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. This year my wife and adult son also accompanied me on the journey even though my annual Oscar Quest is not their problem.
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. But first up: my rankings of this year’s five Best Animated Short Film nominees, once again a mixed bag. For the second year in a row, the five nominees ran so long that no “Highly Commended” runners-up were packaged with the program. Links are provided where available in non-bootlegged form.
An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It (not officially streaming, but took three seconds to find online tonight): An Aardman-esque meta-romp with a Flight of the Conchords awkward vibe, concerning an office drone who realizes he’s a stop-motion character surrounded by props, half-finished characters, his own spare parts, and an incongruent ostrich. A solid art-vs.-artist riff in the vein of “Duck Amuck” and “Rabbit Rampage” chooses an inventive camera setup and, to my surprise, explains the ostrich.
My Year of Dicks (director Sara Gunnarsdottir’s Vimeo channel): Longtime MCC readers know of my prudery and may have noticed I never seem to review or mention works with profanities in their titles. This one’s been so ubiquitous lately that I’m trying to discern whether or not it’s officially come off the standard strong-language list that once included former offenders such as “crap” and “sucks”. (I’ve met folks who’re still offended by those. Believe it or not!) Raunchiness in general is not my thing, but once in a blue moon comes an exception I’m not supposed to make. This five-chapter quasi-memoir from the life and mind of screenwriter Pamela Ribon (Moana, Ralph Breaks the Internet), set in 1991 when she was a teen in search of her First, is a tour through her failed dalliances and culminates in a painfully hilarious scene when her dad gives his version of The Talk a few years too late and leaves her exploding from embarrassment. Our family understandably refused to discuss this later, except I had to explain some ’90s relics to my son, like straight edgers and Cool as Ice. Against my better judgment it’s the funniest of all the shorts in this entire entry and only one thing kept me from ranking it #1: my own shame.
Ice Merchants (The New Yorker’s YouTube channel): A father and child who live in the mountains and sell ice to, I suppose, nearby villagers who don’t own appliances, until a climate change metaphor starts giving them supply chain issues. Or maybe it isn’t a metaphor. Its strict, striking, tri-tone palette and dexterous stylings feel like a natural fit for a Fantagraphics graphic novel, though normally an action-packed looming disaster wouldn’t be their bag, especially if the day is saved by, of all things, a family tradition.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (Apple TV+): Every generation needs its version of Gentle Kid and His New Gentle Animal Friends Face Gentle Threats in a Gently Unkind World. The idyllic snowbound setting is a beauty to behold, as are the eponymous characters delineated in a style evoking Bill Watterson inked by Mark Buckingham. The cast list is short yet stellar, featuring Idris Elba, Gabriel Byrne, and Tom Hollander (AMC’s The Night Manager, as well as a previously Oscar-nominated short film). I’d rather not be ungentle toward it, but the quartet spend much of the 32-minute runtime trading comforting aphorisms and Gaiman-esque non-witty witticisms (*We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside”), again and again and again and again, as if they’re taking turns pulling pages off an inspirational desktop calendar. After a while I found myself making up my own platitudes to see how closely I could predict theirs. My amateur recommendation: commit to one Deep Thought per short and build to it.
The Flying Sailor (The New Yorker): A cel-painted seaman in a cut-paper stop-motion world is caught in a massive ship explosion that sends him soaring high, tumbling helplessly through the air while life, the universe and everything flash before his eyes. The preciousness of life and the fragility of our world are familiar topics ’round every Oscar season, but this one buries the stunning lede in its end credits: a dedication to “Charlie Mayers, a sailor who, in the Halifax Explosion of 1917, flew over 2 kilometres and lived to tell about it.” That makes it possibly the most accurate Film Based on a True Story of 2022.
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Next up, the nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film:
The Red Suitcase: A young Iranian named Ariadne (Nawelle Ewad from Netflix’s The Takedown) arrives in wondrously shiny France and is not excited to be there. All she has is an appointment with a stranger, a yearning to escape, and a single suitcase that means everything to her and yet might ruin everything for her. Director Cyrus Neshvad subtly reveals details one by one, gradually revealing Ariadne’s gauntlet and the airport environment whose nooks and crannies hide her but whose vastness complicates her escape. Soon you’re rooting for her to find just one lousy exit…and even then, the chase isn’t over and she’ll be forced to choose which heartbreaking sacrifice is the least worst to make: everything she owns or everything she wants to be.
Ivalu: Anders Walter, co-writer/director of the 2013 Live-Action Short nominee Helium, returns to the category (co-directing with Pipaluk K. Jørgensen) with another tale of a child traversing scenic panoramas as a means of coping with a harsh reality. Drawn from a Danish graphic novel, a young Greenlander named Pipaluk (Mila Heilmann Kreutzmann) searches for her missing sister for miles around. She seeks her here, she seeks here there, she seeks Ivalu everywhere. Any viewer familiar with the Law of Economy of Characters won’t take long to guess what’s happened (honestly, if you watch the trailer too closely it practically screams MISTER POLICE, I GAVE YOU ALL THE CLUES), but realizing the horrible truth doesn’t negate the tragedy at hand, the real-life situations it resembles, or Greenland’s juxtaposition of stark beauty and answerless desolation everywhere you turn.
An Irish Goodbye: Two Northern Irish brothers cope with the death of their mom, played fleetingly by Michelle Fairley (Gangs of London! Game of Thrones! Hermione Granger’s onetime mom!). The oldest (Seamus O’Hara, who had small parts in Game of Thrones and The Northman) has to decide what to do with the family farm and his brother Lorcan, who isn’t in a position to live on his own…but who also isn’t ready to move on. Lorcan gets his hands on Mom’s 100-item bucket list and refuses to cooperate with his big brother till they’ve done every single thing. Writer/directors Tom Berkeley and Ross White show a black-humored flair not as razor-edged as Martin McDonagh’s as they montage their way through seriocomic mishaps that land with more sincerity and slightly less contrivance than that Nicholson/Freeman contraption from a while back.
Nattrikken (“Night Ride”) (The New Yorker): Norwegian director Eirik Tveiten takes us on a ride through nighttime Trondheim, where a freezing little woman named Ebba (Sigrid Kandal Husjord) tries to warm up inside an empty tram while the driver’s on break, only to inadvertently take off down the track with it. Next thing she knows, she’s picking up passengers and trying to fake-it-till-she-makes-it. When two dudebros start bullying another rider, Ebba soon realizes that with big things come big responsibilities, whether they’re heavy vehicles or the people around us who need help. It’s frustrating when she slowly yet realistically has to talk herself into being more than a passive bystander, as we’re screaming for her to summon courage more quickly — y’know, like they’re supposed to do in movies! Even though many of us might likewise be slow to wade into confrontation. A tender moment of regret and sympathy follows, coinciding with the sort of clever laugh that’s a tidy way to bridge the idealistic gap between altruism and karma.
Le pupille (“Pupils”) (Disney+): In recent years it hasn’t been unusual for Disney/Pixar to miss out on the Animated Short Film category, but how long has it been since they crept into the Live-Action one? Since the ’60s, maybe? Anyway, here they are thanks to director Alice Rohrwacher with an Italian WWII comedy about a Catholic girls’ orphanage where a middle-aged widow has gifted them with an eye-poppingly decadent cake that took 70 eggs to make (which ironically would’ve cost a fortune then and now). The sisters, some more caricatured than others (and one with a bigger unexplained secret than the rest) are hesitant to permit them to touch it because, of course, anything too extravagant and pleasurable is Satanic by definition. They have holier matters to tend to, such as their annual Christmas tradition of forcing the girls to dress up in raggedy angel costumes and pose in a Nativity set for hours on the big day. “LOL Catholics suck” has been the stuff of many an effective drama (from the religion that necessitated Spotlight), but as the viewpoint alternates between the sisters’ foibles and the orphan majority who bully any tykes among them who dare heed even the more benign rules (alas, poor Serafina), the message gets muddled, the cake’s final fate falls somewhere between cosmic irony and Monty Python because-why-not slapstick, and even its own characters admit at the end — like, literally with a musical number — even they don’t get the point of it all. Their whimsical indifference doesn’t quite compel us to make one up ourselves.
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And finally, the available nominees for Best Documentary Short Film. The missing nominee, How Do You Measure a Year?, has no streaming announcements as of this writing. Its director Jay Rosenblatt had a similar problem with his nominee last year, When We Were Bullies, which didn’t air till weeks after the ceremony…and even then, only on HBO, which we don’t have. If it’s available for standalone rental before the ceremony, I’ll jump on it and add it to the lineup here. Unless or until then, the other four shorts, all of which are streaming and all of which I highly recommend, are:
Stranger at the Gate (The New Yorker): Many years ago 70 minutes northeast of us, a hulking veteran returned from his Middle East tours of duty to his home in Muncie and — struggling with a combination of PTSD and hardened, ingrained, institutional conditioning about who or what constitutes The Enemy — made plans to bomb the local mosque. When part of his reconnaissance included a sneaky visit inside, the members he met — a combination of refugees and lifelong Hoosiers — diverted him toward a radically different path he never could’ve dreamed of, one engendering 100% less violence and jail time. I don’t know the Koran’s version of Proverbs 15:1, but the stirring testimony to the power of bold, kind words in the face of wrath, as well as the joy of community in action, speaks volumes against the hatred created by broad generalizations and offers an alternative to the poor salves that we try in vain to apply to our deepest emotional damages.
The Elephant Whisperers (Netflix): Two caretakers at an Indian elephant reserve deal with their ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they vibes while they find themselves entrusted to handle a pair of baby elephants, an extreme rarity because such youngsters tend to die early and easily when separated from the herd. Their trials, tribulations, and feel-good triumphs have the advantage of absolutely lovely cinematography that brings their lush surroundings to life and make it easy to cheer for each duo far more enthusiastically than anyone did for that superfluous Dumbo remake.
Haulout (The New Yorker): A Siberian researcher whiles away the days in his meager shack through an endless string of gray days until the day comes when his subjects arrive for study. The camera stumbles around in a dark corner until he opens the door and, lo and behold, what’s come a-knockin’ are ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND FRICKIN’ WALRUSES mooing and bumping and writhing all around the place. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND OF THEM. THEY COUNTED THEM. WITH WALRUSOLOGICAL HEAD COUNTERS. In Earth’s better days they had plenty of lands to choose from when it was time for the landlubber segment of their annual mating rituals, but fewer icebergs and fewer lands above water available to them in recent times means they have to converge on the fewer refuges available. You can be all “LOL climate change believers suck” if you want, but ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND FRICKIN’ WALRUSES are not all showing up in the same spot just because someone’s throwing a walrus comic-con and they invited Wally Walrus to sign autographs and plug a Woody Woodpecker reboot.
The Martha Mitchell Effect (Netflix): When high-ranking Republican minions staged the first Watergate Hotel break-in, I was eleven days old and missed all the headlines. A plethora of historical works have aimed to catch me up to speed ever since, including this tightly focused spotlight on a figure who, depending on whom you ask, was either peripheral or integral to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General and co-conspirator John Mitchell, kept a high profile as a welcome guest on talk shows and other TV spots (clips include game shows and a Laugh-In sketch with Lily Tomlin). Realizing she might become a candid tattletale who’d get them all in trouble, someone on Team Watergate thought it best to keep her under wraps against her will during their illegal shenanigans. After it all went down, sure enough, she went there as those same talk shows invited her back to talk turkey and trash. Her rabble-rousing rated multiple mentions in Nixon’s infamous tapes and, as suggested by the filmmakers and by Nixon himself in an interview, was ultimately among the loudest voices to sway opinions and tempers to call for his disgraced exit. They never taught us her name in school (or much history beyond the Civil War, for that matter), but considering someone named an actual psychotherapy situation after her corroborated kidnapping and subsequent gaslighting ordeal, she was far more than some rich felon’s voiceless trophy sidekick.
…and those are the short that were. Coming sometime in the next two weeks: an even longer rundown of the rest of my Oscar Quest ’23 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!