Animated and live action shorts nominated for Oscars face strong competition this year.
Dear Basketball — Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant, USA
In light of his retirement, “Dear Basketball” is an illustrated love letter from Kobe Bryant to basketball. This short was incredibly visually appealing thanks to the gorgeous hand-drawn illustrations of Glen Keane, which brought Bryant’s childhood dreams of being a basketball star to life. The film also features an emotionally delivered narration by Bryant himself and music by John Williams — the sweeping soundtrack is slightly over-the-top but ultimately fitting for a sports star’s soliloquy.
Negative Space — Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, France
This claymation piece is based on a poem and deals with the death of the narrator’s father, who traveled often for work. The father and son bonded through the ritual of packing his suitcase for these journeys. The claymation format provided ample room for artistic license, with the luggage packing itself and at one point transforming into a sea of swimming dress shirts and tube-sock seaweed. Upon the father’s death, the son wryly notes the wasted space around his father, “packed” in his coffin. This short was artistically solid, but felt detached, and I didn’t find it to be particularly emotionally moving despite the subject matter.
Lou — Dave Mullins and Dana Murray, USA
This is a Disney/Pixar short with the duo’s characteristic animation style and charm. Lou is a friendly monster who lives in the lost & found at a school playground (an adorable concept) and is made of various lost & found items (sweatshirts, baseballs for googly eyes, a tennis racket arm, etc.). The Muppet-like monster stands up to a schoolyard bully who’s been stealing his classmates’ toys. Typical Disney/Pixar antics ensue. This short was exactly what I would expect from Disney/Pixar. It was cute, tugged on my heartstrings a bit and artistically was indistinguishable from any other D/P project.
Revolting Rhymes — Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer, UK
This short is based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name and is a vaguely gruesome but still kid-friendly re-imagining of various fairy tales. The Roald Dahl book contains a number of short stories about Snow White, Red Riding Hood and other famous characters, all with twists (Red Riding Hood, for example, becomes a vigilante wolf killer, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves bet on horse races in the city). The movie version weaves these tales into one 30-minute cohesive story. The 3D-modeled animation attempted to mimic the characteristic art style of Quentin Blake, which sometimes worked very well and sometimes fell flat. I almost think it would have done better in an illustrated style. The ending is the only part I disliked, as it was notably distinct from the book.
Garden Party — Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon, France
This was my favorite animated short by far. “Garden Party” follows the antics of various frogs that have invaded a house. The viewer chuckles as the frogs chase each other through the rooms of the house, break into a jar of macarons and chase butterflies through the backyard. At the same time, unsettling details begin to present themselves — is that a bullet hole in the home’s security camera? Why is there rotting food in the kitchen? The answer reveals itself in the film’s gruesome ending. I was struck by this short’s gorgeous hyper-realistic animation. I’m so unaccustomed to seeing digital animation that doesn’t imitate a Disney-like cartoonish design, but the animators who created “Garden Party” captured everything down to the dust motes floating through the abandoned house. The film’s plot built well, the music didn’t overshadow the sound effects of the frogs and various sounds of the empty home and the ending was perfectly timed.
Live Action Shorts
DeKalb Elementary — Reed Van Dyk
This film was particularly jarring in light of the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A gunman enters DeKalb Elementary and holds the school hostage, not intending to harm its inhabitants but rather intending to lure police to the school to kill them. The receptionist, who is actually just standing in for her coworker’s lunch break, talks the gunman and the 911 operator through the situation. It’s incredibly tense, morally ambiguous and very unsettling.
The Silent Child — Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton, UK, 20 minutes
This British film focuses on Libby, a young girl who is deaf and doesn’t communicate well. Her family hires a specialist named Joanne to improve her communication skills before she starts school. Joanne makes significant progress in communicating with Libby through sign language; however, her family is busy, and Libby lacks the attention she needs. Her mother eventually fires Joanne, determined that Libby will do just fine in school by lip-reading without special accommodations. A message at the end of the short informs the viewer that 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and 78 percent attend mainstream school with no specialist support. The filmmakers’ goal is for sign language to be recognized in schools and for appropriate accommodations to be provided for deaf children. The whole movie is subtitled, which I realized was likely a very intentional decision. It was moving and worked effectively to raise awareness for an issue that I, for one, had no idea existed.
My Nephew Emmett — Kevin Wilson, Jr., USA, 20 minutes
Set in 1955, this short depicts the abduction and lynching of Emmett Till from the perspective of his uncle Mose Wright. Emmett is visiting his aunt and uncle from Chicago and allegedly flirts with a white woman at the store. Later that night, her husband and his half-brother forcibly enter Wright’s home and take Emmett away at gunpoint. The scene closes with the two men driving Emmett away from his family’s house in their truck. It’s terrifying because as events unfold, you can see the absolute panic and utter helplessness in Wright’s face as he realizes what is to happen to his nephew and that he can do nothing to prevent it. The short ends with what I presume to be real footage of Mose Wright — he famously later testified against Emmett’s killers, which was a first in civil rights law.
The Eleven O’Clock — Derin Seale and Josh Lawson, Australia, 13 minutes
“The Eleven O’Clock” has a very vintage feel to it, appearing to be set in the ‘60s or ‘70s. In this short, a psychiatrist receives a patient who has delusions of grandeur and thinks that he himself is a psychiatrist. The normal secretary has been replaced with a temp, and no one is able to identify the real psychiatrist. Shenanigans ensue, with the two supposed psychiatrists fighting for control of the appointment. This short was well-executed, with perfect comedic timing, and refreshingly light-hearted compared to the heavier subject matter of some of the other nominations.
Watu Wote/All of Us — Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen, Germany, 22 minutes
Arguably my favorite of the live-action shorts, “Watu Wote” is a based on a true story and follows a Christian woman traveling on a bus from Nairobi, Kenya, to Mandera, Somalia. The film’s introduction informs us that the border between Kenya and Somalia is particularly dangerous, with Christians regularly attacked by Al-Shabaab terrorists. The protagonist’s son and husband were killed by these terrorists. Her bus loses its police escort and is attacked by Muslim extremists, at which point the woman’s Muslim seat companion protects her by covering her in a spare burqa, and the other Muslim riders refuse to sell out their Christian companions to the terrorists. The film was heart-wrenching and well-developed, a testament to the enduring nature of human compassion. It’s dedicated to Salah Farah, a teacher on the bus who was wounded protecting the other riders and died several weeks later.