Oscars: Your Essential Guide to the Short Film Categories (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst offers his take on the prospects for each of this year's animated short, documentary short and live action short nominees.
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival; Courtesy of HBO; Courtesy of 2016 Oscar® Nominated Short Films/SHORTS HD
'World of Tomorrow,' 'Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah' and 'Day One'

Oscar pools can be won or lost on the shorts categories. There are three of them: best animated short, best documentary short and best live action short. Few people, in or out of the Academy, watch all five nominees in these categories. This is not for lack of effort on the part of the Academy, which sends copies to every member, or Shorts HD, which distributes them in select art-house theaters. It's just that most people have limited time and/or desire to see films about which they know little in advance.

So how does one predict winners in these categories? One has to know what is likeliest to appeal to the people who do watch the shorts, based on past history. And one has to know what is likeliest to appeal to the people who don't watch the shorts but decide to vote for something anyway, of which I assure you there are more than a few.

Here is my humble attempt at breaking down the prospects of this year's candidates. Feel free to share your thoughts/disagreements in the comments section at the bottom of the post.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

Prologue is the slightest of the nominees, running less than six minutes, and it's surrealistic, dialogue-free and includes a sequence of gruesome violence, so I have a hard time seeing it winning. And We Can't Live Without Cosmos, the story of two lifelong friends who work for a NASA-like institution and are then separated, tugs at the heart, but is animated in a fairly humdrum style. So my suspicion is that the winner will be one of the other three nominees, Bear Story, World of Tomorrow or Disney-Pixar's Sanjay's Super Team.

In all but three years in the 21st century, a Disney or Pixar short has been nominated in this category. This has happened for a few reasons: because those two companies — one since 2006 — have employed tremendously talented people; because Pixar and now Disney-Pixar shorts are screened in front of widely seen features; and because the Academy is now packed with employees of Disney-Pixar, since people who are nominated for or win an Oscar are generally invited to join the Academy the following year, and then tend to vote for the work of their employer. ("You'd have to be a ninny" not to, Joan Crawford once said, back in the days when actors, too, were under contract to a specific studio.) This doesn't guarantee a win for a Disney-Pixar short — Presto (2008), Day & Night (2010) and La Luna (2011) all came up short — but it certainly provides a built-in advantage.

This year's Disney-Pixar nominee, Sanjay's Super Team, depicts the story of an Indian boy — its director, Sanjay Patel — and his father learning to understand each other. It unfolds, without dialogue, in a bit more of a surrealistic way than most of Disney-Pixar's past shorts; at the same time, it's an example of beautiful computer-graphic animation, and brings some diversity in a year in which the Oscar nominations are lacking it. Still, I think the other two nominees are stronger films and will be regarded as such by voters who have seen more than just one nominee. The question is how many will have done so.

Bear Story is a tale about an anthropomorphic bear who, we learn, was cruelly separated from his family and forced to perform in a circus. Also dialogue-free, it's intricately animated and deeply moving, especially for animal lovers, so I could see it winning. But my pick is the category's sole nominee that does feature dialogue, Don Hertzfeldt's World of Tomorrow, which won the Grand Jury Prize for short films at last year's Sundance Film Festival and, unlike any of the other nominees, is currently available on Netflix. It blends a variety of forms of animation, from stick drawings to far more complex art, to tell an engaging sci-fi story about a little girl who meets her future self. It's darkly funny, thought-provoking (raising all sorts of questions about technological progress coming at the price of social disintegration) and in some respects reminds me of this category's winner from two years ago, Mr. Hublot.

My pick: World of Tomorrow

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

All five nominees in this category recount very powerful stories. Two will leave voters upset and three will inspire them, and I think those in the latter camp stand a better shot at prevailing than those in the former.

I have a hard time seeing voters getting behind Last Day of Freedom. Its narrator is a very likable and sympathetic figure who, for very personal reasons, opposes the death penalty; many voters may agree with that stance, but be turned off by other aspects of the film, not least of all the fact that it's animated and leaves one with little to take away from it except a sense of sadness.

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which HBO is distributing, is another one that leaves viewers wanting to blow their brains out. It recounts the horrifying story of a young Pakistani woman who survives an honor killing attempt by her father and uncle, who felt dishonored when she eloped to marry a man from a lower social class — and who then forgives them because the elders in her community and the elder in her husband's family ask her to do so. While the film offers a fascinating look into the thought process and inner-workings of a medieval patriarchal society, and has apparently shamed some Pakistani leaders into publicly repudiating the practice of honor killings, the "resolution" of the situation is one that leaves those of us from the Western world with a sense of hopelessness about ever being able to bridge the gap with those who are not.

Then there are the three that I see as more appealing options for most voters.

Body Team 12, which HBO is also distributing, and on which Paul Allen and Olivia Wilde served as executive producers, looks at another horrible situation in a distant part of the world — the Ebola crisis in Liberia — and celebrates one of its unsung heroes, the selfless, sole female member of a team that assumes the immensely hazardous task of safely removing the bodies of people who have died of Ebola from their homes and disposing of them. This is a woman who everyone can admire and feel good about celebrating, which is why I think the film stands a solid shot at winning.

Another deeply inspirational film — and one that tugs at the heartstrings even more, I dare say — is Chau: Beyond the Lines, a look at one of many young people in present-day Vietnam who are born with horrible physical disabilities as a result of their mother's exposure to Agent Orange dropped on their country by Americans during the Vietnam War. The film tracks Chau, who functions not unlike Daniel Day-Lewis' character in My Left Foot, from his days as a youngster deposited by his parents into an orphanage visited by photo-snapping tourists through his years-long quest to become an artist and designer. This is a film that reminds a viewer to stop complaining and making excuses about his or her own life because people find a way to be happy and accomplish their goals in spite of far greater adversity than most of the rest of us will ever face.

All that being said, I suspect that the eventual winner will be another HBO release, Adam Benzine's Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, a portrait of Claude Lanzmann, the 90-year-old Frenchman who devoted more than a decade of his life, and much of his soul, to creating the all-time most impressive and influential documentary about the Holocaust,1985's Shoah. The film is very well done and interesting — plus, one must acknowledge if one is being honest, some voters who haven't seen any of the films in this category will simply see the name "Claude Lanzmann" or the word "Shoah" in this nominee's title and check it off for that reason.

My pick: Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT

Ave Maria, the story of a bickering family of Orthodox Jews who accidentally crash their car into a statue outside a home in the West Bank that is occupied by nuns who have taken a vow of silence, is meant to be funnier than it is. I found it a bit absurd and corny and don't think it reflects especially well — or accurately — on Jews or Israelis, all reasons why I suspect voters will take a pass on it.

The German nominee Everything Will Be OK — not to be mistaken with a 2006 animated short by Hertzfeldt — shows a father, who has only partial custody of his young daughter, conspiring to kidnap her and take her out of the country. It's gripping but sadistic, well acted but creepy, and I can't quite deduce what the point of it was at all.

Many are predicting a win for Shok, a story — ostensibly based on a true one — of two kids caught up in the conflict between Albanians and Serbs during the Kosovo War. I found quite a bit of the acting stiff and also wasn't always able to delineate which side of the conflict certain characters fell on. A dark and upsetting ending struck me as the final strike against it, but we'll see.

Based on what the Academy has gone for in the past, my hunch is that the winner will be one of the two nominees not yet mentioned, Stutterer or Day One.

Stutterer is a fairly by-the-books but charming tale about a young man with a terrible stutter who essentially hides from the world, pretending to strangers that he is deaf and conducting his only romantic relationship online. The film has a predictable but happy ending, and it does follow in the footsteps of the Academy-favorite The King's Speech — but I'm putting my chips on the other one.

Day One, the one American-made film of the lot, tells the story of a female translator's first day on the job with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Written and directed by Henry Hughes, a U.S. Army vet who returned from his service and studied at the American Film Institute (and who has been mentored by George Lucas), it gives, in a short amount of time, a real sense of the sort of high-pressure situations American troops sometimes themselves under in that part of the world, and how it must be particularly difficult, in many respects, to be a female troop. It felt to me like it has greater potential than any of its fellow nominees to be developed into a feature — something Hughes is apparently trying to do — which I have found to be something that often can be said about this category's winner.

My pick: Day One

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