Review: 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films - Live-Action

Aaron Neuwirth goes over his thoughts on the live-action short films nominated for Academy Awards. They range from tragic to comedic, with some great filmmaking to see.

While it’s been a challenge for the shorts branch to keep their films as a part of the Oscar broadcast, I am happy to write about them, as they continue to be some of the most ambitious and fascinating films to arrive in a given year. Finding ways to successfully tell a story, develop characters, or delve into a socially relevant topic in a relatively small amount of time is just as challenging as having two hours to do so. This sort of work often leads to the discovery of new talent, and regardless of what they move onto next, the films will remain to exemplify what’s possible on a cinematic level, regardless of scale. This post will focus on my reactions to the live-action short films nominated for Oscars at this year’s 92nd Academy Awards.

BROTHERHOOD

Synopsis: Mohamed is deeply shaken when his oldest son Malik returns home after a long journey with a mysterious new wife.

Despite being titled Brotherhood and featuring a freckled set of siblings who are most certainly related, this short is far more concerned with the eldest brother’s relationship with his father. Given the drawn-out nature of the story, that’s understandable. We learn just enough about the father’s concern and domineering nature, but perhaps too little about much else. The film is aided tremendously by the filmmaking, however. Great shots of the countryside prove to work in setting up a great atmosphere, as the film arrives at a finale that only makes me wish there was more to go off of, as this narrative reaches its abridged conclusion.

Directors: Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon
Country of Origin: Tunisia | Canada | Qatar | Sweden
Runtime: 25 Minutes
Language: Arabic

NEFTA FOOTBALL CLUB

Synopsis: In a Tunisian village, children are playing football on a wasteland. Meanwhile, Abdallah and Mohammed come across a donkey with headphones on his ears and bags full of white powder on his back. The two young brothers decide to bring those bags back to their village.

This short has plenty to offer in its enjoyable little package. There’s comedy, drama, some sports entertainment, and some delights in the way this story twists around. While the notion of innocent boys finding a literal drug mule in the desert could lead to dire consequences, NEFTA Football Club has more amusing ideas on its mind. Between the Donkey trained to move in specific directions by way of music on its headphones, to a wonderful final moment, there’s plenty to like here in the most lighthearted short feature of the bunch. The film’s tone doesn’t make it any lesser of a cinematic effort, however, as the cinematic value of a wasteland where chance encounters occur is given enough effort to deliver on a well-constructed feature.

Directors: Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi
Country of Origin: France – Tunisia
Runtime: 17 Minutes
Language:  Arabic

THE NEIGHBORS’ WINDOW

Synopsis: It tells the story of a middle-aged woman with small children whose life is shaken up when two free-spirited twenty-somethings move in across the street.

After receiving three prior Oscar nominations for his short documentaries, filmmaker Marshall Curry has put together a narrative that walks a fine line but comes out on top. Telling the story of a husband and wife who become fixated on the younger neighbors in another building, living a wild lifestyle, and having no care for putting up curtains, could have turned into something creepy or scandalous. Instead, Curry leans the film another direction, allowing for self-examination on the part of the older couple, who are challenged by life’s responsibilities. Some developments reveal themselves skillfully enough, with a fairly easy, yet valid message to take away from it all.

Director: Marshall Curry
Country of Origin: USA
Runtime: 20 Minutes
Language: English

SARIA

Synopsis: SARIA explores the unimaginable hardships faced by young female orphans at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala, leading up to the tragic fire which claimed 41 of their lives in 2017.

Perhaps the most Oscar bait-y of the short films, Saria is well-filmed and engaging enough in its presentation of this story of female orphans, based on actual events. However, the film is somewhat betrayed by its brief nature, with the filmmakers opting to create a docudrama out of the events, rather than a full-on documentary. Seeing this story of young girls treated practically as prisoners by the people running an orphanage, who have little care for the safety of the kids, creates a tension that skips past any sort of dimensionality to what’s taking place. Some moments stand out, as the production design is effective, and an action beat revolving around possible escape is exciting to watch. Still, while shedding light on this incident is worth crediting, Saria only gets so far in creating complexity out of the struggle portrayed.

Directors: Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebvre
Country of Origin: USA
Runtime: 23 Minutes
Language: Spanish

A SISTER 

Synopsis: A night. A car. Alie is in danger. To get by, she must make the most important phone call of her life.

Here’s a short film that does a great job using brevity to its advantage. A Sister thrusts the viewer into the middle of a situation involving a passenger trying to work her way out of a situation with the driver of a car. Her solution is to fake calling her sister, getting on the line with a 911 call center operator instead, who picks up on the ruse and has to play a series of word games to figure out a rescue plan. The claustrophobic nature of the settings – a car and a small office space – allows the film to build up an appropriate level of tension. Set at night, the starkly lit car moments are balanced well by the brighter scenes with an operator we can see thinking on her feet to figure out what steps to take. Perhaps it’s tough to buy the driver accepting this supposed phone call as being the real deal for so long, but it doesn’t take away from the gripping nature of the story.

Director: Delphine Girard
Country of Origin: Belgium
Runtime: 16 Minutes
Language: French

***

If I Was Picking The Winner: NEFTA Football Club barely edges out A Sister for not only feeling like a complete package but nailing a lighthearted tone with some genuine laughs, while still touching on the nature of the area these characters live in.

ShortsTV will release the 2020 Oscar-nominated short films on more than 500 screens across the United States on January 31, 2020.
For more information, http://shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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