Academy Award short films
Matthew Kauffman Smith’s guide and why you might like them
There are certain Academy Award categories that scream “bathroom break,” “I need a salty snack,” or “stop ignoring the kids.” For me, it’s film editing, sound editing, and sound mixing.
Though I would rank it last of all nominees, this year’s nominees were all well done, and even the fifth best is worth watching.
I used to not care about short films either, until theaters recently started showing them leading up to the Academy Awards. Even though the awards have come and gone, none of these films received a ton of hype; they still offer fresh viewing. All of the short films are available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon, and elsewhere, including eight of 10 of the films bundled together in one purchase (currently least expensive on Amazon and Google Play). It’s worth the price, especially given the high quality of live action short films this year. If you seek out one or all, here is a primer.
Live action shorts
Academy Award winner: The Silent Child. This is a story about a family whose youngest daughter, Libby, is deaf. The parents make no attempt to engage her in a way she can understand and do not want to learn sign language. They enlist the help of a social worker, Joanne, who forms a bond with Libby by teaching her sign language, despite the family’s preference of teaching Libby to read lips. The movie is a bit heavy handed and sometimes feels like a public service announcement. Though I would rank it last of all nominees, this year’s nominees were all well done, and even the fifth best is worth watching.
My pick: DeKalb Elementary. This gripping movie is based on the true story of a school receptionist’s interaction with a would-be school shooter. Based on the actual 911 conversation the receptionist had, this is a story of empathy, compassion, and humanity. It is extremely intense but is well worth squirming uncomfortably in your seat. The movie relies on minimal dialogue and maximum tension without overplaying what is unfolding on screen.
Other notes: On an intensity scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most intense, DeKalb Elementary, My Nephew Emmett, and Watu Wote (All of Us) all receive a 6. Watu Wote, also a true story, depicts the hijacking of a bus that is carrying Christians and Muslims and the fallout of that trip. My Nephew Emmett is the true story of Mose Wright, an African American who in 1955 tried to stand up to racial hatred after his nephew Emmett Till was accused of whistling at a white woman. These are all well-made films with powerful messages. The fifth nominee, The Eleven O’Clock, provides the comic relief when a psychiatrist sees a patient who thinks he is also a psychiatrist.
Academy Award winner: Dear Basketball. Once again, my least favorite of the five won the award. The hand-drawn animation is well done and worthy of praise, but retired hoops star Kobe Bryant’s open letter to basketball isn’t that interesting. Granted, I have always cheered against Bryant’s former team, the Los Angeles Lakers, so I’m biased and probably bitter that no one will ever make an Oscar-nominated movie about the Indiana Pacers. But speaking of bias, a large chunk of Academy members live in the Los Angeles area and went to games to cheer on Kobe. Dear Basketball definitely had the home court advantage.
My pick: The best animation is from the French frog noir film—yes, you read that correctly—Garden Party. The animated frogs and toads look amazingly realistic and bright, which offsets the film’s brooding music and grim undertones. As visual art, it is great. As a story, it is decent. As much as I would love to back something independent, my vote is for Pixar’s Lou, a story of a creature from the school lost and found who confronts a playground bully and tries to teach him a lesson in compassion.
Other notes: If you have a subscription to Netflix, Revolting Rhymes, based on stories by Roald Dahl, is available and worth checking out. Dahl’s take on traditional nursery rhymes is engaging, and the animation is top-notch as well. I had a soft spot for the French film Negative Space, which is a stop-motion story about a boy who learns to pack suitcases from his father.
Watching all of the films made me stay in my seat for the shorts categories. After all, I had already made popcorn during the presentation of the sound mixing award.
While unrated, I would rate the live action films PG-13 and the animated ones PG (though I’m not sure younger children will enjoy the end of Garden Party). With the exception of the 29-minute Revolting Rhymes, all the animated features clock in at 7 minutes or less. The live action films all hover around 20 minutes, except for The Eleven O’Clock, which is 13 minutes. Mom and Dad: yes.