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‘2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live Action’: Film Review

The Oscar shorts categories do an admirable job of recognizing international cinema, and yet, English-language contenders nearly always win.

Saria
Saria

At the Golden Globes, “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho challenged audiences by saying, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” That obstacle may exist in most of the feature categories (where only “Parasite” and Pedro Almódovar’s “Pain & Glory” managed to clear the hurdle), but when it comes to shorts, the Academy doesn’t have quite the same hang-ups about whom to nominate. Sadly, that open-mindedness doesn’t seem to translate to voting. Just three foreign-language entries have earned the prize in the last decade, which should make voting in your Oscar pool relatively easy: It’s not the best, but “The Neighbors’ Window” is the only 2020 contender filmed in English. Now, if you have the time and interest to judge all five shorts for yourself — and don’t mind a little light reading in the subtitle department — then the entire category’s worth watching, and easy to access via ShortsTV, which topped its own box office record with this latest batch.

Director Delphine Girard’s “A Sister” is driven largely by dialogue, as a woman named Alie (Selma Alaoui) finds a sneaky way to report her own abduction to emergency services: by asking her kidnapper permission to call her sister. On the other end, the operator (played by Veerle Baetens) must also think fast in order to collect enough information to dispatch police and rescue Alie. Girard, who has worked with Belgian director Joachim Lafosse, creates an atmosphere of tension from the outset, revealing just enough to let our imaginations fill in the missing details — especially regarding the violent potential of Dary (Guillaume Duhesme), the man who forced Alie into his car. It’s not the most original project (many will be reminded of Gustav Möller’s Oscar-shortlisted 2018 feature “The Guilty,” or else “Mother” from last year’s live-action shorts ballot, both of which involved panicked phone calls), but it plays like a thriller, as audiences find themselves asking what they might do in Alie’s situation. Call a sister? It seems like a good idea, although in reality, what kidnapper would let his quarry make a 16-minute phone call?

Someone at ShortsTV must have thought it would be cute to follow up “A Sister” with a movie called “Brotherhood,” making for a dramatic tone change going into Tunisian American filmmaker Meryam Joobeur’s relatively challenging Arabic-language drama. In both cases, the directors don’t try to give audiences the full picture, but instead suggest the illusion of a larger story by leaving some details unexplained. “Brotherhood” may actually be a bit too obtuse in places, as Joobeur baits us to jump to certain stereotype-based conclusions with the intention of proving our assumptions false. Set on a rural Tunisian farm, the story concerns the return of a family’s eldest son (Malek Mechergui) from Syria, where we assume he must have joined ISIS or participated in some radical Muslim activities. His father, Mohamed (Mohamed Grayaâ), certainly thinks so, making a series of irreversible decisions he’ll come to regret once he learns the truth, which Joobeur reveals first to us, so that we might comprehend the depth of the tragedy. “Brotherhood” is beautifully shot, with moments of pure poetry woven in amid its admirably restrained performances. Casting is everything here, especially when it comes to the family’s three redheaded sons, whose freckled faces tell a story even better than the film does.

Sooner or later Marshall Curry will get an Oscar. Probably sooner, and probably for this film, “The Neighbors’ Window,” which is his first foray into fiction — and the weakest of the four projects for which the documentary filmmaker has been nominated. But that’s often how it goes. Just ask Al “Scent of a Woman” Pacino. In any case, “The Neighbors’ Window” is only partly fiction, so it’s really a new kind of documentary for Curry, who was inspired by a podcast in which Diane Weipert described fixating on a young couple who moved into an apartment across the way, who start out having hot sex in plain view before their lives take an unexpected turn. In the short, actors Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller are great as a married duo for whom these new neighbors become a mutual obsession, more interesting than anything on Netflix, like a real-life “Rear Window.” But Curry takes the story in a disappointing direction, trying to put a bow on top of a story that was more intriguing when its mysteries went unanswered. He turns it into a kind of Hallmark card, and as a rule, Hallmark cards don’t win Pulitzer Prizes. But they can win Oscars.

Bryan Buckley has also been to the Oscars before. Seven years ago, the director was nominated for his Somalia-set short film “Asad,” and now he returns (after two high-attitude features, “The Bronze” and “The Pirates of Somalia”) with another social-issue short, “Saria.” Buckley’s an interesting filmmaker who earns his living shooting high-profile TV commercials, then turns around and makes social-issue movies between such projects. With “Saria,” he stands up for the 41 teens who lost their lives in the 2017 Guatemala orphanage fire at the Virgen de La Asunción Safe Home. The news covered the question of how it happened, but there’s been considerably less attention given to why it happened, and Buckley goes behind the headlines, revealing a situation where young women — a mix of orphans, girls with disabilities and expectant mothers — who were being exploited by their custodians staged a courageous uprising and escape, with horrific consequences. The film is harrowing, but completely convincing in the way it presents the sexual and psychological abuse they endured, and feels like an influential chapter in a story that’s still being written.

So far, so heavy. Like “Brotherhood,” French director Yves Piat’s “Nefta Football Club” takes place in North Africa, but this time, the tone is comical. Two kids, Tunisian brothers equally obsessed with soccer, are biking along the Algerian border. The younger one asks to stop so he can empty his bladder, and in the process, he notices a donkey wearing headphones. As if that weren’t odd enough, the animal is carrying several kilos of heroin in its pack. The older of the two convinces the other that the white powder is really laundry detergent, while he schemes how to resell their score back in town. As plans slip out of his control, the short starts to feel like some kind of classic fable, although it’s the contemporary details — the drugs, the expletives, the references to Adele — that make it so appealing. The movie features kids, but isn’t for kids, and though the story is entirely self-contained (whereas others feel like rough drafts for feature projects), it’s arguably the only one of this year’s nominees in which a longer film in the same vein seems like it’d be fun to watch.

‘2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live Action’: Film Review

Reviewed at Nuart Theatre, Los Angeles, Feb. 6, 2020. Running time: 104 MIN.

  • Production: A Magnolia Pictures release of a ShortsTV presentation. Producers: Carter Pilcher, Leif Nielsen, <span class="st">Stephanie Charmail</span>.
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