This article originally appeared on Crossfader
Before kicking right into review mode, it’s important to cover some basic ground regarding the Academy’s selection for the best live action short category. Every year, film schools around the world release countless thesis films, and professional filmmakers put out their latest shorts, many of which go on to have successful festival-circuit runs. A select few even receive the Student Academy Award, but rarely do thesis films make it far enough to be finalists for the actual Oscar ceremony, let alone win the prize. This year isn’t much different from those before it, featuring content from all across the globe. The films on display are always strong shorts, but on occasion, they can be frustratingly simple for what ought to be an award reserved for pure excellence.
Surely, there are a lot of politics at play when it comes to receiving an Oscar nomination, not to mention the difficult criteria that a film must fulfill to even be eligible in the first place. This is all the more apparent when considering how bafflingly weak entries make the cut every now and then. (Weak entries in recent years like THE SHORE, DO I HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT EVERYTHING, THAT WASN’T ME, and AYA come to mind.) 2018 boasts a really strong roundup of films: not a single undeserving nominee in the bunch. As a result, it would be a misnomer to state that the following films are ordered from worst to best, because it implies that the first in the list is bad. Instead, the films below are listed in Crossfader’s preferential order; from least to most impressive!
THE SILENT CHILD
The token tearjerker of this year’s Oscar shorts is Chris Overton’s THE SILENT CHILD, an endearing, but ultimately didactic, look into the life of deaf children. Unquestionably gorgeous scenery and a powerful performance from its young star aside, THE SILENT CHILD’s biggest hurdle is how readily it cements itself as a tacky soap opera. Awkward plot developments and flat humor—from an omen delivered by foreboding grandmother to a shy teenager’s hair insecurities—all congeal into a rather bizarre, disengaging watch. As much as THE SILENT CHILD wants to tug at our heartstrings, it pulls at too much low-hanging fruit. An eye-rolling post-credits text undermines much of the film’s immediate impact (opting for loudmouthed activism over truly effective filmmaking), and a needless amount of imperfect drone footage further contribute to the films ongoing case of feature-itis. THE SILENT CHILD isn’t inherently a bad short film, but it could be so much more if it would embrace its medium. Instead, it reads like a feature film clumsily repackaged into 20 minutes.
WATU WOTE: ALL OF US
Arguably the quintessential gut-punch of this year’s short film nominees, WATU WOTE: ALL OF US is quite the cinematic feat; a student short film with the scale and dexterity to match a studio feature. Following a Christian woman’s bus ride through rebel-occupied Kenya, WATU WOTE tells the earth-shattering true story of a group of selfless Muslims that stood up to Islamic extremists after their bus was held hostage. WATU WOTE should by all accounts have been a surefire hit (even with its needless drone footage—seems there was a trend in this year’s Oscar race). But what really holds it back is the fact that its director, Katja Benrath, despite all her talents, is still a white filmmaker giving in to all of the stereotypes that have come to define African-set cinema. Though Benrath’s intentions are noble, the end product registers as something that ought to be left in the hands of African filmmakers. At the end of the day, Caucasian directors telling African stories might be better suited tackling narratives that don’t feel quite this moralistic. After all, those post-credits title cards really don’t do these films any favors (another trend in this year’s Oscar race).
MY NEPHEW EMMETT
I was lucky enough to interview Kevin Wilson Jr. back in September for his film MY NEPHEW EMMETT, which at the time was nominated for the Student Academy Award (it went on to win Gold). What I said back then still holds up today: with MY NEPHEW EMMETT, director Kevin Wilson Jr. has the only historical biopic in the selection, but to call it such would be awfully reductive. Though a non-fiction account of Emmett Till’s final hours preceding his violent death, Kevin Wilson’s film is a Southern yarn like few others. It’s breathtakingly effective in its display of unrest, and understands tonal precision like a Cassavetes chamber piece. Oppressive, but not one-note, it’s a biopic that avoids the pitfalls of didactic moral teachings by simply being a sermon for its eponymous character. More a candlelight vigil than a political statement, it’s a means of reminding us of the horrors of racism, knowing full well that it’s a problem that is far from being solved.
THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK
It’s really not much of a contest: THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK is one of the funniest films nominated for the Academy Award in recent years, a razor-sharp, brilliant piece of Howard Hawks verbal sparring delivered with the charisma of two Australian men. Telling the ultra-contained story of a therapist whose patient believes he’s a therapist, director Derin Seale’s short film is as hysterical as it is minimalist, opting for a quick one-two punch over any additional glitz and glamor. As a result, THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK might disappoint those expecting a little more cinematic flash from the nominated Oscar shorts, but for those desperate for a breath of fresh air (all the other nominees are very politically inclined, after all), Seale’s brand of over-the-shoulder comedy is exactly the burst of electric filmmaking that’s missing in so many of the moodier pieces nominated alongside it.
Arguably the most true-to-form short film of this year’s Oscar race, DEKALB ELEMENTARY holds its own as a brilliant work of empathy in a topic that can easily succumb to exploitation. Ravishing in its minimalism, and phenomenally performed by Tara Riggs and Bob Mitchell, this 21-minute chamber piece sizzles to a screeching boil, coming to a show stopping conclusion that never forgets to humanize both of its protagonists. It’s not exactly economical—what with it being among the longest of the nominated short films—but it does understand that in terms of scope, less is more. Director Reed Van Dyk brilliantly captures the stress of a hostage situation, and his restrained, unintrusive cinematography wonderfully cooperates with the innate tension of the scene. One could argue that DEKALB ELEMENTARY does run the risk of being a mental illness PSA in an era that desperately necessitates voices in support of gun regulation, but Van Dyk’s craft is so assured that he manages to get away with a questionable thesis statement.