What is going on over at the Academy? For years, I have questioned whether it made sense for the organization to continue awarding short films, seeing as how they are no longer a routine part of the moviegoing experience (the category dates back to a time when newsreels and short subjects regularly preceded the main attraction). Except in rare cases, when an animation studio attaches one to its latest feature-length cartoon, it’s been decades since shorts got serious theatrical play. These days, they’re relegated to film festivals and small-screen formats — so why include them in the telecast, I wondered.
I was wrong. In recent years, as a rise in on-demand, at-home viewing points the way for the industry’s future, shorts are getting more exposure than ever. Streamers now embrace them: You can watch last year’s winner, “Two Distant Strangers,” on Netflix. And once the nominations are announced, audiences pay good money to see them on the big screen, courtesy of ShortsTV. At the time of this writing, just days before the Academy Awards, the box office for the three shorts programs has surpassed $1.5 million — that’s more than putative Oscar front-runners “CODA” (exclusive to Apple TV Plus) and “The Power of the Dog” (a Netflix original). So if my rationale for nixing the category was once that short films are not a viable theatrical format, that logic no longer applies. Now I say: Bring back the shorts!
This despite the fact that the 2022 crop is somewhat disappointing, and predictably dour. That’s how the Academy likes ’em. Even though plenty of amusing, entertaining and downright hilarious short films are made every year, voters seem to prefer dreary, pathetic and/or issue-driven entries — like “On My Mind.” Danish director Martin Strange-Hansen has won before (for 2002’s “This Charming Man”) and knows how to tweak the Academy’s heartstrings. Like many a previous Oscar winner, “On My Mind” is manipulative but effective, subverting our too-hasty first impressions as it watches a disheveled, clearly depressed stranger (Rasmus Hammerich) stumble into a bar, knock back a few shots of whiskey and then overpay to use the karaoke machine. He’s determined to sing Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind,” which he asks the slightly flirty bartender (Camilla Bendix) to film. His reason is wrenching, the payoff not quite earned, and yet it’s easy to understand why voters would be moved.
With “Please Hold,” writer-director K.D. Dávila supplies the group’s most comedic entry, though the humor takes a decidedly caustic tone. Dávila (who addressed similar themes in her script for free-wheeling Sundance entry “Emergency,” in which three BIPOC college students find an underage white girl passed out in their living room) critiques the way certain Americans are presumed guilty in our society. In the not-too-distant future, Mateo (Erick Lopez) is minding his business when he’s stopped by a police drone. With tasers drawn, the hovering droid arrests Mateo and escorts him to an automated jail, where a chipper touch-screen interface drains his bank account and pressures him to take a plea bargain, never once communicating the charges. Though its glib tone can be off-putting at times, “Please Hold” makes a fair point about how inhumane the prison-industrial complex can be with a not-at-all-funny “it could happen to you” scenario.
The most cinematically polished of the entries, Warsaw Film School grad Tadeusz Lysiak’s thesis film, “The Dress,” centers on a lonely woman with achondroplasia — a risky move at a moment when the Academy is mandating inclusivity, but going about it wrong can get artists in trouble. Lysiak, who is not a dwarf, imagines a character who says, “I want to be a normal woman,” and gazes enviously upon a conventionally beautiful blond woman in the hotel where she works. Artfully shot and very well acted, “The Dress” comes from a place of empathy, observing how Julka (Anna Dzieduszycka) feels that she’s been deprived of the kind of erotic experience others take for granted. Then she meets Bogdan (Szymon Piotr Warszawski), a trucker who makes her feel pretty. But this is no fairy tale. “The Dress” takes a dark turn, raising issues that warrant further discussion.
Instead, it’s rushed off the screen by another unsettling entry, Aniel Karia’s “The Long Goodbye,” a collaboration with Riz Ahmed, a furiously talented actor who released a hip-hop album of the same name addressing the discrimination and mistreatment he’s experienced as a person of color in the U.K. Brusque and a bit hard to process without this context, the short — built around three tracks from Ahmed’s LP — begins inside a boisterous suburban household, where a British Pakistani family bicker over little things. The first five minutes feel unfocused, amplified by the shaky handheld shooting style, like a Ken Loach movie warming its engines (Karia directed 2020 Sundance feature “Surge”).
Then the black vans show up, and armed men burst in, dragging everyone into the street under the approving eye of the local police. It’s all quite shocking, as Ahmed’s “Fast Lava” rap blares over disorienting faux-vérité footage of innocent people being shot point-blank in the streets, recalling Andrew Mollo and Kevin Brownlow’s “It Happened Here,” a low-budget 1964 film that imagined the U.K. controlled by Nazis. However extreme it may seem, this disturbing scenario forces us to confront how unwelcome Britain makes everyday life for someone like Ahmed — born in London but treated as an outsider — as if his rights could be revoked at any moment. In an abrupt mood shift, the actor breaks the fourth wall and performs the spoken-word track “Where You From” directly to camera. It’s not “Blindspotting,” but it’s a start, exposing racism where many naively refuse to see it.
As on-screen activism goes, Maria Brendle’s “Ala Kachuu: Take and Run” is the most straightforward, dramatizing the clash between ancient marriage customs and modern opportunities for women in Kyrgyzstan. At 19, Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova) heads to the big city to begin her studies at university, when she’s abruptly kidnapped and driven out to a rural community. Complicit in this brutal arrangement, the older women explain that this is how things are done: Sezim is expected to marry Dayrbek (Nurbek Esengazy Uulu), the man who took her. Even her parents approve the union, unbothered by the fact it means sacrificing her education and freedom to determine her own path. Sezim escapes, leaving audiences (and voters) with a hopeful ending, even if the takeaway is more grim, spotlighting a larger problem.
In their own ways, all five films question the status quo, suggesting that voters believe that shorts can make a difference — even if they no longer merit a place in the telecast.