When I see the list of films that have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, I’m dismayed. I’ve seen about half of them. They were decent, but none of them stood out to me as worthy of great honors. I believe the feature film as a storytelling device is in steep decline, replaced by the limited or recurring series streaming or on cable television.
But I still love going to the movies. Which is why I turned my attention to the Oscar Nominated Short Films.
For the past two years after seeing the short films, I’ve come away saying I’m not doing this next year. The nominated films, usually four or five from around the world, have recently been bleak beyond depressing. I’ve got nothing against the dark, but these short films suddenly all want to be tragedy porn.
I went anyway. I keep hoping for that cinematic gem that is original or offers the kind of taut, honed storytelling you can only achieve in a short film format.
There were five films nominated this year for the Academy Award, none of them from the United States, although the Italian entry was produced by Disney. Only the film from Ireland is in the English language. There were also entries from Norway, Denmark, and Luxembourg. Apparently, Europe rules over the short film.
Here’s my take:
The Irish Goodbye
This dark comedy is about two brothers reuniting in the Irish countryside after the death of their mother. Big brother lives in England, and little brother, who has Down’s Syndrome, lived with his mother on the farm. The brothers clash over the future of the farm and the little brother being forced to live with an aunt now, but they bond over completing a bucket list of things their mother wanted to do before she died. Stuff like tai chi and going up in a hot air balloon. Turns out little brother made up the list. There’s also an obnoxious priest. The film isn’t very funny, veers too far into heartfelt territory, and delivers an obvious, uninspired ending.
Last year, one of the most depressing films featured a dwarf, and when Night Ride opened with a dwarf character, I held my breath. On a cold snowy night in Norway, she’s waiting for the trolley at a suburban stop, but when the driver shows up, he locks the door and heads inside the station for his break. The dwarf breaks into the tram to stay warm and ends up heading out on a joyride (not sure why), even picking up passengers at other stations. One passenger is a trans woman who gets bullied by a couple of male passengers. After first turning a blind eye, the dwarf steps up to resolve the situation, one marginalized and persecuted minority helping another. The film builds tension as we wonder about the fate of the two characters, but what starts out as a comic theft of the train turns into a transphobic melodrama.
This is the one Disney produced and its whimsical fingerprints and desire to charm are all over it. The story involves an Italian Catholic orphanage for girls during World War II. The whole thing is weirdly framed as the acting out of a written letter. The girls are a pleasure, and the Catholic nuns lording over them deploy their sharpest sword—shame. It’s Christmas time and the girls dress in costume and say prayers on request for people who stop by the orphanage. A cake is involved, and a few chimney sweeps, and it’s all pretty saccharine. I couldn’t get past the nuns who were even more terrifying than I remember from my own Catholic childhood.
This entry from Denmark is the adaptation of a graphic novel into a stunning screen story. It takes place in a remote village in Greenland. Pipaluk attempts to find her older missing sister, taking us on a tour of incredible landscapes and flashbacks to where the children played. Her youthful point of view and voice-over narration are compelling. But the sister remains missing and in a disappointment to me, which was telegraphed early on, the father sexually abused the older sister and she committed suicide by drowning herself. It’s rich and visually beautiful, but another case of tragedy porn.
The Red Suitcase
Clocking in at just seventeen minutes, this was the shortest film of the bunch and also the best. It takes place at the Luxembourg airport when a 16-year-old Iranian girl traveling alone realizes she can slip the man waiting for her in the terminal simply by removing her hajib and looking more western. The man had a deal with the girl’s father to purchase her to be his bride. A cat-and-mouse game ensues at the airport, with the girl finally giving him the slip. Now she’s alone with a very uncertain future ahead of her in a foreign city. The story is simple and you can taste the suspense.