2021 — Oscar Nominated Shorts

At the Movies Blog

Oscar Isaac in The Letter Room.

I was excited to see that the Angelika Film Center was showing all the Oscar-nominated short films, and animated shorts. So I headed over for a date night with my wife, which involved dinner and a movie. It was a little disheartening to see that the beautiful patio they have, with all their outdoor seating and firepit, isn’t set up again. It was such nice weather, sitting outside would have been great. But we grabbed our food and ate it inside the theatre.

First up were the animated shorts. This is one of those Oscar categories that most people don’t care about, yet over the years, I’ve seen some great stuff. I was furious when Kobe Bryant won the Academy Award for his short, which was only the third best that year. It’s these types of categories that ruin your Oscar pools. And with the Academy announcing that they’ll have the nominees in attendance this year, maybe folks will have Oscar parties again. So there’s no better way to prepare for your Oscar betting pool than to watch the shorts and get a (short) leg up on the competition.

My reviews on each of them.

BURROW

This is from Pixar. It’s great that the company finances some of these shorts that their younger artists do. This story reminded me of the only arcade game I was any good at as a kid — Dig Dug. It starts out with a rabbit that has a very primitive set of blueprints for the house he’s going to dig himself. It’s got a small bedroom, kitchen, and disco; because what bunny doesn’t want to dance? As he burrows, he keeps running into other animal families, who have a lot more elaborate dwellings. There’s no dialogue in this. We merely watch as the rabbit, declining goodies from his fellow critters, just keeps burrowing deeper. 

There is a scary animal, but of course, they end up working together. It’s an animated piece the whole family can enjoy.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

GENIUS LOCI

I’m usually disappointed in French films, and this French animated film was also disappointing. But the style of animation was just gorgeous, as characters and shapes blended into each other like you were on an acid trip watching water-colors start to blend and change shape. This is the only animated short that had dialogue (and subtitles). 

Reine is a young Black woman who we see in her home life and out on the streets. There’s a dog and…oh hell, I have no clue what’s going on here. I’m guessing a character is suffering from mental illness, or maybe that was just me going mad watching it. Again, watching the shapes in this style of animation is intriguing. The story is just a bit of a mess, and the score was annoyingly loud. It also uses the F-word a few times (once with “mother” in front of it), and a few other curse words. I usually don’t mention those things in reviews, but since these are animated, people might be wondering about seeing these with their families.

1 ½ stars out of 5.

OPERA

I love the underrated song by Cake called “Opera Singer.” Before this started, I wondered what type of opera we’d witness from this story out of South Korea. This is only about 10 minutes long, but feels longer. There’s a pyramid which shows…well…a lot. There are various workers. There are wars. There’s a religious ceremony of some kind, as well as a crazy sex scene with various characters (which my wife didn’t catch, but I’m sure any kids will; again, these shorts aren’t for children). The illustrations have a Renaissance look about them, and the scenes we see repeat; that helps in being able to catch the various scenes going on in different parts of the pyramid.

2 stars out of 5.

IF ANYTHING HAPPENS I LOVE YOU

This is drawn in black and greys, that looked like charcoal drawings. There are occasional glimpses of color, and that adds a bit of punch to what we’re witnessing. 

The couple sits down for dinner, and we see the wife playing with her spaghetti and meatballs, while the balding man sips his beer, and quickly retires to watch sports highlights on TV. The shadows behind them convey the emotions they’re really feeling. When the mom finds a small blue shirt in the wash she’s doing, she smells it, and starts crying. We realize she’s grieving the loss of a child. It reminded me of a powerful scene in the movie Another Earth. While sitting at the washing machine, a soccer ball falls down, rolls into the child’s bedroom, leading to a series of events that had me bawling my eyes out.

5 stars. 

YES PEOPLE

This is a production out of Iceland (produced by The New Yorker) set in an apartment building with a lot of wacky neighbors. They mostly speak in grunts, which was rather humorous. The drawings of the people also add to the humor, with their huge noses, and big guts. It’s like Gary Larson met the cartoonist of The New Yorker, and this was their creation. One guy places food on his belly as he watches TV. Another bigger woman, wears lingerie, sticking her leg out, to get her husband to run into the bedroom (and then run out to shovel snow). All the other characters hear them getting intimate. So yeah, this isn’t an animated short that’s for the kiddos (which is a shame, because they’d love the farting scene). That woman is also rather loud slurping her soup — no worries, her husband simply turns up the volume on their transistor radio. And that same piece of music, we hear being taught to a kid, playing the flute horribly. 

There’s a woman who has the shakes, and…she ends up fetching an old bottle of booze out of the trash to put in her coffee (yes, it gets a tad dark at times). I think I lived next to these people in an apartment in Clairemont in the early ‘90s.

4 stars out of 5.

KAPAEMAHU

This is more of the traditional style of animated picture we see. It’s based on four healing stones on Waikiki. They start out telling us the creatures were neither male or female, and I thought transgender issues were going to be tackled (but it’s the “live shorts” that dealt more with issues). The animation we see telling this mythical story is outstanding. It makes this really feel like an Oscar nominee in this category. The score also adds to the epic vibe of it all.

3 stars out of 5

THE SNAIL AND THE WHALE

This easily had the best cast. Diana Rigg (who we lost last year), the always hysterical Rob Brydon (The Trip series)…although he’s not given a lot to do as the whale. The incredible Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water, and the most underrated movie of 2010 — Submarine, and great indie Maude). She doesn’t have much dialogue, despite voicing the star in this — the snail. 

As great as the cast was, so was the animation. Watching the waves and splashing of the water was mesmerizing, as was one shot from above the water, looking down at the colorful fish and coral just underneath the surface. It was the damn rhymes of the 2003 children’s book (Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler) that were annoying. They should have written better dialogue.

The snail yearns to see the world, and leaves a message, which a whale sees. They team up and go on an adventure. That means they have to avoid seagulls that want a snail snack, sharks that want a whale tail, and even loud speedboats. 

I wonder if people familiar with the book will say the book was better than the short.

3 ½ stars out of 5. The kids are going to love this one.

TO: GERARD

This was easily my favorite, and makes sitting through a few of the other animated shorts worth it, to end with this strong picture. Major props to Taylor Meacham for directing this about a mailman sorting letters who yearns to be a magician. He’s got a picture on the wall of himself as a kid standing next to his hero, a magician. He has a gold coin the magician gave him, and he practices sleight-of-hand, to no one, as he listens to the magician’s old show. A little girl in the post office with her mom wanders around, and ends up with the coin. The man sees how thrilled she is by it, and reluctantly relinquishes it.

The look of the man made me think of Up, and while the story may be a bit predictable, it’s so dang heartwarming. The score also adds a magical and majestic feel. 

5 stars. If you aren’t going to go to the theatres to see this, find it online and watch it with the family. It’s a magical experience. Now, if I can only find a way to make these tears disappear.

Now, my wife and I thought the “live shorts” were a lot better, which is usually the case. It seems this year, a lot of them dealt with cops and people in authority, and the power they wield. What was a pleasant surprise is how entertaining all those shorts could be.

THE PRESENT

An Arab man wakes up, and his wife smiles as he jokes with their young daughter. It’s their anniversary, and she’s prepared breakfast, and hints she has prepared something else for later that evening. He smiles, and quickly runs out, to run errands and pick up her present. He gets stopped at a military checkpoint. Obviously, the soldiers just want to be difficult, but I couldn’t get over the fact that the guy had a hint of attitude when asked why he was crossing. Sometimes that lets people in power decide to act like bigger jerks (I’ll address this later with another short). He ends up getting searched and held up for what appears to be hours. This scares his daughter, and she also wets her pants. He eventually gets a new refrigerator, and with his recent back problems, bringing it back becomes problematic. As do the guards once he returns. It was a very powerful short film out of Palestine.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

FEELING THROUGH

I kept thinking police officers were going to show up, and harass the young men that seem to have a great friendship, hanging out on the street, with a vague implication that they’re actually homeless. One texts a girl to ask if he can crash at her place, and you realize it’s more than just a booty call – he needs to find a place to sleep for the night. He sees a man standing on a corner that he thinks is begging for money, but he reads the sign that says “please help.” It’s a man who’s deaf and blind. It’s New York City, after 1 a.m. He needs to be helped to the bus stop and told when the bus will arrive. The young African-American man helps the older, bald, disabled white guy, who has a smile that stays plastered on his face the entire time. The short was perfectly done. To have this young man show that he’s being put out by all this…walking him to a bodega to get a drink and back to the bus stop, and feeling like he should sit with him until the bus arrives for his safety…and slowly starting to care for this man and what his life might be like. Especially when he thumbs through his notepad, on which he’s written other messages to strangers. This was such a powerful piece of filmmaking and so touching. It was produced with the Helen Keller National Center as well as actress Marlee Matlin.

5 stars.

TWO DISTANT STRANGERS

This was a surprisingly great short, despite how preachy it was. Rapper Joey Bada$$ (Mr. Robot) plays a guy who wakes up next to an attractive woman (Zaria Simone). They have a cute chemistry, as she chides him for getting dressed to rush out of there. When he says it’s because he has to get home to feed his dog, she finds that adorable. As do we. Especially when we hear what he says to his dog, as he then uses the device to spit out treats for the pit bull, as he says (in Oprah style), “You get a treat! And you get a treat!”

The only problem is the angry, New York/Irish police officer that gives him grief out on the street. He thinks the young man is smoking pot, and they have some terse words, before he’s strangled to death by the officers. He wakes up again with the woman, and we realize it’s a time loop scenario. Think of Groundhog Day, as if done by Jordan Peele or Spike Lee. 

Now, what blew me away was how each morning these two have a romantic chemistry, and how each morning he tries a different approach to not be harassed by the officer. It’s a great subtle way of making their point. The things they do at the end of the movie, just don’t work for me. It creates this narrative that all cops are racist murderers, which is hardly fair. Just as the African-American actors I heard in the ‘70s complaining about how they were always portrayed on screen.

I get why they played the Bruce Hornsby song “The Way It Is”, but it’s such a lame, social-justice ballad, I think they should have gone a different route. Since it had to be a ballad, because the guy is in his glow of having just slept with a beautiful woman…perhaps they could have had an acoustic version of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” or N.W.A’s,  “F*** the Police.” This is a powerful piece of filmmaking that’s very well done and entertaining. It was produced by Sean Combs.

4 stars out of 5.

WHITE EYE

This film out of Israel, deals with a man who sees a bike locked up outside a butcher. It turns out, it’s the one stolen from him a month earlier. The thief is an Eritrean immigrant, and he claims he bought it at a bus stop. It’s interesting to see how the police that are called, are of little help. At first, that’s because he never filed a report. Then it’s because he’s going to just break the lock and steal his bike back. When cops show up on the scene, that makes things a bit more problematic. It reminded me a bit of The Visitor (2007 movie with Richard Jenkins), as you start to feel bad that this man is most likely going to be deported. 

I thought the supporting characters were interesting. A local locksmith that’s willing to break the lock, for a fee, but has enough trouble with police that he doesn’t want to get in the middle. A local bar owner that isn’t sure who to believe, and the woman who employs these illegal immigrants. She stands around smoking and showing attitude.

My wife and I didn’t like how the story ended, but we both thought the piece wasn’t half bad.

2 ½ stars out of 5.

THE LETTER ROOM

The last movie they showed was not only the best of the bunch, it would have made my list of Top 10 movies of the year, had I seen it last year.

Elvira Lind wrote and directed this story. My wife leaned in and said, “I think that’s Oscar Isaac.” I said, “No it’s not.” After all, it was a man with a Spanish accent and a mustache the size of the Rio Grande. It was him, and we wondered how Lind got him to do a short. Well, she’s married to him.

He plays a prison guard that seems to care about all those around him, whether it’s his co-workers or the inmates. When he’s called into an office to be told he’s getting that promotion he wants into the “communications” department — we’re as deflated as he probably is, to find out that means he sits in this crummy office merely reading prisoner mail and deciding what can be passed along and what can’t, as well as documenting it all.

He’s quick to tell his new boss about an article he read that uses animals to help with inmate rehabilitation. When he notices her facial expression doesn’t change, he apologizes and agrees to take things slow. Perhaps the only flaw with this movie was how that woman explains to him exactly what they’re looking for. It felt a bit cartoonish, but it also was important to get the point across — this woman isn’t interested in the inmates, just that nothing gets past them.

I just can’t stop marveling at how brilliantly Lind creates the guard’s character, to help us see his motivations. He’s making dinner for himself, watching TV alone, and at one point, even has a pornographic magazine on his lap. So when he becomes mesmerized by a lovely, well-written letter to a prisoner on death row, we start to worry. 

The movie combines pathos and humor wonderfully, and the audience will be on the edge of their seat wondering where this story is leading, and rooting for the prison guard, who we fear is getting in way too deep. 

There’s a nice, breezy relationship he has with a prisoner on death row named Jackson (John Douglas Thompson, who we just saw as the doctor in Let Them All Talk). Jackson is concerned that the last person who had the letter job, wasn’t giving him mail from his daughter. Of course Richard (Isaac) is going to look into that (and how they conclude it at the end of the film is one of the most wonderful endings of a film I’ve seen in some time).

It was also smart that Lind didn’t make the character on death row, receiving these beautiful letters from Rosita, a remorseful guy. We’re told he killed a cop, and he’s one of the few prisoners there that doesn’t care for Richard. It’s smart when filmmakers don’t just make everyone a sympathetic character, just as I was pleasantly surprised in Dead Man Walking when Tim Robbins, who directed, decided to actually show us the horrible things Sean Penn’s character did at the end. This guy on death row in The Letter Room, deserved to be there, and he’s a horrible person…despite the fact that a wonderful woman may still care about him.

This all reminded me a bit of The Messenger (Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster), one of my favorite movies from 2009. And this is going on my list of favorites for this year. Seek it out, and thank me later. And if you want to catch it on the big screen, you better hurry.

5 stars.  

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