Quick takes: A roundup of Oscar-nominated short films

See the Oscar-nominated short films at Violet Crown Cinema on the Downtown Mall. See the Oscar-nominated short films at Violet Crown Cinema on the Downtown Mall.

Short film blocks are often the highlight of any film festival, but when the Academy Awards come around, audiences are less familiar with them than with other categories. Here’s a rundown of this year’s nominees.

Animated Short

It would be easy to crown Pixar’s delightful Bao the early favorite on pedigree and name recognition alone, but it has some solid competition. Bao follows an unexpected relationship between a mother and a sentient dumpling she created; delighted by its company, she is also saddened by how quickly it grows up and asserts its independence. It’s an effective metaphor in a sleekly produced package.

Three out of the remaining four nominees also examine parent-child relationships. Late Afternoon shows an older woman whose memories are triggered as her adult daughter packs her old belongings. It’s perhaps the best cry you’ll have with any film nominated this year. One Small Step, about a young woman who aspires to be an astronaut and the father who supports her dreams and fixes her shoes, is cathartic for anyone who wished they had more time with a loved one. Weekends depicts a young boy’s point of view of the difficulty each family member has after a divorce. It’s funny, honest, visually inventive, and packed with powerful images.

The worst of the bunch is Animal Behaviour, about a group therapy session for animals. The mantis can’t keep a partner, the pig overeats, and the gorilla has trouble with anger management. They are also drawn with human-looking butts, which is apparently another joke.

Live-Action Short

It’s troubling that three of the five live-action shorts are about child death or endangerment. It’s possible the entries stood out at the festivals where they premiered, but choosing them back-to-back in the same category is puzzling. Of the three, Madre is the strongest, almost a single take of a mother in Spain who is called by her son after he is abandoned on an unknown beach. Watching a story like this unfold in real time, as the characters come to understand the stakes, is very effective drama, as can be seen in another nominee, Fauve. This follows two teenage boys who explore a quarry unsupervised, playing a game to see how many times they can trick each other. It seems to be a truly personal film for its director, and the performances are excellent.

The most troubling nominee is Detainment, about the real-life murder of 2-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool by two young boys in 1993. Bulger’s family has objected to the film’s nomination, and though it’s well-made with good performances from child actors, it adds nothing new to the conversation.

Two films about prejudice are very different, but equally satisfying to those of us hopeful but frustrated with the state of the world. Marguerite, from Canada, depicts an elderly woman who reflects on her own life after learning that her caretaker is in a same-sex marriage, confessing that she never acted on her love for a friend when she was younger because “times were different.” Skin, meanwhile, shows the retribution taken on an American neo-Nazi who launches a brutal attack on a black man in a parking lot after the Nazi’s son laughed at a toy he was holding. To say what happens would minimize the impact, but a feature-length version is reportedly in the works, so stay tuned.

Documentary Short

Feature-length documentaries often take years of research. The advantage of a short-form documentary is its immediacy, showing what is going on in the world as we speak. Lifeboat follows rescue crews tasked with retrieving people who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, then letting the migrants themselves tell their stories. PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE. examines the taboo of menstruation in India from the point of view of a pad manufacturer that, in order to sell its product, must combat rampant misinformation.

A Night at the Garden is an assembly of footage from when the German American Bund, a Nazi organization, sold out Madison Square Garden for a rally. The towering image of George Washington surrounded by swastikas as Fritz Julius Kuhn shouts frighteningly familiar rhetoric will surely haunt anyone concerned about the rise of the far right.

End Game explores our relationship with death in a medical context, speaking with professionals in hospice and palliative care, as well as their patients and families. Despite its subject matter the film has a strong current of positivity, and shows why a relationship with death is so crucial to embracing what makes us human. Black Sheep—one of the best and most confessional in this category—features a man who grew up as the child of African immigrants in the U.K., reflecting on family and societal pressures, and how they led him to whiten his skin, wear blue contacts and seek the friendship of the racists who once tormented him. He tells his story with many mixed emotions, and the way he puts us in his shoes is truly gripping.

See the Oscar-Nominated Shorts at Violet Crown: animated, live-action, and documentary.

Local theater listings:

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

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