The MCC 2021 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Short Film Revue

"Two Distant Strangers" short film

Two strangers from “Two Distant Strangers”, but not the actual distant ones in the title. Points for dramatic irony.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover

Each year since 2009 my wife Anne and I have paid a visit to our city’s singular, fully dedicated art-film theater 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.

This year’s environment threw a wrench into the works. On the bright side, by the end of the pandemic Indianapolis may have as many as three such theaters to its credit if our old standby and the two hopeful newcomers can stay solvent till then. On the downside…well, there’s that notorious pandemic. Unlike certain Best Picture producers we could denigrate here, the folks at Shorts.tv, which packages the nominees for theatrical release each year, realizes not everyone is ready for theaters yet, and won’t be for a good while to come, not even for Oscars season. In their benevolent cognizance they made special arrangements to let email followers of participating theaters rent streaming access to this year’s shorts for a limited time and a fair price, with the respective theaters receiving a cut of our proceeds. Those theaters get a little help living a little longer, and in exchange so do we…

Our annual shorts rundowns continue with the Live-Action Short Film nominees, ranked from Most Adrenalizing to Most Side-Eyed. Relevant links are included where applicable. As a value-added bonus, the following week after the Oscar Shorts were released in theaters, our first two nominees hit Netflix and increased their potential audience hundredfold.

* Two Distant Strangers: A young Black man named Carter (rapper Joey Bada$$) wakes up one sunny morning when all is right with the world, only to watch a series of minor foul-ups escalate into a deadly street-side nightmare involving a pasty, trigger-happy cop (Andrew Howard, the Red Scare from HBO’s Watchmen). Things end in a brutally 2020 fashion. Then Carter wakes up again that same sunny morning and all is right with the world again. Until it isn’t again. A bit on the nose, as perpetual cycles of senseless violence go.

Groundhog Day has been skillfully inverted for other genres such as military sci-fi (Edge of Tomorrow) and raunchy sex comedy (Palm Springs). This time co-directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe (a previous nominee in this category for the 2012 Afghan drama “Buzkashi Boys”) structure theirs as a horrifying Twilight Zone episode entrenched in the current moment. Carter tries changing every single moment of his day in dozens of permutations in hopes of seeing a brighter future, or any future, but sooner or later Officer Y.T. Joykiller’s rigid script wins out over his desperate improv, leading up to an extremely Spike Lee ending that affirms we sometimes need to fight for change even when — and especially if — the other side would rather set the negotiating table on fire than sit at it.

"The Present" Palestinian short film

Elsewhere in the 21st century: kids in cages, Eastern Hemisphere edition.

* The Present: A happy father and daughter in Palestine take a long walk to some shops down the road for some food and a big surprise gift for Mom. Standing between them is an Israeli military checkpoint where you’d better have your papers in order or else. Guess who forgets them. And a little girl’s grocery list decorated with hearts and stick figures does not count as “papers”. It is not the best day ever, especially on the return trip when one piece of problematic cargo may well send one side or the other over the edge.

Tranquil scenes of family shopping fun are a gentle change of pace from the gritty Middle East dramas that Oscar voters love, and a reminder that not every locale over there is an endless stretch of bombed, blood-soaked ruins. And yet the specter of internecine animosity lurks around the corner, just waiting for an excuse to open fire as if they’re Facebook friends with Officer Joykiller. It’s a little facile to see the day being saved at the end by a plucky dose of Girl Power winning out against macho armed bureaucracy, but as with Two Distant Strangers, it’s also inspiring to see a determined underdog exhibiting strong problem-solving skills, taking huge risks, and exemplifying hope.

"Feeling Through" short film.

My coworkers and readers whenever I bring up the Oscars.

* Feeling Through: Viewers who shy away from confrontation may take a shine to this comfier take on relations between disparate strangers. After a long night hanging out with friends, a homeless teen is close to finding a place to stay when he comes across a deafblind gentleman (played by deafblind actor Robert Tarango) who needs assistance finding and catching the next bus home after a date. After about six seconds of mild internal conflict, it’s a charitable no-brainer that he can’t just walk away from someone in need at 1:30 a.m., because it’s good to take time out from our own problems to help others with theirs, selflessly (well, mostly) and without wasting time worrying who’s worse off.

Writer/director Greg Roland based the story on an actual experience he had, and now passes it along as an educational eye-opener for anyone (like me) whose knowledge of the world of deafblindness begins and ends with Helen Keller. It engenders appreciation for kindness of strangers wherever it’s still possible, and slight envy of larger cities whose mass transit is so well funded that they can even offer bus service after midnight. Must be nice.

(Useless tangential trivia: Roland is also an actor, and once played Greg Grunberg in an episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories. I feel like I need to write this down right now because it will become useful knowledge years from now in some unpredictably cosmic Slumdog Millionaire kind of way.)

Oscar Isaac in "The Letter Room".

Sure, we could’ve used Oscar Isaac as our lead photo and doubled our click-through rate, but it was neither the worst nor the best short. Countdown order matters, people.

* The Letter Room: Writer/director Elvira Lind goes behind the scenes in prison where a guard looking for new duties (Lind’s husband Oscar Isaac, costar of the 2004 film Lenny the Wonder Dog) is transferred to their mailroom. His new job is to open all incoming letters, upload them to digital storage for recordkeeping purposes, and screen then for harmful matter. It’s monotonous work as most letter-writers to prisons are unpublished amateurs, but one series of potentially worrisome love notes to a death row inmate catch his attention and convince him maybe he should do something. In a smaller subplot, a much friendlier convict (Tony Award nominee John Douglas Thompson) frets because he hasn’t received any letters from his daughter in years and is convinced they could’ve gotten lost in the system. Once again maybe the day could be saved by Oscar Isaac, Mail Cop.

Whereas the term “cringe comedy” has been used to describe The Office and other shows, this short qualifies as “cringe drama”. Our Hero is a single guy with a lot of time on his hands and nothing better to do. He sees people in need and tries to act based on the limited information available to him. The white-knight impulse is strong in some folks who decide the right thing to do is insert themselves into other people’s troubles. Sometimes we can make a difference. Sometimes our meddlesome nosiness can make things worse. Sometimes we just look silly. His good intentions lead to a strained chat with Alia Shawkat (First Cow, Arrested Development) and a “That’s it?” kind of ending that implies either a humanitarian point about incarceration has been accomplished or this is all setup for some future sitcom in which Poe Dameron becomes a heroic mail monitor with klutzy results.

"White Eye" Israeli short film.

Scene from a hard-hitting remake of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

* White Eye: A single tracking shot follows a man in Israel who finds his stolen bike chained up outside a meatpacking plant and learns it was bought from a shady vendor by an Eritrean refugee. The Israeli knows the bike is his and jumps to the conclusion that the Eritrean stole it. The Eritrean needs the bike for work and survival, shelled out a lot of his earnings for it, didn’t understand why it was such a bargain, and is, in the parlance of currently favored euphemisms, undocumented.

One man’s indignation up against one nervous man’s halting grasp of the local language results in a lot of cross-talk that worsens when the Eritrean’s supervisor intervenes with a muddled argument to the effect of, “Since it was stolen, that means it isn’t yours anymore, right?” as if he’s now effectively donated the bike as an act of compulsory charity, and suggests with a straight face that it would be awfully nice if he would agree to buy it back and let the whole matter drop. Yadda yadda yadda, here come the police who ironically demonstrate their systems are more effective at pinpointing illegal immigrants than they are at verifying bicycle registration.

Again we have a story with two distant strangers, economic and sociopolitical disparities, and a major communication breakdown among parties. We can imagine a better outcome if only a heroic mediator had stepped in from the shadows and negotiated a solution more amenable to all, or even went one better and valiantly pursued and caught the real thief and brought him to justice. Without a simplifying savior gratuitously inserted, everyone’s tensions roil over into a realistic hot mess.

I might’ve been more sympathetic if I hadn’t been so thoroughly distracted by the one-shot filming method itself, watching the mechanics of that ceaselessly roving camera and wondering if we’d ever seen an edit or if it would persist for the full duration of the short. That digression in turn disconnected me from the attempted sympathetic outreach and freed up the logistical side of my brain to invest several petty minutes in wondering if Possession of Stolen Property isn’t a crime in Israel as it is here, because that discussion, much like the real thief himself, never comes up once. It also didn’t help that the Eritrean is held aloft as a one-note symbol of Refugees Who Need Our Help rather than as a three-dimensional individual in his own right.

And in conclusion, all these irrelevant little things that we let get in the way make it all the harder for everyone to, like, just get along.

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