Each year since 2009 (except for 2021’s pandemic lockdown marathon) I’ve paid visits to Keystone Art Cinema, the oldest surviving art-film theater in Indianapolis, to view the big-screen releases 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 I appreciate the opportunities to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether I agree with their collective opinions or not. Since 2019 I’ve also assigned myself the extra-credit activity of catching as many nominees for Best Documentary Short Film as possible, depending on their availability online. The good folks at Shorts.TV, who package the theatrical releases each year, are supposed to be releasing them for home rental sometime soon, which will be a nice way to save yourself some gas money.
First up: my rankings of this year’s five Best Animated Short Film nominees, which were the most mixed of mixed bags that I’ve seen in years, not to mention the edgiest and incontrovertibly NSFW-iest. Four are available online; one was exclusive to the Shorts.tv program.
Robin Robin (Netflix): Aardman Animations, those modern masters of slapstick, return with a half-hour adoption heart-warmer about an adorable robin voiced by Bronte Carmichael (Christopher Robin‘s daughter) who was raised by mice and taught to nick goodies from human households, provided she doesn’t sing while sneaking and remembers she can’t fit through teensy cracks. When she fouls up her family’s Christmastime heist and disappoints her mouse-dad (Adeel Akhtar, Enola Holmes‘ Lestrade), she plots a second try with a new accomplice, a greedy magpie (Richard E. Grant) with his own MacGuffin in mind…presuming they can get past home security, in the form of a persnickety cat voiced by Gillian Anderson still relishing her Thatcher accent from The Crown. If choosing the funniest, sweetest, and most harmless short of the pack as my favorite seems like an uncool cop-out, let it be known I refuse to abide by a world so cynical that it requires someone to mount a defense of the minds behind Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.
The Windshield Wiper (Short of the Week on YouTube, but edited for content): A bespoke gentleman in a diner eavesdrops on nearby loud parties and asks the Viewer at Home, “What is love?” From the painterly touch of animator Alberto Mielgo (a veteran of Spider-Verse and TRON: Uprising) vignettes follow, sliced and spliced in between each other, with some couples chattering away their time, some enjoying mutual happy silence, some separated by their machines, some permanently unrequited. Some are cute and some suffer cosmic irony (not always the funny kind). Survey responders include a young couple on a beach, a homeless man and a storefront mannequin, first sight at a motel, passing artists, a suicidal girl and other sufferers of disconnection. The bespoke man conjures his answer as the poetry wraps up to the solemn longing of Soko’s “We Might Be Dead by Tomorrow”.
(Bonus trivia: because I was dying to know, it took me a while to find the meaning behind the title, which Mielgo explained in an interview with Cartoon Brew: “When it rains while you’re driving, the windshield wiper creates a sort of pattern. Each time you clean, the pattern appears again but completely different. Love is like this. It’s always going to change. Maybe it’s called ‘flove’ the next time or ‘flaff’. Maybe we struggle so much with love because we try to define it. No one relationship is the same.”)
BoksBalet (“Boxballet”) (not yet available online, not even an official site): From Russia comes a hand-drawn love story of sorts between a rail-thin ballet dancer and a hulking heavyweight boxer. Each of them performs fancy footwork for large audiences, but one’s depiction of conflict is more graceful and less jarring than the other. Can these attracted opposites make it in this crazy world? Eh, probably. If it works out, chalk up another win for us unconventionally shaped underdogs.
Affairs of the Art (The New Yorker‘s YouTube channel): The first new short in fifteen years from the team of Joanna Quinn and Les Mills is like a Plympton-esque pilot for a raunchy British sitcom about two sisters with very different ideas about art. One uses her body as the canvas, the other as her medium. In childhood they took turns exchanging wacky traumas through their expressive experiments with inappropriate sketches and abuse of animals both living and dead, among other hobbies. The outermost boundaries of your penchants for ageism and body-shaming will be rigorously tested, as well as your tolerance for provincial folks dabbling in performance art.
Bestia (Vimeo On Demand): Faintly macabre stop-motion examination of a porcelain-faced woman who has some kind of offscreen job working for a stern man who sits at a mostly empty table in a large house, and who spends her time off getting far, far too cozy with her pet dog. Absolutely nowhere within the short itself are we told it’s inspired by the true story of a notorious, high-ranking Chilean torturer whose brutality was never brought to mortal justice. I was the only member of our party who read up on Bestia prior to our showing and consequently the only one who came away with a response other than bafflement.
In previous years the theatrical Animated Short program would include extra “Highly Commended” shorts that were nearly nominated but missed the cut. The lengthy total run time for this year’s quintet negated the need for using such honorable mentions as padding.
Next up, the nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film:
Ala Kachuu – Take and Run (official site): A student in Kyrgyzstan (Alina Turdumamatova), potentially college-bound and ready to reach for her dreams despite little enthusiastic response from her parents, is one day suddenly kidnapped, dragged out to the sticks, and forced into a wedding with a guy she’s never met, all of it orchestrated by the local matriarchy because it’s The Way Things Have Always Been Done ‘Round Here, even if the young guy they’re fixing up isn’t really into the victim, and it’s really a party when the bride’s parents give their blessing to the kidnapping and the raping. It seems like the premise for an A24 thriller, but the practice of arranged marriage via kidnap-‘n’-rape remains very much an active tradition in some Kyrgyz communities. It’s a credit to Turdumamatova’s performance, as a modern young lady who’s not about to simply shut up and smile and roll with it, that by the end of this powerfully enraging drama I was secretly hoping it would end with Our Heroine poisoning their bread, running her car through their ‘nap-rape shack, or exacting some old-fashioned machine-gunny payback.
The Long Goodbye (Riz Ahmed’s YouTube channel): A very, very close runner-up. Our Hero and his ordinary family enjoy a very nice and average day of togetherness and love and hanging out, and then in comes state-run, heavily armed xenophobia without proclamations or reason and within seconds everything is nightmarish white British savagery. A nine-minute incendiary sketch is prologue to Ahmed’s 2½-minute a cappella rap (“My ancestor’s Indian, but India was not for us / My people built the West, we even gave skinheads swastikas”), spat through pain and rage and gunshot wounds. It’s maybe the most righteously enraged I’ve seen him since The Night Of. This is the one short that works better online than at the theater because you can turn on subtitles and catch every single lyric.
Please Hold (HBO Max on March 17th, or so I’ve read?): A seemingly nice guy (Erick Lopez from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) is gently but firmly arrested by drone on charges TBD, sped through an efficiently unlistening automated triage system, held indefinitely in a cell with optional comforts sold a la carte, and onward turn the gears of humanity-free due process. Call it Microsoft Criminal Justice System. Depressingly amusing sci-fi satire from director/co-writer KD Davila (CBS’ Salvation) that’s like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil remade as a bottle episode and replacing nearly all the characters with apps.
Sukienka (“The Dress”) (official site): From Poland comes an initially bittersweet tale of a Dinklage-sized hotel maid (Anna Dzieduszycka) who dreams of having the same range of romantic prospects that she perceives normative-height women to have. With a little luck she finds some of what she’s been missing, then learns what else those other women go through in the worst way, and thus does she learn the grass is always greener, and so on. It’s well acted but alarmingly painful to watch by the end when a “nice guy” peels off his outer shell to reveal the reptile within.
On My Mind (The New Yorker‘s YouTube channel): A guy in Denmark walks into a bar when it isn’t karaoke night and offers them cash to turn on the machine and record him singing “Always on My Mind” for reasons of his own, involving neither a game show audition nor his TikTok channel. The reveal is easy to guess early, but no less the light, earnest tear-jerker for it. If you’re looking to lure old-fashioned viewers back to the Oscars and if they’re gifted enough to handle subtitled dialogue in between bits of clumsily growled English lyrics, this one would make a benign entry point to the proceedings.
And finally, the available nominees for Best Documentary Short Film. The fifth nominee, When We Were Bullies, will be airing March 30th, three days after the Oscars telecast, on HBO, which we don’t have. If it’s available for standalone rental before then, I’ll jump on it and add it to the lineup here. Unless or until then, the other four are:
Audible (Netflix): The trials and tribulations of the Maryland School for the Deaf football team. Sometimes it takes a while to find other schools who’ll agree to play them, but when they do, the MSD Orioles are a finely honed machine. Behind the scenes they’re close-knit and full of stories involving one (1) soul-crushing defeat that messes up their record, a deadbeat dad who turns his life around, and one teammate’s suicide. I’m not big on actual sports, but sports films are a different story. As examined through the lenses of filmmaker Matt Ogens (Meet the Hitlers), the Orioles will have you rooting for them on and off the field.
The Queen of Basketball (New York Times on YouTube): Also from the world of sports, submitted by director Ben Proudfoot (last year’s nominated A Concerto is a Conversation) and executive producer Shaquille O’Neal, making up for far too many tacky commercials. Our guest of honor is Hall of Famer Lusia Harris, once a six-foot-three player on the Delta State University team out of Mississippi, who — along with her teammates, she points out in all humility and fairness — won three championships in their division against tremendous odds, which later earned her a sincere recruiting call from the New Orleans Jazz that led to her being The First Woman Ever Officially Drafted Into The NBA. Her story diverges from the obvious direction, so there’s no wild climax with her trashing Larry Bird on a court. Ms. Harris is candid about the roads not taken, yet well aware of her place in history and overflowing with laughter as she happily tells you all about it. She was a delight to listen to.
Lead Me Home (Netflix): Interviews and dispiriting ride-alongs with West Coast homeless folks in L.A., San Francisco and Seattle, where little has changed with that crisis in the decades since Phil Collins’ video for “Another Day in Paradise”. Shots of high-rise downtown decadence and copious “FOR RENT” signs hung upon empty upscale apartments are juxtaposed with rows and rows and rows and rows of big-city camp-outs, which certainly look more detailed and disquieting than ever through 4K cameras. The same subject was covered in brief on tonight’s new episode of Mr. Mayor, which went one step further in acknowledging that some long-term problems defy quick fixes or relentless hectoring, but filmmakers Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk (Athlete A) do an exemplary job of letting their interviewees tell their own stories, when they’re comfortable enough to trust them.
Three Songs for Benazir (Netflix): A newlywed refugee who’s lived all his life in the outskirts of Kabul decides he really, really wants to be the first man in his tribe/family/circle to join the Afghani military and do his part. Without a formal education, the enlistment requirements aren’t easy. Also, that whole “newlywed” status means leaving his wife — and later their kids — to her own devices. You can’t blame the youngster for his enthusiasm, but his personal fight to defy rejection takes a sharp curve away from the either/or endings he might’ve imagined for himself and don’t leave the viewer with much reason to cheer. That’s nonstop wartime for you, as filmed before our forces fled the country. In some ways the post-fiasco follow-up interviews have been more interesting than the short itself.
…and those are the short that were. Coming soon: an even ridiculously longer rundown of the rest of my Oscar Quest ’22 viewing experience. It’s me, it’s who I am and what I do, even if people look at me funny whenever I bring it up and no one else is watching any of this stuff, not even the freebies. Not that I’m bitter!