Just as reading a great short story can have an impact in a relatively few pages, short films also can entertain, inform and challenge us with limited running times. Most of our favorite filmmakers started their careers making short subjects. Which of this year’s Oscar™ nominated creators will be the makers of the next breakout independent film on their way to a studio blockbuster? You can watch and place your bets. And remember that this year the public has seen all nominated movies the same way most Academy members have been watching them for years—at home.
The 2021 Academy Awards are on Sunday, April 25. The nominated short films have been collected into three programs, Animation, Live Action and Documentary, and are now playing in select theaters and on Virtual Cinema. Trailers and more information can found here.
Our critics Steve Segal, C.J. Hirschfield and Andrea Chase review each of the films below.
By Steve Segal
Every year theaters showcase the Oscar™ nominated short films both live and animated. For many these represent the best of the year, but of course that’s subjective. Like most Oscar™ nominees recently, the Animation is a collection as diverse as any in recent years, which is interesting as 3 of the 5 have a Pixar connection. As a member of the pre-selection committee of the Oscars™ I can say that there were a few not included that I liked even better, but all in this collection were ones I felt earned a high rating.
Burrow (Madeline Sharafian and Michael Capbarat – USA) is the only film to actually be released by Pixar, but you’d never know it to look at it. It is hand-drawn rather than computer-generated in a charming children’s story book style. Co-Director Madeline Sharafian applied her experience as a storyboard artist for the Pixar classic Coco to make this under Pixar’s Spark program, where current employees get resources and time to make their own films. Burrow exhibits the charm, wit and storytelling expertise we have come to expect from Pixar.
Genius Loci (Adrien Mérigeau and Amaury Ovise -France)
Animator Adrien Merigeau has worked as a designer at Cartoon Saloon on The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. The imagery has a poetic feel so the lines of the art have an enigmatic quality like lines of a haiku. They go from stylized figurative to full abstraction as the Miro-like images dance and transform in a way reminiscent of Joanna Priestly’s abstract animation.
If Anything Happens I Love You (Will McCormack and Michael Govier -USA)
McCormack, another Pixar vet and part of the story team on Toy Story 4 joined with Michael Govierto to craft this somber short. It is the most heart-felt of the nominees. Rendered in stark black and white with touches of color against a sparse background, even the hand-drawn animation has a haltingly unfinished feel about it, as most drawings are on screen for 4 frames each instead of the usual 1 or 2.
Opera (Erick Oh- USA)
Oh spent six years at Pixar animating on titles such as Finding Dory and Inside Out before joining Tonko House where he worked on the Oscar nominated short The Dam Keeper. Opera was planned as a gallery experience, so you would encounter a pyramid shaped edifice with looping hand-drawn animation projected on it. The pandemic forced him to change this epic examination of society and its conflicts as one long, layered 9 minute animated short. It harkens back to the Saul Bass classic The Edifice .
Yes-People (Gísli Darri Halldórsson and Arnar Gunnarsson -Iceland)
Taking place entirely in one apartment building Yes-People whimsically examines how the characters that populate it interact or avoid interaction with one another. It is 3D CG animation with the characters designed with comically bulbous proportions which enhances the humor. Halldórsson’sbackground is as a3D Character Animator at Blue-Zoo Animation Studio, London. His characters are definitely not the beautiful people, but they are people you know and work with.
The program is rounded out with three worthwhile films that didn’t get nominated but were shortlisted (in the top ten).
To Gerard (Taylor Meacham – USA)
A love letter to all amateur magicians. Told wordlessly, it was rendered in a CG classical style familiar to most film goers. It’s fun and sentimental. Mecham works at DreamWorks (Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon), a studio that can be viewed as Pixar’s primary competitor, and like Pixar they encourage their artists to create their own shorts.
The Snail and the Whale (Max Lang and Daniel Snaddonp-UK/Germany)
Previously Lang led the team that made the Oscar nominated The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. Like The Snail and the Whale they are long-form (27 minutes) CG & stop motion efforts directed at children. This new film is based on a 2003 children’s picture book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler.
Kapaemahu (Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson- USA)
Kapaemahu features an evocative use of stylized, limited animation to introduce us to a compelling story, written and narrated by Wong-Kalu, about mysticism in Hawaii. All three have film experience exclusively in creating documentaries so they were fortunate to have as director of animation Daniel Sousa, himself an Oscar nomination recipient for his dynamic 2012 short animation, Feral.
This is a very inspiring collection and may be the perfect entertainment to entice you back into the cinema, just don’t forget your mask.
By C.J. Hirschfield
One of the most successful virtual cinema offerings turns out to be the finalists for the 2021 Oscar™ short subject films, released earlier this month. They provide a chance to predict the winners prior to the Academy Awards.
Here is a rundown of the films competing in the Documentary Short Film category; they range from 14-40 minutes in length, and it’s probably no coincidence that all five deal with the subject of social justice in some way. Heartbreaking, harrowing, joyful, historic, inspirational—they take us around the world and open our hearts and minds.
Collette (Anthony Giacchino and Alice Doyard – France/Germany/USA)
“I’m not into morbid tourism,” states 90-year-old Collette Marin-Catherine, as she embarks on a first-time journey to the Nordhausen concentration camp in Germany where her brother was killed only three weeks before liberation. Herself a member of the French Resistance in WWII, there is much she has chosen to forget, but a young history student offers to accompany her on an academic quest to the camp, to ensure that the past will be remembered. Collette is a very compelling subject—smart, articulate, strong-willed and not afraid to speak her mind. Historical footage adds to the drama of what is at once a personal quest as well as a look into a horrific underground hell where Nazis used slave labor to construct bombs 24 hours a day. The film both begins and ends with birds, and this symbol of freedom is not lost on us.
A Love Song for Latasha (Sophia Nahli Allison and Janice Duncan -USA)
“Caring. Sharing. Very polite to others.” This is how high-schooler Latasha described herself. Beginning as a 6th grader in the late ‘80s in South Central L.A. her life is documented in this tender tribute by family and friends to a special person whose journey of becoming was cut short by a senseless killing in a neighborhood store. Her story is carefully built; how she saved the girl who would become her best friend; how she loved the song “Stand By Me,”; her dream of becoming a lawyer. The telling is made much richer through the artful use of re-enactments, impressionistic sequences, dream-like collages, and historic video footage. The injustice surrounding Latasha’s shooting death is said to have been a flashpoint for the 1992 L.A. riots. Three decades after her passing, Latasha continues to inspire those who loved her, and now, us.
Do Not Split (Anders Hammer and Charlotte Cook – USA/Norway)
Protests in Hong Kong used to be peaceful, we’re told at the beginning of the film. Not any more. Do Not Split places us right in the middle of escalating protests beginning in 2019, as a proposed bill allowing the Chinese government to extradite criminal subjects to mainland China drew a revolt (there is a 99% conviction rate, we’re told). “Only democracy can save us,” say demonstrators who envision a police state if China prevails. Their passion and conviction as they are tear-gassed, experience police brutality, and are held under siege at a university is palpable, but so is the determination of mainland China’s regime and police force. The pandemic put a hold on large protests, and a new national security law that allows arrests and revenge against demonstrators is frightening. But hope survives, in the form of overwhelming local council victories by Liberate Hong Kong supporters and the specter of general strikes and greater participation in the elective process. The mostly young protesters are willing to put it all on the line for freedom, and we can’t help but be inspired by their courage and dedication to the cause of their future.
Hunger Ward (Skye Fitzgerald and Michael Scheuerman- USA )
Getting a close-up look at what could be one of the world’s worst famines in 100 years is both disturbing and heartbreaking. “The world needs to know the depth of the suffering,” says Nurse Mekkia Mahdi, one of the two female medical workers in the most active therapeutic feeding centers in the middle of Yemen’s civil war who are featured in Hunger Ward. The faces of the children are beautiful, but their bodies are skeletal; the medical staff seems nearly powerless against the constant Saudi blockades and bombings that have destroyed the country’s education, water and health systems. If there’s anything more powerful or disturbing than hearing the keening of a grieving mother—in any language—then I don’t know what it is. In President Biden’s first visit to the State Department after his election, he announced that US support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen was terminated. “This war has to end,” he declared. Amen.
A Concerto Is A Conversation (dir. Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers- USA)
In an intimate conversation with his 91 -year-old grandfather, virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer Kris Bowers traces his family’s history from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s a wonderful story, and well-told, using photographs, historical footage, and of course, perfectly curated music. Most inspirational is Horace Bowers’ journey, which began in the 1940s when he hitchhiked (“I had to be crazy”) his way to Los Angeles, where he built a successful dry cleaning business. Now facing cancer, his story becomes even more important to document. The film ends with the grandfather/grandson duo in a joyous rendition of the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” with the elder Bowers singing and the younger Bowers accompanying him on piano. Weighing in at only 14 minutes, Concerto may be short on time, but it’s long on love.
The live-action shorts in competition for this year’s Oscar™ are a powerful collection of films that address complex issues with grace and honesty. Each is a cinematic gem, thoughtfully produced and expertly realized that take no more than 33 minutes to tell a story that engages with all the depth of feeling that their feature-length counterparts provide. Without commercial considerations with which to contend, the live-action short provides a filmmaker the opportunity to stay true to his or her vision with less compromise than the feature length format. I’m glad I don’t have to pick the one that will be going home with the little gold man this year.
The Present (Farah Nabulsi – Palestine)
The story of a man trying to buy an anniversary present for his wife while also commenting on the present situation for Palestinians in Israel. The obstacles are that the man is Palestinian, and the present, a refrigerator, is on the other side of the Israeli checkpoint. The politics of the situation are less important than the reality of a man and his young daughter forced to endure causal degradation by the heavily armed military processing them. Humanity is sacrificed to bureaucracy and boredom with the threat of violence hanging in the air. The ending finds a simple and direct solution that is painful for the example is sets that seems at once so easy and yet so impossible.
Feeling Through – (Doug Roland and Susan Ruzenski – USA)
A homeless teen, Tareek (Steven Prescod) attempts to find a friend who will take him in for the night only to be waylaid by his conscience when he finds Artie (Robert Tarango), a deaf and blind man alone on the late-night city streets. The ethical dilemma of a basically good person put to the test is told with compassion as Tareek struggles between what he knows is right, and what he needs to do to survive when dealing with Artie’s unconditional trust and optimism.
Two Distant Strangers (Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe -USA) The strangers of the title are not the couple waking up from their hook-up in New York City. Instead, it’s the young black man, Carter () and the patrol cop (Andrew Howard) who find themselves in an endless time loop in which Carter is profiled upon leaving the woman’s building and as a result, is killed by the cop. As Carter repeats the loop trying to find a way to survive, he becomes the embodiment of every black man and woman’s reality in a society in which black lives don’t matter. By the time the names of black people murdered by the police scroll across the screen, with what they were doing when they were killed, things like eating ice cream on a sofa, or, in George Floyd’s case going to the grocery store, the frustration of endless dialogue about race and power coming to nothing have hit home like a punch to the gut.
White Eye (Tomer Shushan and Shira Hochman – Israel)
A chance discovery of a stolen bicycle by its owner unfolds in a single, breathtaking take during which a man (Daniel Gad) is forced to confront the cost of being in the right when weighed against the value of an Eritrean immigrant’s (Dawit Tekelaeb) legal rights. Or lack thereof.
The Letter Room – Elvira Lind and Sofia Sondervan (USA, 33 min.)
Truth and kindness find themselves at odds in a poignant study of loneliness on both sides of prison walls. Oscar Isaac stars as Richard, a prison guard on death row who has retained his idealism when it comes to his charges. When he is promoted to the solitary job of censoring letters to inmates, he gains insight into one of the row’s most withdrawn inmates, and in a position that protocols don’t begin to cover. Isaac’s performance of a man living a life of quiet desperation in pre-COVID social isolation is as subtle as it is powerful, perfectly complementing the film’s use of small, revealing details to annotate this gripping story.
To see the Oscar™ Nominated Short Films go here.
Read C.J. Hirschfield’s interview Oakland Symphony Maestro Michael Morgan about A Concerto Is a Conversation.
By Gary Meyer
Certain Oscar™ nominations including the three short subject categories have a “short list” selected by a committee and then Academy voters who work in those categories vote to narrow the list down to five nominees. All Academy members can vote for the winners if they have seen all the movies in that category. A lot of terrific films get left out but are worth watching too.
Here are the 2021 Shortlisted movies.
In the early years of movie exhibition, starting in 1894, audiences went to see a program composed of a variety of short subjects. There would be comedies, dramas, cartoons, newsreels, documentaries, cliff-hanging serials and often the words to songs flashed across the screen so the audience could sing along —long before karaoke— all accompanied by live music. Each film ran from 1 to 20 minutes. In 1912 movies over 60 minutes revolutionized the movie-going experience and the long main feature was preceded by only three or four shorts. Both major studios and independent filmmakers continued to have their works showcased in theaters until the late 1960s. Theaters that had hundreds or even thousands of seats were being divided and smaller auditorium multiplexes were replacing these vast movie palaces. By eliminating short subjects an extra showing each day was often possible. The studios shut down their animation divisions and live-action shorts had already become a thing of the past.
It was up to independent makers to try and get their movies seen. To qualify for an Academy Award there are rules that include public showings in theaters or select festivals. If a film is not invited to one of those festivals the filmmakers usually have to rent screen time in Los Angeles and New York cinemas and buy ads to meet the requirements, something most starving filmmakers cannot afford.
It became nearly impossible for audiences to see the nominated short movies from the 1970s until, in 2006, a company ironically named ShortsTV started to create these theatrical packages which were an immediate success. To the surprise of The Academy, many people were interested as the shows play in hundreds of theaters, often among the highest grossing presentations in a complex.
Now that is getting respect.
The 2020 Best Shorts winners and the acceptance speeches can be watched here.
The 93rd Academy Awards will be broadcast live on Sunday, April 25 at 5 pm PDT/8pm EDT. The official Oscar™ website has lots of information.
The history of Oscar™ nominated and winning Animated Shorts started in 1931
The history of Oscar™ nominated Documentaries didn’t start until 1941.
The history of Live-Action Shorts nominated for Academy Awards.
Steve Segal ran a studio in Richmond, Virginia in the 1970s making commercials and educational films. He also created several independent short films which have won awards at film festivals and been included in theatrical packages. Steve has been teaching animation for over 40 years. In 1986 he used an early computer program to plan scenes for the animated featureThe Brave Little Toaster. He worked as an animator on PeeWee’s Playhouse and made an animated musical film for Sesame Street. At Pixar he animated on the feature films Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, the theme park attraction It’s Tough to be a Bug, and the Oscar winning short film Geri’s Game. He has previously written for EatDrinkFilms.
Visit Steve’s Website at Segaltoons.com
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Andrea Chase has been reviewing movies on radio, television, in print, and via the internet in the San Francisco Bay area for over 20 years. She says, “After moving here from Louisiana many years ago, I received my film education the way nature and the Lumiere Brothers intended–in movie theaters, both the mainstream venues that showcased the latest from La La Land, and the art houses that were more numerous in days gone by. They gave me a thorough grounding in current and classic cinema from all over the world and from the silents to the latest cutting edge Hong Kong flick.”
She is a member of the Women Film Critics Circle, as well as the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and has been heard on non-commercial syndicated radio since 1996, and on British Forces Broadcasting throughout the world. Currently, she is the Movie Chick on KGO-Radio’s Maureen Langan show, her series, Behind the Scenes, is part of PRX.org with over 350 episodes, and she contribute reviews to The New Fillmore. Both Rotten Tomatoes and the MRQE link to her site, KillerMovieReviews.com, making the world safe for film lovers since 2002 with reviews and interviews. Read her other reviews and interviews for EDF.