One of my favorite programs of each and every year is once again in theaters: I urge everyone reading this to seek out the 2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films Program, where you can watch all of this year's nominated Short Films across three categories: Animated, Live-Action and Documentary.
The series begins in theaters on Friday, February 17th and runs until Oscar Sunday, on March 12th. Check your local listings for where it is showing in your area (in Detroit, you can find them at the Detroit Film Theater at the DIA...but get your tickets fast as this program always sells out and is among the most popular programs at the theater each year).
I've now seen them all, and here are my reactions to this year's batch of nominated Short Films.
This year's nominated Animated Shorts were quite impressive, with a few standing out for me.
Most of all, the best and most-audaciously titled film for me was "My Year of Dicks," a film about teenager in the Summer of 1991 who tried to lose her virginity in multiple, sometimes hilarious and sometimes painful ways. It shines by never sticking to one particular animation style...a busy mixture of color palettes and themes that matches the angst of its subject. Who doesn't want to hear a presenter during the Oscars say, "And the Oscar goes to...My Year of Dicks!".
"Ice Merchants" is a completely visual story - stunningly, beautifully rendered - about a father and his son who live on the side of a steep mountain, who harvest ice and travel down to a town below to sell it, as a living. This film, above all of the other nominations, showcases just how powerful the art of animation can be in telling a poignant story.
"The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse" has the most fanfare (and PR budget) behind it...it's based on a popular children's book by Charlie Mackesy, is produced by J.J. Abrams and Woody Harrelson, and features voice-talent from Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne. At 32-minutes, it is also the longest entry in the category. While I appreciated the animation and the simplistic story, the words and messages were a bit too saccharine-sweet for my tastes. Still, this might be considered a front-runner in the category.
This year's sole stop-motion animated short to make the cut would have had the best title (if not for "My Year of Dicks"). "An Ostrich Told Me The World Is Fake And I Think I Believe It" is an incredibly creative tale about a man working a mundane job, who becomes self-aware that he is actually a stop-motion character in some sort of production. In fact, for much of the film, we see the "hands of God" manipulating each frame of the story. It's a splendidly imaginative piece of work.
The weakest entry is "The Flying Sailor," a short that is "based on a true story" about a boat collision that caused such a massive explosion that it sent a naked sailor flying through the air. The animation style is lovely but the story is not, especially in comparison to the other category entries.
Overall Animated Shorts Program: B+
Total Program Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
I must be honest in saying that I was extremely disappointed in this year's crop of Live-Action nominated Shorts. Typically the entries are strong throughout, but this year, there is only really one selection that I would even give a glowing grade if I were grading them out individually.
That movie is "An Irish Goodbye," a film that will make you wonder if Ireland somehow secretly took over the entire awards show this year (as Ireland also has its first International Feature Film nomination as well as "The Banshees of Inisherin" in this year's spotlight). "An Irish Goodbye" is about two brothers (and one hilarious priest) who return to their mother's farm after her death, and who are trying to cope with their loss and with each other. It's a remarkably funny and heart-warming tale...not to mention the best film of this bunch from a technical standpoint, with rich cinematography and interesting sound mixing.
"Ivalu" is a dreamy and meditative piece about a small girl grieving her missing sister. It's visually interesting but it didn't quite grab me in the way that I feel was intended.
"Le Pupille" did not work at all for me...it was 38-minutes of visual miscues and disjointed, fragmented ideas all smashed into one. It follows a house of Catholic school girls at a boarding house during WWI...there is singing and attempts at comedy, and some contention between the nuns and the children. But what truly, was the point of this? It's on Disney+ and was co-produced by Alfonso Cuaron, meaning that it might have the most weight in the category when it comes to support...which would be a shame.
"Night Ride" is even more disappointing. It follows a a woman who accidentally starts up a tram, and who has a mini-adventure that leads her to protecting a trans person from some unruly passengers. It's a bit on-the-nose and features the least interesting cinematography in the category...other than the topic it tackles, it is a wonder how this even made the shortlist.
"The Red Suitcase" wasn't as impactful as I wanted it to be, but it did a great job of building tension throughout. An Iranian teen with a red suitcase is trying to escape her father who is waiting for her at the gate. I liked this film quite a lot and think that it has a shot, especially in this underwhelming category this year.
Overall Live-Action Shorts Program: B-
Total Program Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes.
In contrast to the Live-Action category, the Documentary Short films were outstanding this year from top-to-bottom.
"The Elephant Whisperers" is available on Netflix, and follows an indigenous couple in India and a camp they've created to rehabilitate elephants in need of help. It's fascinating to see elephants up close and personal, and to see the love they share with humans.
"Haulout" is equally eye-opening, following a marine biologist who travels to a small cabin in a remote area of Russia, where he witnesses a walrus migration. It is shocking to see the film reveal not just several walruses, but HUNDREDS-OF-THOUSANDS of walruses, in one place. The film is yet another call for us to act on the effects of climate change, and shows us the impact that melting ice caps has on this corner of the animal kingdom.
"How Do You Measure A Year?" was simple, insightful and inspiring. A father decides to video tape his daughter answering the same questions on her birthday, from age 2 all the way up to age 18. This is like "Boyhood" in documentary form, and features insight on how are mind grows and changes over adolescence. What was most surprising though, was how impactful the father/daughter story came through in the film. A real front-runner in my book.
Told completely with archival footage, "The Martha Mitchell Effect" was a great showcase on a woman mostly forgotten in history, but a woman whom Richard Nixon says is responsible for Watergate ever going public ("Without Martha, there's no Watergate," we hear him say). The wife of then-attorney general John Mitchell, Martha was a firecracker, ahead of her time, who was minimalized for being a woman. Her story is still very timely, and fascinating especially if this is the first time you're ever hearing about her.
"Stranger at the Gate" is my pick in this category, an absolutely amazing true story about how love and compassion can change and inform even the most lost of souls. A man plans a mass-casualty attack on a mosque, only to have the story take a turn for the good in the most unexpected of ways. A must-watch, and I hope this is the one that takes the Oscar come March 12th.
Overall Documentary Shorts Program: A
Total Program Run Time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
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