Though rarely given their due at the ceremony, the Oscars marks the one time a year most American audiences encounter short films. With more government arts funding available in other countries, short film is a more respected endeavor internationally, seen as a valued art form on its own rather than a mere stepping stone to making a feature. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that only one of the five Oscars nominees for Best Live Action Short hails from a U.S. filmmaker.
Though not much ties the nominees together thematically, each film sheds light on some specific window of human suffering, from personal grief to long-endured discrimination. As with most compelling stories, the search for connection, belonging, and coping with the world’s cruelty pulls focus.
Ranging in tone from futuristic satire to gritty rural drama, the films in this section offer as broad a range of filmmaking styles as they do perspectives. In “Please Hold,” a man tries to navigate an entirely automated prison system after he is wrongfully arrested. “On My Mind” sees a hapless soon-to-be widower become obsessed with recording a karaoke song for his wife. In the beautifully shot “Alu Kachuu,” an ambitious young girl is abducted into a forced marriage. “The Long Goodbye” is an adrenaline-fueled nightmare about deportation and ethnic cleansing. And “The Dress” is a tough portrait of the life of a little person working as a motel housekeeper in rural Poland. Here’s a ranking of all five contenders.
Though producer and star Riz Ahmed and director Aneil Karia were deliberate to separate this short from the hip hop album sharing its name, “The Long Goodbye” ends up feeling more like a conceptual music video than a narrative short film. In this tense 12-minute spin through a British-Pakistani man’s worst nightmare, what begins as a simple domestic scene pivots on a dime as armed guards swarm the family home, arresting everyone and worse.
The film shifts wildly in tone once again, finishing with Ahmed delivering an emotional rap as a soliloquy to the camera. The music from Ahmed’s 2020 album, including this final monologue, provides a thrumming rhythm to the whiplash-inducing action. The specter of xenophobia in Britain and the Western world is abundantly clear, but with very little character development or narrative arc, the humanity needed to really pack an emotional punch is nowhere to be found.
Written and directed by K.D. Dávila, this sci-fi inflected satire bears similarities to last year’s winning film in the category, Travon Free’s “Two Distant Strangers.” Both pitch black comedies, that film saw a young Black man reliving the day of his death at the hands of a white police officer in a nightmarish “Groundhog Day”-inspired time loop. “Please Hold” combines the horrors of the surveillance state with a broken justice system to create a not-too-distant future run entirely by artificial intelligence. While they may not sound too funny, both films succeed at finding mirth in the madness.
The film stars Erick Lopez as a working-class Latino man who is arrested by a drone cop without explanation, and thrown into a privatized automated prison cell. As he fights with the robotic touch screen, his only contact with the outside world, he spirals further down a Kafka-esque labyrinth for the tech age. Despite the thinly-veiled allegory highlighting our very broken justice system, the film finds levity in its futuristic premise, like when he must frantically crochet baby hats for phone call money, or try to talk to a clueless public defender who looks like Microsoft Word’s Clippy. Unfortunately, the setup is a little too gimmicky to produce a biting satire with real teeth.
Shot in Kyrgyzstan, the gorgeous landscapes and bright colors take on a menacing hue in this tragic drama, named for a form of bride kidnapping still practiced today. The sun-soaked visuals offer a blindingly stark contrast to the menacing action, playing elegantly against the increasing horrors of the situation. The film is led by a gripping performance from Alina Turdumamatova as Sezim, an ambitious young woman who hopes to study in the big city of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Running away from home to stay with a friend who invites her into “the 21st century,” she is bracingly yanked back to her former reality when she is kidnapped by a man she has never met and forced to marry him. As the walls begin to close in and her family’s involvement dawns on her, Sezim must learn that she can only depend on herself for her freedom.
The longest entry at 40 minutes, “Ala Kachuu” establishes many characters and storylines, perhaps too many. There’s Sezim’s mother, sister, and father, as well as her husband, mother-in-law, and grandmother-in-law. There’s also her city friend and her mother, whose own small drama plays in the background as a warning of Sezim’s future if she disappoints her family. Playful and ambitious, Sezim’s story could have easily played out with more focus on her internal journey. The film feels like it wanted to be a feature, and instead squeezed a three-act drama and a coming-of-age story into a short.
Exuding something akin to the tough naturalism of a Sean Baker film, this gritty drama offers an impressive rendering of the life of a young woman with dwarfism. The film is anchored by two fascinating performances, from sardonic protagonist Julia (Anna Dieduszycka), and her life-hardened older co-worker Renata (Dorota Pomykala). The two women work as maids at a roadside motel in a small town in Poland, on the border with Ukraine. Julia, sometimes affectionately called Julka, spends her down time smoking like a chimney and playing slots at the local dive. When a handsome stranger gives her the eye, he ignites her not-so-latent sexual desires, and she dares to hope for romance.
In what may be a first for an Oscar nominee, the film shows Julia masturbating, luxuriating naked in an unmade bed, and enjoying her sexuality. It’s a wrenchingly humanizing window into her life, made all the more difficult to watch by the discrimination and harassment she faces daily. A cruel but clever sleight of hand sets up a shockingly sobering ending, an emotional gut punch that seems to favor reality over fantasy.
An emotional drama with a gently comedic undertone, Martin Strange Hansen’s gentle charmer “On My Mind” follows a hapless grieving man’s (Rasmus Hammerich) singular mission to sing karaoke for his dying wife. The morning the doctors plan to take her off life support, he stumbles into a local watering hole, where he encounters a sweet bartender Louise (Camilla Bendix) and her ornery boss Preben (Ole Boisen). A minor farce ensues as the buxom bartender, eager to lend a shoulder to the bearded stranger, goes head to head against her cruelly indifferent bar owner. Deep in grief, Henrik stumbles around like a lost puppy dog caught between the two opposing forces, careening amusingly between obstinate and blubbering.
His interrupted performance of Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” provides a perfect blend of touching musical interlude and comedic relief. He may not be the best singer, but his heart is in the right place. The humor is played up by the opposing reactions from sentimental Louise and unmoved Preben, who represent the film’s diametric themes. In just 16 minutes, “On My Mind” establishes a wealth of interesting relationships to offer a touching ode to the universal experience of grief.