(Parental Discretion advised)
During every Oscar ceremony, there’s a stretch of categories with nominees that virtually no one has ever even heard of, let alone seen: the shorts.
Divided into three competitive groups – Animated, Live Action, and Documentary – the Academy Award nominated shorts can make-or-break a person’s Oscar pool ballot.
Thankfully, for several years now, the slate of nominated shorts have been made available in separate feature-length programs to movie theaters nationwide. This year, many theaters (like Circle Cinema in my city of Tulsa) have debuted one program per week leading up to the Oscars.
Below is a look at the five films nominated as Best Live Action Short for 2017, ending with my prediction of Who Will Win.
DeKalb Elementary (USA, 20 minutes)
dir. Reed Van Dyk
Disturbing from the jump, this first appears to be about a school shooting spree. Mercifully it’s not, instead becoming a hostage situation in the school’s offices involving a mentally disturbed gunman and the school secretary. It still resonates on its own terms, even as the two-hander scenario starts to stretch a little thin as it goes. The acting, however, anchors the piece, as does director Reed Van Dyk’s laudable restraint.
The Silent Child (UK, 20 minutes)
dir. Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton
In what appears to be a government funded PSA about educating deaf children (they’re not mentally handicapped; they’re just deaf!), this is a bit manipulative as it paints the family of a six-year-old deaf girl excessively callous. Still, the message is important (as the end-credit stats reveal), the filmmaking is solid (some really well-shot sequences), and the connection between the girl and her sign language tutor really hits home.
My Nephew Emmett (USA, 20 minutes)
dir. Kevin Wilson
A clever and interesting perspective on a violent episode that helped spark the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th Century. It’s not about the murder but the lead-up to it, told from the vantage point of the victim’s uncle as he agonizes over a rumor he’s heard about his nephew, what could happen as a result, and the pain of not being able to stop it when it inevitably does. Director Kevin Wilson lingers a bit too often and too long during the uncle’s quiet, private moments, but the cinematography is stunning. Visually, it’s not hyperbolic to put it on par with the Oscar-nominated work seen in Mudbound.
The Eleven O’Clock (Australia, 13 minutes)
dir. Derin Seale and Josh Lawson
A temp secretary’s lack of knowledge leads to a comical mix-up at a psychiatrist’s office in this clever Aussie short. It’s a sketch-comedy concept that nearly overstays its welcome, but the co-directors have a dry Python-esque sensibility that drives the premise and two actors that keep it punchy. You see where it’s going almost from the start, but then it effectively messes with our assumptions to keep us guessing along the way.
Watu Wote / All of Us (Germany, 22 minutes)
dir. Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen
Based on a true story (like two of the other nominees), this dramatization of a terrorist incident in Kenya is probably the most effective of the batch (or, at least, the one that least belies amateur rough edges). It serves as a powerful reminder that, especially in a part of the world where Christians are persecuted by radical Muslims, not all faithful adherents to Islam are violent, and some – when a moment of truth comes at the end of a gun barrel – are even courageous.
As is often the case, 2017’s Live Action slate is a bit of a mixed bag, but on balance each film’s strengths are greater than their amateur edges, making for a generally solid program across the board.
And with that, my prediction for who will win the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film of 2017:
I’d originally predicted Watu Wote, but the more the recent Florida school shooting resonates in the culture – which hit a tipping point right during Oscar voting, no less – I think DeKalb Elementary will strike voters as particularly relevant and unnerving, especially in its effective, chilling opening moments.