Look closely: thematic bonds link this year’s five Best Live-Action Short Film contenders, even if they don’t appear to be tightly connected. There are the usual “kids in peril” offerings (both with big twists, some of which work, some of which don’t), a pair of differently-bent projects about modern connection and voyeurism, and a timely examination of what happens after war has seemingly ended.
And yet, for all the myriad tones and narratives tucked inside this year’s five compelling nominees, each of them is run through with one prevailing emotion: hope. It’s hope in many forms, of course, but each of the nominees is built on an (oftentimes tenuous, occasionally crazy) hope for something better, something bigger, something more.
Of course, those desires don’t always lead into the easiest of situations (drama still rules the category, though our top pick comes with a wonderful comedic twist that helps place it apart from the crowd), and not every character actively participates in even considering the possibility of dreaming of more, but nonetheless, this year’s live action shorts open windows into worlds all deserving of that next step.
Here’s a ranking of all five contenders.
USA (23 minutes)
Based on a real-life event at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala in 2017, Bryan Buckley’s film attempts to package a still mostly unknown (and tragically so) disaster into a narrative focused on a pair of sisters, an understandable gamble that ultimately falls short. Closely bonded siblings Saria and Ximena cling to each other in the so-called “safe home,” attempting to find happiness in small pockets in an orphanage run by people who seemingly couldn’t care less about their charges.
Eventually, the sisters and their friends hatch a daring plan to survive, one built around seemingly spontaneous protests, utter confusion, and a giant tree that may provide a path out of the building and perhaps even all the way to a new life in America. Buckley’s stars (Estefania Tellez and Gabriela Ramirez) are engaging, but the script does them no favors, skipping over big chunks of story (all the more damning, considering its fact-based roots) and never allowing any of their adversaries the possibility of being more than just evil goons. The story is deserving of the film treatment, but perhaps a documentary might have mined more complex shades.
Tunisia and Canada (24 minutes)
The longest nominee in the category feels it, too. Initially a slow-moving look inside seemingly calm farm life — there are ailing sheep, life lessons, a pair of charming brothers — that balance is shaken when the oldest of the family’s boys returns home from fighting in Syria. His service isn’t a source of pride for his family (and, despite its title, the film is far more concerned with his bond with his towering father than his siblings), because his lack of communication while away has only added to the confusion of who he was actually fighting for.
And then his brand new wife appears, seemingly sealing the deal: young, Syrian, covered in the full niqab, and only stoking his parents’ worries that he’s defected to battling for the “wrong side” of the battle. Meeryam Joobeur’s film takes its time unspooling key revelations that often feel like strange twists, seesawing between overly explaining unexpected upheavals (including one wholly constructed on a wild act of pure hope) and masking actions that will later prove essential.
Beautiful filmmaking glosses over many uneven narrative elements, but the final sequence — while gorgeously shot — leaves much to be revealed, and the film closes out just as it was reaching its most compelling heights.
Belgium (16 minutes)
Economically packaged and appropriately claustrophobic, Delphine Girard’s short hits the ground running and never lets up, proof positive of the wicked power of just 16 strong minutes of filmmaking. On a dark night, a car speeds along a quiet highway. The driver (Guillaume Duhesme) is hard to make out, as is his obviously terrified passenger (Selma Alaoui), who cleverly masks her fear with a big bluff: she needs to call her sister to check in.
The titular sister in question is the nameless Veerle Baetens, a 911 call center operator who is initially baffled by the chattering woman on the phone who seems unable to answer a straight question. Soon, however, the operator catches on to the ruse, and the pair attempt to navigate a rescue in the toughest of circumstances.
Narratively similar to Gustav Möller’s recent Danish drama “The Guilty,” Girard cuts her story to its very best parts, and adds in a compelling thread about the nature of unexpected sisterhood. It hits hard, and every minute is a good one.
USA (20 minutes)
And for his fourth Oscar nomination, filmmaker Marshall Curry is trying something totally different: narrative! The “Street Fight” and “A Night at the Garden” documentarian is back in the fray with his first scripted offering, led by the charms of the always-a-pleasure-to-watch Maria Dizzia. While “The Neighbors’ Window” provides somewhat predictable messaging — real “grass is greener” stuff — it still packs an emotional wallop that hints at Curry’s ability to span genre with style.
Dizzia and Greg Keller play a pair of harried New York parents who can’t possibly ignore the particularly acrobatic activities of their sexy new neighbors who live in the building next door. No, they don’t have curtains, and why would they want them? While both Dizzia’s Alli and Keller’s Jacob have a growing interest in the duo — and perhaps the possibility that their own sex lives might again reflect the wildness across the street — Curry’s film never feels salacious or creepy.
Time passes, Alli and Jacob’s family grows, a trusty pair of binoculars changes hands, and eventually the pair must come to terms with what all their voyeurism means. Soon enough, the neighbors’ lives change, too, highlighting the unpredictability of life and forcing their eagle-eyed viewers to consider what they’re really looking at. Elegantly, empathetically made, it’s a stellar short and a wonderful look at what Curry’s next chapter (and perhaps also Dizzia’s? she’s more than due another leading role of her own).
France (17 minutes)
By the time Yves Piat’s utterly winning (and totally charming) short gets to the donkey wearing headphones while blithely standing around a dessert with a massive pack of drugs on his pack, it’s clear that the French production isn’t taking any traditional routes. Set in Tunisia, the film follows a pair of loving, but very different brothers (Eltayef Dahoui and Mohamed Ali Avari) who bond over their shared affection for soccer (okay, okay, football). When they stumble upon the aforementioned donkey, the film ably mines familiar ideas and worries — when has it ever been good for anyone to find a bag of drugs in the desert? — and transforms them into something fresh and new.
Piat nimbly threads comedy, drama, and a generous dash of sports action to craft a wholly unexpected short filled with plenty of delights. Dahoui and Avari turn in amusing, unaffected performances that only further drive home the wonderful originality of “NEFTA Football Club,” and a finale far too good to spoil.
ShortsTV will release the 2020 Oscar nominated short films on more than 500 screens across the United States on January 31, 2020.