Running a bit late on this one, but here’s the second article on this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts after I reviewed the animated shorts last week.
What’s interesting about the Live Action Short category is the number of filmmakers that win (or are nominated) in this category that go on to make respected feature films. Andrea Arnold, Terry George, Taylor Hackford and Dave Frankel are some of the Oscar-winning short filmmakers who went on to make prominent features. That’s not uncommon because many directors have begun their careers with shorts, but not necessesarily Oscar-winning ones.
In fact, Martin McDonagh won in 2005 for his short Six Shooter, and now the filmmaker is in the feature film race with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay and a couple acting awards, and it should be able to win at least three of those. But McDonagh is an anomaly, because even the short film directors who have gone on to make features – and there’s been a bunch — haven’t necessarily made it back to Oscar night.
This is an interesting year for the category, because there are four dramas that deal with serious topics and one somewhat out-of-place comedy that doesn’t. Only one of the shorts wasn’t in the English language, but they all have their merits and are worthy of their Oscar nomination.
Directed by Reed Van Dyk
I saw this dramatic short about a school shooting that’s effectively de-escalated a few weeks back and wasn’t too impressed. Watching it again following the Florida shooting makes it a far more harrowing film to watch. Essentially, it involves a young man named Steven (Bo Mitchell) who shows up at the titular school with a semi-automatic rifle where he finds a sympathetic ear in the school receptionist Cassandra (Tarra Riggs) who convinces him to give up to the police. And yet, I don’t think either of the main actors, the writing or the direction is particularly impressive, especially compared to something like Gus van Sant’s Elephant. Obviously, director Reed Van Dyk wanted to make something topical but the story mostly takes place in the same school office, so it just doesn’t have the scope it would need to be impressive against the other offerings. Rating: B
The Eleven O’CLock
Directed by Derin Seale and Josh Lawson
What is basically an extended Monty Python sketch, this quirky Australian comedy involves a psychiatrist who is visited by a patient who thinks he’s the psychiatrist and the doctor is his patient. It leads to some funny moments as the two of them interact, and there’s a bit of a twist ending, but I only felt this was slightly better than DeKalb Elementary, mainly because the writing and actors were very funny. Rating: B+
My Nephew Emmett
Directed by Kevin Wilson Jr.
This is a period drama set in the American South that might have been more effective if it wasn’t being watched on the heels of the generally superior Mudbound. It involves an African-American preacher in Mississippi named Mose whose teen nephew Emmett is visiting from Chicago but who is taken away by two white men for whistling at one of their wives. When the film gets to that point, it’s made more obvious that the Emmett in the title is Emmett Till, whose death would have a significant impact on the Civil Rights movement and the changes made by it. It’s not exactly a twist, but NYU student filmmaker Kevin Wilson Jr. clearly has a lot of talent that you can see both in the way the short was filmed but also in the performances he gets out of the actors. Definitely will be interested to see where he goes from here, but this topic would probably have been better off as a feature. Rating: B+
The Silent Child
Directed by Chris Overton and Rachel Senton
The Silent Child is a British film about a family with a young deaf daughter named Libby, who calls upon an instructor named Joanne, played by screenwriter Rachel Senton, to help her. This is clearly a very personal film made to help boost the teaching of sign language in school, and to show how deaf people can have a productive normal life, something that even the parents of a deaf child might have trouble realizing. The film is well-written and directed by great performances, especially by Senton and the young Maisie Sly as Libby and like Emmett, it will be interesting to see where Senton and director Chris Overton go next. Rating: A-
WatuWote (All of Us)
Directed by Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen
The only film in the bunch that isn’t in English and only one of two based on a true story*, and it’s also the best of the films in my opinion as it follows a young Christian woman on a bus ride from Kenya to Somalia that’s attacked by Muslim extremist terrorists demanding that the Christians on board be identified. It is the biggest film in terms of scope and social context, but also the most powerful in terms of the intimacy in which it deals with the characters on this bus trip. I really loved this one, possibly because it deals with things that Americans never have to deal with, but it’s also quite grim. Rating: A
(*Note: It’s been pointed out in the comments that something similar to what happens in DeKalb Elementary took place in Atlanta in 2013, but since the names are all changed, including the name of the school, and there’s nothing in the short stating that it’s based or inspired by actual events, how is anyone supposed to know this?)
Even more than previous years, this is going to be an incredibly difficult category to call because each short is good in its own way and has its own merits. DeKalb Elementary is extremely topical, but WatuWote and My Nephew Emmett are even more powerful since they’re based on true events, although neither ends on a happy note. The Silent Child is also very good, but it might be too sentimental and personal to the filmmakers to connect with Oscar voters. The only one I don’t think has a chance at winning is The Eleven O’Clock, which is funny and quirky but doesn’t stand up to the other four shorts. I think this will go to Watu Woke or DeKalp Elementary, but I think the first of them is more deserving.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor