Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016: Live Action Review

Before kicking right into review mode, it’s important to cover some basic ground regarding the Academy’s selection for 2015’s best live action short. Every year, film schools around the world release countless thesis films, 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 is 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.) What can be said in 2016’s favor is that it’s perhaps the strongest list of finalists since 2012, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it feels unfair when directors like George Lucas (DAY ONE) and Michael Haneke (ALLES WIRD GUT) are even tangentially involved in the production of these films.

oscar ave maria


Director: Basil Khalil

Genre: Comedy

The token comedy of 2016 is Basil Khalil’s quirky culture-clash, AVE MARIA. When a Jewish family travelling on the Arab roads of the West Bank crash into a mother Mary statue, a group of nuns who have taken a vow of silence have to help the loud, helpless Jews during Shabbat. Both groups represent a different extreme of their culture’s religion, and the farcical humor derives from the absurdity of their incompatibility. For the most part, its narrative succeeds, although it consistently feels a little too simple for its own good and conflicts are resolved without any serious stakes. Furthermore, the film suffers from the odd plot hole that an extremely conservative Jewish man would be driving his car just minutes before Shabbat. Nonetheless, most of this can be shrugged off in favor of the film’s innocent desire for old-fashioned humor. Where Khalil’s film succeeds in concept, it fails in form, lazily presenting its comedy and not challenging itself as a piece of cinematic entertainment. Consequently, much of the film plays out like a filmed stage play. But perhaps the film’s most egregious fault is its failure to really say anything profound with its discussion on religions, ultimately using its characters as foils for comedy rather than making a profound claim on belief. What’s more, it seems unfair that Islam is left completely out of a film that takes place on the Palestinian border. Khalil’s film is never a weak film, but it often feels more like a great YouTube sketch than an Oscar-worthy short film.

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

oscar shok


Director: Jamie Donoughue

Genre: Drama

If the name Jamie Donoughue doesn’t already set off some red flags when considering the merits of a “true story” drama set during the Kosovo war, just consider that the director isn’t even Albanian, but British. SHOK is exactly the type of Oscar-bait built short film that frustrates the most during awards season. A novel story revolving around two best friends and a bicycle is rendered into sentimental drivel through sloppy visual execution, endless point-and-shoot talking head coverage, and lackluster child acting. Yet somehow SHOK received Oscar recognition. The reason is clear of course: Donoughue’s film is emotionally resonant, covers a conflict mostly untapped by Hollywood, and features a harrowing conclusion to its flashback narrative. But the problem is that the entire experience feels brutally inauthentic. Soldiers are diabolically evil to a cartoonish degree and the entire experience is framed to be an attention-grabbing tragedy; it ultimately feels more emotionally manipulative than anything else. Had an actual Serb or Albanian made this film, it certainly would have maintained a sense of authenticity that was lost in this cultural translation.

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

oscar alles wird gut


Director: Patrick Vollrath

Genre: Drama

Praised by Haneke and Kiarotsami, ALLES WIRD GUT is the type of short that must be worth watching for its emotional impact alone. For the most part, the two aforementioned directors are not wrong. Telling the story of a divorced father who tries to escape the country with his daughter, Patrick Vollrath’s kidnapping-divorce drama is deceptively simple yet emotionally resonant and is a fantastic showcase of performance talent, child directing, and tapping into the nuances of empathetic character tragedy. Vollrath doesn’t do anything spectacular with his camera and the film’s aesthetic feels mostly sidelined for its emotional resonance, but at least the film is a supreme gut-punch when it actually gets to business. Vollrath’s greatest asset is unequivocally the fact that he never panders to the expectations of a Hollywood short film. Going into this experience, one expects the third act to rely entirely on the father’s realization that what he’s doing is wrong, but it never stoops to shoehorning in a character arc. Instead, the film is about obsession, desperation, and paternal love, and accomplishes this in 30 minutes better than most features do in 90. Having said that, it becomes painstakingly obvious that the film is a little long for its own good. This mostly becomes apparent once its third act kicks into high gear, making one wonder why it took so long to get there. The film’s opening segments telegraph the father’s intentions so blatantly that the element of surprise is killed off almost instantly. It’s a shame because the tension still ratchets up quite well, but the film deserved a few more re-edits in order play out more deceptively.

Verdict: Recommend

oscar stutterer


Director: Benjamin Cleary

Genre: Drama

The closest that the 2016 live action nominees got to pure visual storytelling is Benjamin Cleary’s STUTTERER, a film that, as its name suggests, is about the paranoia that comes with being plagued with a stutter. Cleary’s film is short, sweet, funny, romantic, and most of all, a fantastic achievement in the visual relaying of information. STUTTERER does utilize voice-over and brief moments of dialogue, but never to assist its narrative. Instead, it does it to build character, a commendable feat on the director’s end and a clever means of keeping its story from feeling one-note. What’s frustrating about STUTTERER is how it treats its stakes, allowing its character to just make decisions because enough time has passed for him to mull over his mistakes. Consequently, the screenplay feels rather unrefined, despite the film’s strong aesthetic. Although STUTTERER never really succeeds as a particularly profound short film, it’s an endearing story through and through. What will certainly hold it back against its competition is its simplicity, because although Cleary does everything in his power to tell a compelling plot, nothing can save his film from how easily digestible and consequently forgettable it is.

Verdict: Recommend

oscar day one


Director: Henry Hughes

Genre: Drama

The American Film Institute ought to be proud. Not only is DAY ONE the unequivocal best short film of the 2016 Oscar shortlist, but a breathtaking short film from start to finish. Henry Hughes’ (who had spent two combat tours as a paratrooper in Afghanistan) story of a female interpreter’s first day at work is a harrowing portrayal of female responsibility in a patriarchal climate. Rarely do University thesis films make it into the Oscar big leagues, but DAY ONE is miles ahead of its competition this year, and an easy contender among DEEPER THAN YESTERDAY and SIX SHOOTER as one of the strongest written shorts in contemporary cinema. Visual indicators cleverly plant and pay off throughout the entire narrative, and gorgeous cinematography captures the horror and beauty in sweeping takes that never draw too much attention to themselves. Grizzly, yet never try-hard, the absence of a pro or anti-war agenda allows for DAY ONE to stand as a unique example of a short film that utilizes this milieu as a means to tell a compelling story of femininity in a male-dominated environment, rather than stooping to the obvious expectations of army films. Although Hughes opts for a some Hollywood-level optimism amid his unflinching backdrop, DAY ONE still leaves a resonant impact, and thanks to his personal experience in the field, the authenticity of the piece feels both unique and fresh.

Verdict: Recommend

"When I make love, I realize eating steak was the preferable alternative." Sergio is the Crossfader Film Editor and a film connoisseur from Romania. He pretends to understand culinary culture enough to call himself an LA foodie, but he just can't manage to like scallops.

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