Released: January 31, 2020
Runtime: 101 minutes (5 short films)
Program: Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts for 2019
(Parental Discretion advised; strong language and occasional instances of sexuality — some including violence — would put this slate in Rated R territory)
There’s a stretch of categories during every Oscar telecast 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 through separate feature-length programs at movie theaters nationwide. On Friday January 31, all three packages will be released. Check your local listings, most likely at your city’s independent theater.
Below is a look at the five films nominated for Best Live Action Short Subject of 2019, ending with my prediction of Who Will Win.
A Sister (Une Soeur) (Belgium, 16 minutes)
dir. Delphine Girard
A superb example of the power that can come from directorial restraint, this mini-thriller from Belgium opens with a woman trapped in a car against her will, her captor driving to someplace unknown. To avoid suspicion, the kidnapper allows his victim to call her child’s babysitter. The woman uses the opportunity to call 911 instead, talking in coded language, as the operator on the other end (also a woman) picks up on the cues, striving to come up with a rescue plan.
Eschewing every genre stylistic trope imaginable, director Delphine Girard builds tension through raw austerity. By avoiding the heightened aesthetic flourishes we’ve come to expect from a movie like this (which is to say there’s nothing “Hitchcockian” about it, let alone resorting to cheap or gaudy TV procedural techniques), A Sister evokes a sense of fear and dread that’s all too real and palpable.
Brotherhood (Tunisia, 25 minutes)
dir. Meryam Joobeur
In the rural North African farmlands of Tunisia, Brotherhood is a quasi-Prodigal Son story set within a Muslim family. The grown son of a rural sheep farmer returns home after a year away in Syria fighting for ISIS. The dad and the family, which includes a mother and two younger brothers, are not radicalized. They are Muslim but moderate and mainstream; the father especially feels betrayed by his eldest’s turn to terrorism.
Restrained, understated, yet brewing with tension, Brotherhood is not the typical clash of ideologies that one might expect. Instead, director Canadian-Tunisian director Meryam Joobeur tells a much more nuanced narrative, one that transcends the typical binaries to become something deeply poignant. It quietly crescendos to a cautionary conclusion, showing what can happen when we judge rather than communicate.
The Neighbor’s Window (U.S.A., 20 minutes)
dir. Marshall Curry
Leave it to an American filmmaker to provide the one nominee that feels amateur. With a premise of accidental voyeurism, The Neighbor’s Window is contrived at every step. It comes off like a sitcom writer’s desperate attempt at going serious. The lead actor’s hammy-yet-stilted performance doesn’t help, either.
A couple with a brood of three young kids has reached that stagnant phase of marriage, an simmering problem that gets triggered by noticing the vibrant life of a younger couple in the high-rise apartment across from theirs. The spontaneous sex and cool, hip parties of these unknown neighbors brings the banality of middle-class family life into an acutely-felt focus for the marrieds.
Every point here is forced, and the very premise hangs on a thread (or no threads, as it were, given the complete lack of curtains on all of the windows in the home of the frisky Millennials). Not a moment rings natural, spontaneous, or authentic (despite admirable efforts by two actresses in the climactic scene), especially as the story takes a desperately sentimental turn down the stretch. The Neighbor’s Window is a real eye-roller.
Saria (U.S.A./Guatemala, 23 minutes)
dir. Bryan Buckley
Set in a Guatemalan orphanage for girls, Saria is based on a true story of teenagers living in a strict, abusive Catholic-run boarding facility who yearn to escape.
Well-acted by real Guatemalan orphans – particularly the lead teen girl Estefanía Tellez – the performances earn our empathy as much as the frank-yet-sensitive filmmaking does. Director Bryan Buckley displays a strong cinematic eye, too, in this expertly rendered dramatization of girls who resort to a courageous if foolhardy act, born of desperate necessity, that eventually leads to a shocking, inhumane tragedy.
Nefta Football Club (France, 17 minutes)
dir. Yves Piat
Another Tunisia-set narrative, this time from a French filmmaker, NEFTA Football Club follows two young brothers who come across a stray donkey on the Algerian border…only to find out that it’s a drug mule carrying cocaine.
Even with the inherent perils considered (which are credibly portrayed), director Yves Piat mixes suspense and danger with a light touch – and it’s a welcome one, coming at the end of a heavy but mostly-impressive slate.
The Live Action Category is often a mixed bag at best every year, but this batch boasts four strong nominees and, at least, a fifth capped by a powerful acting moment.
With that considered, here is my prediction for who will win the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film of 2019:
From the caliber of filmmaking to the power of this gut-wrenching true story, Saria not only stands out in a strong field; it cries out for justice. That alone may be enough to sway Academy members to vote for it. I hope it does.