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What You Need to Know About the 2020 Live-Action Oscar Shorts

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Tragedy with a spice of more tragedy

After talking about the nominees for animated shorts and documentary shorts over the past week, all that's left to discuss are the live-action short films. Live-action short films are the stuff where the future movers and shakers of the cinematic world really get a chance to cut their teeth. No one just starts out directing million dollar blockbusters and being lavished with critical praise from day one. It usually requires time, effort, and making a healthy amount of short films. Ask any director about their college short films and you'll either see people wistfully look back at something they were genuinely proud of or curse your name for reminding you of the memories they repressed. 

Live-action short films give directors a chance to talk about topics that may not be as acceptable in a mainstream feature film. Certainly all of the nominees here talk about topics that range from being unusual to outright uncomfortable. Joy is dead as all five nominees suffer in their own unique ways, but did their misery mean anything? Was it for naught?

A Sister


Director: Delphine Girald
Country: Belgium
Length: 16 minutes

What It's About

A woman calls 911 while being kidnapped and has to tell the operator what's going on without her captor catching wise. 

How Is It?

Tense wouldn't be the correct word to describe A Sister. From the first frame, we're thrust into a dingy car with a man and woman driving to an unknown location with the woman asking to call her daughter. The man allows her to and we see one end of the conversation. A minute later, we see the other side of the phone, which is revealed to be a 911 operator who has to try and discern what's happening and how to rescue her in the most discrete way possible. 

As a thriller, I loved A Sister. While we never learn anything about the characters, as most of the information given by the captive woman is surely a lie, the situation itself was just brilliant to watch. It was a great game of cat and mouse where an innocent woman's life was hanging in the balance. The reasoning behind her capture is a bit flimsy, making me wonder why her captor would even allow her to use the phone, as well as the exact specification for why she was being held against her will, but it's easily forgiven by the slow yet intense buildup. Nothing revolutionary, but highly entertaining.

Brotherhood


Director: Meryam Joobeur
Country: Tunisia/Canada
Length: 25 minutes

What It's About

An estranged son with connections to ISIS comes home to visit his family with his father highly critical of his actions.

How Is It?

There are some short films that never feel as long as they do. Most of the time they can be fairly breezy and engage you to the point where you lose track of time. Brotherhood is not one of those shorts. As the longest film of the five, Brotherhood is also the least engaging and feels padded for most of its runtime. Not only that, but unless you understand the geo-political nature of the Middle East and the role ISIS and Syria play in it, most of the drama Brotherhood tries to establish falls on deaf ears. 

It's a movie attempting to discuss the nature of family and the importance of that bond, which is shown several times. We see all three brothers play with each other at the beach while the returning brother gives them advice from his travels so that they don't make the same mistakes he did. The sentiment is there, but it's lost by just how little actually happens. Looking back at the film overall, the plot isn't all that complicated, mostly centering around the father's resentment of his eldest son, resulting in the father making a rash decision with negative consequences. However, it feels hollow and never really landed in any meaningful way. 

Nefta Football Club


Director: Yves Piat
Country: France
Length: 17 minutes

What It's About

Two boys find a donkey in the middle of the desert listening to music and carrying bags of white stuff, which they decide to take.

How Is It?

I wouldn't call Nefta Football Club a comedy by any stretch of the word, but it is easily the funniest film of the nominees. Everything about Nefta seems to be ludicrous in just the right ways, not too unbelievable where I start to question the logic behind it all, but just strange enough where I can't help but laugh at how stupid some of these characters are. 

In case it wasn't obvious, the donkey is carrying several pounds of drugs meant to be delivered, but apparently the donkey was conditioned to walk across the desert to a specific point only when listening to Adele, so when one of the smugglers puts on the wrong song, comedy ensues. Two young boys find the drugs, and they proceed to figure out what to do with it. The eldest child realizes what it is and tries to pawn it off to some local gangsters while the youngest one just thinks its laundry detergent and is more interested in the free pair of headphones he got from the donkey.

If there was some great message to Nefta Football Club, it wasn't all that apparent. I can't help but feel that the movie was just an attempt to give a modern, light-hearted comedy of errors resulting in a punchline that seemed almost too perfect. No real violence, no gore, just a simple and effective slice-of-life.

Saria


Director: Bryan Buckley
Country: USA
Length: 23 minutes

What It's About

Based on true events, orphans Saria and Ximena undergo daily abuses at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala and plot an escape from the horrible living conditions there.

How Is It?

As the only film based on real life events, I was curious to see what Saria had in store, as I had no idea going into the movie about the events at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home. In real life, a fire began after an escape attempt by the children there that claimed the lives of 41 orphans. To this day, no one has been convicted of any wrongdoing and my guess is that Saria is an attempt to raise more awareness on the tragedy that took place. 

I can't speak for how accurate the depiction of the Safe Home is, but its portrayal in the movie is akin to a prison. The children do slave labor, sleep in sub-optimal conditions, get beaten, possibly used for sexual acts given the surprising amount of pregnant children on screen, and have a desire that they would rather die than go back to the Safe Home. Nearly every child actor on display gives off an aura of determination to escape from the orphanage and reclaim their own lives. The tragedy being that for many of them, it was never meant to be. 

Probably my favorite moment from the movie came right in the middle, once the children begin their escape plan. One girl, Saria, is standing over her teacher with a crowbar. Earlier in the movie, the teacher struck her for daring to talk back to her and sent her to be further punished to show a lesson to her class. As Saria stands over her, the teacher doesn't beg for her life or even cry. She just stares right at Saria with a look or pure indignation. She knows what she did, but she has no regrets for her actions. Saria drops the crowbar and focuses on her escape, but that single moment struck a real chord with me and I don't know why. All I know is that I remembered Saria way more than I did any of the other shorts after watching them.

The Neighbors' Window


Director: Marshall Curry
Country: USA
Length: 20 Minutes

What It's About

A middle-age mom develops a habit of staring at her new neighbor's apartment at night. Their new neighbors are young, sexy, and full of life -- a complete opposite of her life with her family. 

How Is It?

The Neighbors' Window goes to show that I shouldn't walk into a movie with set expectations. Based on the premise, as well as the first few minutes, one would think that this would be a pretty light-hearted fare of watching an older couple participate in some voyeurism and have a laugh. And it does at first. The opening moments are enjoyable in that regard, with the movie eventually shifting to focus on the older couple's own inadequacies while watching the hip new neighbors have sex, host parties, and not have kids. It's when the shoe finally drops that the movie becomes something else entirely.  

While our main couple still decides to look at the young couple, even buying a pair of binoculars, eventually the mother is the only voyeur and she begins to develop a sense of one-sided camaraderie with her neighbors. It's nice, especially how when life on the other side of the street becomes more tragic, that she's still there to support them and cheer for them indirectly. It culminates in a poignant moment where they finally do meet, but the resolution that they come to could have been established a bit better. It's revealed that while the older couple wished they could be like the younger couple again and have their old lives back, the younger couple were wishing the exact opposite as THEY watched them. They wished to have a family together and be happy, which is a sweet message, though one with a tinge of sadness after the events of the movie. The Neighbors' Window is a tragic piece, but left me with a sense of being thankful for what I have and who I love. 

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Filed under... #Academy Awards #live-action #Oscars #shorts

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