Oscars 2021: A Look at the Year’s Nominated Short Films

The most ballot-busting categories for Awards enthusiasts are almost always the short film categories. Usually the least seen by Oscar fans, and unpredictable in terms of Academy voter tastes, the short films yield a treasure trove of narrative and non-fiction storytelling, with fewer than 40 minutes. Winners in the short film categories include familiar names like Walt Disney, Hal Roach, Taylor Hackford, Andrea Arnold, and Nick Park.

Today we take a look at the nominees for Animated Short Film, Live-Action Short Film, and Documentary Short Subject.

Animated Short

Just as the Animated Feature category celebrates a variety of animation styles, this year’s Animated Shorts are an equally impressive mix. The decidedly kid-friendly Burrow from Madeline Sharfian is part of the PixarShorts collection on Disney+ and features a fiercely independent bunny who just wants to live by herself and enjoy a disco party in her bathroom, even as the neighbors try to invite her into communal living. The most unique of the collection, Adrien Merigeau’s Genius Loci is the only one of the five to include dialogue, and in French. It is a visceral, raw, and evocative journey through the experience of mental illness, told through an expansive color palette and recurring images.

A very different type of emotional experience, If Anything Happens I Love You is a devastating portrayal of a grieving couple who have recently lost a child. The emotions are deep and rich, and filmmakers Will McCormack and Michael Govier manage to find a hopeful note amid crippling sadness. Meanwhile, Erick Oh packs incredible detail, symbolism, and commentary into Opera, an allegory of the way capitalism has shaped world history, which does not adequately describe the ingenuity and complexity at play.

And then there is Yes-People from Gísli Darri Halldórsson. Perhaps the most relatable of the animated shorts after 13 months of pandemic-induced indoor living, this Norwegian film is also mostly dialogue-free as the different residents of an apartment building all make grunty noises in place of words. There are funny and unexpected moments in the day-in-the-life story of the mixed collection of neighbors.

In Summary

Image from IF ANYTHING HAPPENS I LOVE YOU — Courtesy of Netflix

Predicted to Win: If Anything Happens I Love You
Could Win: Opera

Live Action Short

This year’s Live Action Short Films are kind of a depressing mix, but with one hopeful exception. Some of these might have done better in a year that hadn’t been so hard and traumatizing.

Doug Roland’s Feeling Through has the distinction of being the most optimistic in the lineup. It also has the distinction of being the first film to cast a deafblind actor (with the exception of Helen Keller, who appeared in a story about her own life in 1919). Feeling Through follows Tereek, a young man who has nowhere to go and finds himself coming across and then helping Artie get home. It’s a heartwarming story of connection, empathy, and ability that manages to also avoid feeling overly sentimental.

Elivira Lind’s The Letter Room stars her husband Oscar Isaac as a prison guard who is assigned to scan prisoner communications for contraband and winds up becoming too enmeshed in one particular inmate’s story. A very different story that also involves law enforcement is Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe’s Two Distant Strangers, which is a timeloop movie in which a Black man wakes up every day to be killed again and again by the same white police officer. Certainly relevant to our current events, and using some effective humor and satire to tell the story, the one thing that may hold back Two Distant Strangers is the obvious and overwhelming sense that there is no way out.

Two international films round out the Live Action category. Farah Nabulsi gives us The Present, a film about a father who brings his young daughter along on an outing to buy his wife an anniversary present. But they are Palestinian and simple shopping trips are fraught with checkpoints and overly self-important Israeli soldiers, making this a powerful representation of the ways humans find to dehumanize one another. Which brings us to Tomer Shushan’s White Eye, in which an Israeli man named Omer walks out of a gym and sees the bicycle that was stolen from him a month ago. Filmed in one take, the story follows Omer from the bike’s discovery to a showdown with the man he believes to be the thief. It is well-choreographed story of how our tunnel vision can lead to failing to recognize the humanity in others.

Predicted to Win: Feeling Through
Could Win: Two Distant Strangers

Documentary Short

This year’s documentary short subject films are an astounding array of timely real world stories that range tend to focus on optimism and hope over hand-tied frustration. The most recent winners (Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), Period. End of Sentence, and Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405) in this category have highlighted women in different places and circumstances, and this is a fact that may once again come into play this year — or maybe not.

Anthony Giacchino brings us Colette, which follows 90-year-old French resistance fighter Colette Catherine as she makes her first trip to Germany to visit the concentration camp where her brother died years ago. Colette is a great documentary subject and her story is essential as new generations grow up ever farther departed from the horrors of the Holocaust.

For A Concerto Is a Conversation, Emmy-nominated composer Kris Bowers teams up with Ben Proudfoot to tell his own story as a kid who grew up playing piano and eventually went to Julliard. Bowers juxtaposes his own origin with that of his grandfather, Horace, who moved to Los Angeles in the era of segregation and managed to build himself a successful dry-cleaning business. The 13-minute doc features a conversation between the two men, and is overlaid with an original composition by Bowers. It is also produced by Ava DuVernay.

With more international stories, Anders Hammer brings us Do Not Split, an intense experience that puts viewers into the middle of the ongoing Hong Kong protests, witnessing the beatings and brutality enacted upon citizens fighting for freedom. And two-time Oscar nominee Skye Fitzgerald returns with Hunger Ward, the third in his Humanitarian Trilogy. This time, Fitzgerald traveled to Yemen to shine a light on the crisis in the war-torn country and the work of the doctors and nurses in two hunger wards who are fighting desperately to save children from starvation.

And finally, Sophia Nahli Allison brings us A Love Song for Latasha, a film that celebrates the memory of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl who was killed in 1991 after a shop owner falsely believed she had shoplifted. Her death was tragic and horrifying and contributed to the riots that would follow the next year in LA. But Allison’s documentary, while explaining the terrible circumstances of her death, focuses most on telling the audience who she was and remembering her name.

Image from A LOVE SONG FOR LATASHA — Courtesy of Netflix

Predicted to Win: A Love Song for Latasha
Could Win: A Concerto Is a Conversation

All of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films are available on demand through ShortsTV.

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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