have seemed to opt for aggressively horrible stories, as if by compressing the trauma of a feature-length child murder into 20 minutes, it will be all the more memorable. The collective experience of watching them altogether is a lot. I hate to say it, but it all starts to feel a bit cheap after a while.

Edelstein: The first, Vincent Lambe’s Detainment, dramatizes the case of those two adolescent British lads who walked away from a shopping center holding hands with a toddler, whom they subsequently murdered. At the time, the surveillance camera photo of the three was something many of us wished we could unsee. No one could fathom the crime. No one wanted to fathom the crime — even to go there would be too horrible. The film covers the separate interrogation of each boy, with brief flashbacks. The syntax is fractured, with purposeful elisions — i.e., violence against the child. While both boys lie, one is tearful and pleading and clings to his mum; the other is a defiant toughie. It’s interesting that when I read about the boys’ subsequent fates, I discovered that the “sensitive” one has since been caught multiple times with kiddie porn and is back in prison. I don’t think Lambe gets to the bottom of the mystery. I don’t think he tried. But he gets at a lot of interesting stuff around the atrocious crime in a way I respect.

Yoshida: Detainment is rough. Lambe apparently based his script on the actual recordings of the two boys during their questioning by police, but like you, I struggled to find the motivation for dramatizing this horrific stuff 26 years later. The film has been publicly denounced by the mother of the 2-year-old victim, who says Lambe never consulted with her at any point while making the film, and who sees the film as too sympathetic to the young murderers. This is not what rubbed me the wrong way so much — I think the level of awareness a child can have about a murder is one of the interesting questions to plumb here, and the weepy kid is quite effectively freaked out. If that looks sympathetic, so be it, but one thing Detainment does do very well is communicate the idea that this was a horror story for literally everyone involved, that murder is a horror story period.

Edelstein: The next dead-kid film I watched was Fauve, by Jeremy Comte. This one starts with two kids climbing the sides of trains, throwing rocks at pipes, scampering over sandy landscapes. It’s evocative, and not just for the settings. It captures the mix of adventurousness and sadism that characterizes the play of some adolescent boys. You can see the tragedy coming a mile away. What I loved was the surviving boy’s sense of helplessness. He did something mean and he then had to watch its consequences in terrible slow-motion — in the knowledge (part of growing up) that it can never, never be undone. This was probably my favorite of the shorts, although I’m not sure how the Academy will go.

Yoshida: I was more or less with this one until the ending. Can we put a moratorium on characters having a “meaningful” moment of regard with an animal as a shorthand for the sublime? People have been doing it since the 2004 double-whammy of Collateral (coyote) and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (jaguar shark), and it’s almost never earned.

So far, what I’m getting from these shorts is that little boys are the absolute worst, but they still feel bad when they kill people.

Edelstein: Mother by Rodrigo Sorogoyen is a tour de force. It’s also ghastly and hateful. It’s every parents’ nightmare, but done in a way I found cheap and easy. Technically brilliant: long, real-time shots of a mother realizing that her son has been left alone on an empty beach in France by her ex, who has, for some reason, gone off and not come back. Again, the prevailing tone is helplessness, but to what end except to torture us and impress us with the one-set, one-timeline purity of the director’s technique. Yecchh. I’ll say that again: Yecchh.

Yoshida: These first three shorts all have the same structure, which is a unidirectional nosedive toward hell. I kept waiting for something surprising to happen in Mother (which, as you say, is very economically told, but manipulative as hell), but its finishing move is to cut to the credits, where you are left to imagine a child’s grisly fate over the dubstep soundtrack. Oddly, it was the dubstep that made me question the film’s motivation more than anything else.

Edelstein: Skin by Guy Nattiv is a parable of racism that is dumb but potent, and well-made enough to get him some Hollywood gigs. The best parts are early, when we watch an adolescent boy get “educated” by his tattooed, plainly racist dad and his dad’s friends — taught to shoot, etc. Watching him process what he sees of that culture is fascinating. And no matter how despicable that dad, he’s trying to be a good dad. I found the gangs’ subsequent assault on a black father in front of his family impossible to watch — I fast-forwarded. The revenge by a black gang is poetic but absurd. No one will feel much sympathy for the man, but no one will buy the outcome. Too pat.

Yoshida: Skinhead dads love their white kids, would you believe it? Despite no children dying in Skin (though two are likely traumatized for life), this is the one that made me squirm the most, the one where I struggled to understand what the filmmakers thought they were doing. The revenge by the black gang got a genuine “Wow, really?” out of me that melted after about two seconds into a “this is absurd.” Pat is the right word, and it’s a little concerning that Skin spends so much of its run time humanizing violent racists only to pull off an ending that betrays a somewhat stunted view of what racism even is.

Edelstein: The final film is, in context, almost cheerful: Marguerite by Marianne Farley. The title old woman lives what are clearly her last days in the company of a nurse who turns out to be a lesbian — which triggers Marguerite’s memories of the woman she once loved but watched — this being the early ’60s — marry a man and drift away. Lovely, moving stuff, though a bit generic. Possibly the Academy’s choice, I don’t know. It’s politically sound and with no dead kids.

Yoshida: A sweet and rather corny thing that will probably win the Oscar? I guess I could be underestimating the Academy’s taste for child trauma, but in my mind it’s this or Skin, the only two films that are both topical and have identifiable “buttons” at the end. I also have nothing else to say about Marguerite, which is a very nice movie about nice people.

Edelstein: Nice.

Documentary (Short Subject)

Yoshida: The documentary shorts are a more mannered bunch on the whole. This category, maybe this year more than others, feels more like a case of “voting for issue” rather than the cinematic merits of the doc — which is fine, it just becomes more of a respectability game than anything else.

Edelstein: I agree. There are many different kinds of documentaries, but for the Academy the form is synonymous with journalism. More elusive, imagistic works don’t tend to make the final cut.

Yoshida: Black Sheep, directed by Ed Perkins, is maybe the one film out of the bunch that feels like its trying for something different formally, though what it lands on is essentially a long reenactment. It’s narrated by its own subject, Cornelius Walker, who tells the story of his teen years in Essex as one of the only black kids in town, and how he tried to change himself to become more acceptable to his racist peers, even going so far as to bleach his skin and wear blue contacts. Walker addresses the camera directly, and he’s a stirring narrator, even though the film just kind of ends. It feels a bit like a proof of concept for a longer film — perhaps a straight narrative film — and that sense of incompleteness that ultimately doesn’t quite work.

Edelstein: I found Black Sheep difficult to watch. Cornelius’s story is illuminating, but because nearly everything he says is reenacted, there’s no precious space between memory and reality. What I mean is that when he says he remembers moving to the suburb and a little kid yelling at him, “Ay, n—r!” there’s suddenly a little kid there yelling, “Ay, n—er.” Maybe you want it to be a longer film because it feels halfway to fiction. I should add that reenactments remain a controversial issue in the serious-doc world, but I’ve rarely felt as alienated by them as I did here. I wanted to hear Cornelius’s words and look at his face — not the faces and words of actors.

Yoshida: A Night at the Garden is seven minutes of archival footage of a lost-to-history Nazi rally that took place at Madison Square Garden, New York City, United States of Freaking America in 1939, seven months before Germany invaded Poland. It’s an incredible find and more than disturbing to watch 80 years later, but again I found myself wanting more than the seven minutes that director Marshall Curry dug up. What exactly was the German American Bund, the pro-Nazi organization that held the rally? What did the rest of New York City make of it? What happened to the man — which a little research told me was a Jewish plumber from Brooklyn — who rushed the stage?

Edelstein: A disturbing little time capsule that reminds us that not every American wanted to fight Hitler, and that we — Jews and other minorities — were right to think, It can happen here. But I agree that it’s odd that the film is an Oscar finalist. It feels more like footage assembled (very well) to get funding for a larger doc feature.

Yoshida: Period. End of Sentence is my bet to win the category — and not just because of its feel-good story. The film by Rayka Zehtabchi follows a group of women in rural India who start manufacturing and marketing sanitary pads in a culture that still refuses to talk about or acknowledge menstruation. Many girls apparently drop out of school once they get their period because they have no idea how to manage it and still attend classes, but the pad-making operation allows them to both work and earn their own money, and also have access to a more modern way to menstruate. I do somewhat question the origin of the film — not its intent, which is clearly noble, but the fact that it was produced by the L.A. private-school club that provided the pad-making machine to the women. (An end title card notes that the film was funded by “bake sales, Kickstarter, and yogathons” — adding to the heartwarming DIY ethos of the film itself.) It kind of comes off as an ad for itself, though there are certainly worse things and causes to advertise.

Edelstein: It might well win, but I felt like I got the idea after a few minutes and that the rest was — exactly as you said — an ad for itself. I am in awe of the idea: to use the treatment of menstruation as a microcosm for the treatment of women in that society in general. It’s a willed, in some ways enforced, ignorance, not just of female sexuality but for lack of a better term “personhood.” Manufacturing those pads is truly liberating.

Yoshida: Lifeboat is upsetting and harrowing and effective in a way that many documentaries about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean have been in recent years. It does somewhat distinguish itself by focusing on one aspect of the flow of refugees — the search and rescue of refugee lifeboats by the organization Sea-Watch, and introduces a compelling character in the form of John Castle, a captain with the organization. I appreciated the time director Skye Fitzgerald took to interview and individualize various refugees taken in by Castle’s crew, but the film overall didn’t leave much of an impression on me.

Edelstein: I loved the film. I was overwhelmed by it. The word refugee appears every day in our various news feeds, in the form of hand-wringing editorials or xenophobic scare stories. Of course there have been superb features on refugees’ plights as they flee countries in Africa and the Middle East in which they’re brutalized, raped, and imprisoned. But our understanding deepens when we can see the ugly, material horror — the faces of exhausted, bereft, deeply traumatized human beings who risk more than we ever will to come to Europe or the U.S., where, in general, they’re not wanted. Skye Fitzgerald is on the rocking sea with them to the point where I found myself getting sympathetically seasick. My only problem is that it’s edited as a commercial for Sea-Watch — I wanted to contribute once I’d wiped away my tears at the postscript. Which is not a bad thing at all! But good propaganda is still propaganda.

Yoshida: End Game, a Netflix short, is yet another doc that, while sensitively made, felt like a kind of promotional clip for the organization at its center. Again — not the worst thing to promote! It’s just a different kind of experience watching it. In this case, the cause is a hospice-care center in the Bay Area, where several terminally ill patients and their families debate the decision to spend their remaining days. It in some ways is about the biggest unknown humans grapple with, and seeing the emotional implication of accepting death is pretty profound. This would be my other pick to win the Oscar, what do you think?

Edelstein: I’ve seen many end-of-life films not dissimilar from End Game and imagine that Academy voters have, too. It’s an unusually useful portrait, though — very much on the side of, as you say, accepting death rather than using “extraordinary measures” to prolong the inevitable. Every one of these people is literally at a do-or-die point — or a do-and-die point — and the camera holds on them with such empathy, such compassion. This could very well win, though I’m going to predict Lifeboat, in part because of what’s happening at our own southern border.

Short Film (Animated)

Edelstein: The animation shorts category is the only one that seems to me to have a clear-cut winner. Not only a winner — a classic. Let’s quickly consider the other four.

Edelstein: Animal Behaviour by Alison Snowden and David Fine depicts a group-therapy session led by a dog and attended by various animals, among them a pig who eats a lot of cookies, a praying mantis who lives alone with a thousand kids because she always eats her partners during sex, a distraught leech, and a newcomer, an ape. I have been in several therapy groups over the course of my life, and I like the idea of using animals to denote various maladaptive human behaviors. But this is an overextended, basically one-joke short that is not an appreciable advance over the group-therapy scenes in the first Bob Newhart sitcom. It gets tedious after about three minutes.

Yoshida: Linking human neuroses to animal behaviors is done better and more judiciously in BoJack Horseman — I agree this one felt one-note, and once the joke had been established (about one minute in) there wasn’t much more the short could do. Not terrible, but it definitely outstayed its welcome.

Edelstein: Domee Shi’s Bao — a Pixar production — I’d seen in theaters and have little to say about. It’s the only 3-D short in this group, and I find myself less engaged by Shrek-like 3-D these days since those films are generally bound by laws of space and gravity that stunt an animator’s imagination. Anyway, it’s a sweet film about the life and so on of a sentient pork bun, who seems to be a metaphor for the nonexistent child of its young woman chef. Maybe it says something about me that I was most interested in the fact that animators are putting so many moles and assorted blemishes on their animated characters to give them (the characters, not the animators) texture. You could consider this a welcome nod to people with less than smooth skin, but I just find it weird. I like bad skin when it’s indicative of a deeper vision, as in the works of David Lynch. Domee Shi is no David Lynch.

Yoshida: I really do not care for Bao — it didn’t work for me in theaters (it played before The Incredibles 2), and it doesn’t work for me now. It is interesting to watch it now alongside all these more experimental 2-D projects, which may not necessarily nail the texture of a steamed dumpling, but do far more with the medium, with fewer resources than they might of Pixar. I could go on and on about Pixar’s primary mode of heartstring-tugging, which is to make kids afraid of growing up and grown-ups feel guilty about growing up — and which Bao is the epitome of.

Edelstein: Late Afternoon by Louise Bagnall is the simple and very lovely story of an old woman with dementia or late-stage Alzheimer’s being taken care of by the daughter she doesn’t quite remember — but who finds her way back to that daughter through a series of swooping, fantastical memories, many set on a beach. I think the blend of form and content is exquisite here and maybe even psychologically plausible. Really a fine piece of work.

Yoshida: Late Afternoon sneaked up on me! Here I was, just kind of taking in this impressionistic, often abstract narrative about an old woman’s memories, and then … as it rounds the corner toward its finale and the old woman remembers her daughter writing her name in the sand … the waterworks just burst in my eyeballs. Incredibly, it felt earned — not just because of the inherently melancholy subject matter, but through Bagnall’s lovely, evocative visual storytelling. Her simple line-drawn characters morph and flow through swirls of abstract color; it lets you feel the story more than it tells it to you outright.

Edelstein: One Small Step by Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas is lovely, too, although a lot more manipulative/sentimental. A single father is always there for his daughter — nurturing her fantasies of space travel, feeding her, and then becoming increasingly lame (his cane is a metaphor) as she experiences disappointment in school and is rejected by the space program. I can speak ad nauseam about the feeling a dad has when a daughter begins the natural process of disengagement — and the idea here is that she doesn’t remember how deep their bond was until he’s gone. It’s a good self-pitying dad story yoked to a female-empowerment tale.

Yoshida: I would love to say that One Small Step does a better job at being First Man than First Man did, but that wouldn’t be exactly fair. It’s a story of the hard work and determination that it takes to get someone into space, but without any of the lingering doubts and cynicism of Chazelle’s film — One Small Step is pure empowering, “if at first you don’t succeed” rah-rahing. It’s fine, but in a category packed with parent-child narratives, it’s a little more profound than Bao, but there’s more interesting work — visually and narratively — in this category.

Edelstein: Now: Weekends by Trevor Jimenez. It’s a flat-out marvel. It does what great animation should do — create an expressionistic landscape that breaks down the walls between reality and fantasy, so that they’re part of a continuum. It also has — and needs — no words. The premise is that a boy whose parents are divorced and have pointedly zero communication moves back and forth (weekends are with dad) between two distinct worlds. In a ramshackle house in the country, the mom (who wears a neck brace, oddly) plays Satie piano pieces, and they have an easy, loving rapport. In the city, the boy and his dad (who blasts Dire Straits) play more energetic games involving Chinese masks and swords. A visual motif is a wooden horse on which the boy sits staring out through a picture window at the metropolis — a metaphor for alienation and longing if ever there was one. Jimenez characterizes these people by the shapes of their heads and bodies and the movements of their features. The mother acquires a lover who is square-headed and patronizing and often appears with a candle on his head — a birthday cake that can become an inferno. (He becomes abusive once he makes himself at home.) I love the smudged backdrops, the muted colors, and the way in which the boy’s dreams show you all you need to know about his inner fears and sense of displacement. I could watch this film over and over.

Yoshida: I agree — and I would also argue that Weekends is as good as any of the feature contenders this year. (It’s also exactly as long as it needs to be, a tough thing for any of the shorts categories to nail.) Jimenez’s film is so full of visual specificity, and the palette and frame rate make it feel as if its being transmitted from some hazy childhood memory. The birthday-cake boyfriend is one of the scariest things I’ve seen in any 2018 movie, implacably troubling and yet completely sensical in a dream-logic way. The music is also masterfully off-kilter — the boy frequently imagines the objects and belongings of his two homes becoming unmoored and floating away into the void, and the score’s ghostly chimes and keyboards make these sequences all the more moving. This should win the Oscar, but I worry it might be too weird for voters. Either way, I hope it gets the audience it deserves, and I can’t wait to see what Jimenez does next.

Judging the Oscar Shorts: Our Picks to Win