Each year since 2009* my wife Anne and I have paid a visit to Keystone Art Cinema, the only fully dedicated art-film theater in Indianapolis (for now), to view the big-screen release of the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film. Results vary each time and aren’t always for all audiences, but we appreciate this opportunity to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether we agree with their collective opinions or not.
(* Sadly, Anne missed last year’s appointment, but she returned this year and didn’t seem to regret it.)
As it happens, this year’s live-action lineup is the strongest I’ve seen in years, with nary a clunker or a repulsive moment of graphic sadism among them. (Some years have been better than others in that respect.) And now, we present our ranking of this year’s five nominees from cutest to most heart-rending:
* Nefta Football Club: A teenager and his kid brother take a break from neighborhood soccer practice to run a motorbike errand through a desolate part of Tunisia. Along the way they chance upon a stray mule wearing headphones and saddlebags toting several packs of white powder. One concocts a risky plan that might be their ticket out of poverty. The other one has a better idea. I could see the last laugh coming, but it is a big one, because what’s euphoria to some can often be a useful tool to others. Bonus points for a next-level gag involving Adele.
* Une Soeur (“A Sister”): A Belgian emergency operator (at whatever their number for 911 is) receives a call from a distraught young lady acting as if she’s talking to her own sister. It takes a few beats for the operator to realize it’s not a prank call or a delusional episode. It’s a cry for help. A low-key intro of nighttime driving turns into something far creepier as the audience’s tension level slowly tightens and catches up to the passenger’s, while the operator has to figure out how to stall for time so her teammates can employ modern locator tech for a rare noble reason. A proud shout-out to the responders out there charged with handling real-life messes exactly like this.
* Ikhwéne (“Brotherhood”): The family of a Tunisian sheepherder receives news that their oldest son is returning home after fighting in a war not far away. His two kid brothers are excited; his parents, not at all. Then we see he brought company. Then we learn which war. Then we learn which side. And writer/director Meryam Joobeur keeps landing a new gut-punch every five minutes in this increasingly wrenching conflict whose issues could be negotiated (though maybe not solved) if the adult males would at least JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER, but they won’t because that’s how males are in every hemisphere. A harsh examination of which flaws a family can accept and which ones they will simply not abide.
(Side note: as a film location for two of these nominees, I’m wondering if Tunisia is determined to become Africa’s answer to Vancouver or Atlanta…)
* The Neighbors’ Window: Writer/director Marshall Curry, a frequent short-film Oscar nominee (including last year’s chilling mini-doc A Night at the Garden), returns with a tale of two NYC apartments separated by one street and not much else. Maria Dizzia (Orange is the New Black) and Greg Keller are Alli and Jacob, an over-30 couple whose mundane routines are interrupted when a hot younger couple moves into a spacious flat across the way and refuses to cover their Instagram-shaped windows because apparently drapes and blinds are for boomers. Alli and Jacob don’t think they’re pervs, yet they can’t stop staring at the free peepshow. It’s like they’ve become followers of the same social media influencers, then quibble over who’s clicking on their photos too often.
What could’ve turned into Cinemax Presents Rear Window subtly pivots as seasons pass, fates change, and an unexpected development interrupts their daily coveting. Held at a remove from today’s internet that often benefits the exhibitionists more than the voyeurs, we’re reminded people-watching isn’t always a one-way exchange and that sometimes the people you treat like cheap entertainment need you to stop your passive gawking and start talking to them.
* Saria: Based on the true story of a 2017 incident at a Guatemalan orphanage, the cruel kind that might’ve been put out of business years ago if there’d been a Latin American 60 Minutes getting on their case. Amid the squalor and abuse, a group of teenage girls planned a daring escape from their wretched overseers involving a convenient tree and a helping hand from the boys on the other side. If you have no idea what event is being portrayed, then you’ll be as stunned as we were at what followed after one final act defiance.
Director Bryan Buckley previously showed up in this category with his 2012 short Asad. In that one, he cast real Somali refugees to reenact a selection of horrors from back home. Here, teens from an actual area orphanage dramatize the fates of girls just like them who didn’t deserve what was inflicted upon them. The end credits pay tribute to all forty-one by name, making it all the harder for the viewer to maintain their composure.