Unless they are paired with the latest Pixar movie, short films tend to go unnoticed by the general viewing public. They offer filmmakers at the beginning of their career a way to hone their craft and get noticed by the industry, and a director’s first feature will often expand on a story concept they first explored in a short. With little in terms of marketing or distribution, they can be difficult to see outside of festivals, but the fifteen shorts nominated for Oscars this year are now available through the Jane Pickens Theater’s virtual cinema – $12 each for the Animated, Live Action, and Documentary categories, or all three together for $30. To give you a sense of what you’d get for your money, I’ll highlight a few of my favorites.
A couple of titles in the Animated category might already sound familiar: Burrow, the adorable entry from Pixar’s SparkShorts program, dropped on Disney+ the same day as Soul, while the powerfully touching If Anything Happens, I Love You has been devastating Netflix audiences since November. Watching them back-to-back would be… quite the rollercoaster. But my favorite of the bunch is Erick Oh’s Opera, which needs less than nine minutes to tackle the story behind all human civilization. It’s designed to be played on a loop, and you’ll want to watch it that way, focusing your eyes on a new corner of the screen each time the cycle restarts. I wasn’t expecting to find awe in a package of shorts, but Oh’s artful, intricate film manages to feel mythic.
The Live Action category also has creativity on offer, though some shorts are more tightly executed than others. Two Distant Strangers has an ingeniously brilliant concept that would’ve benefitted from a better script, and the restrained choreography of White Eye crackles with potential, but Farah Nabulsi’s The Present and Elvira Lind’s The Letter Room are the two obvious standouts. The first is a gentle, empathetic look at the hoops a Palestinian man must jump through to buy an anniversary present for his wife; the second stars the talented Oscar Isaac as a compassionate prison guard put in charge of screening incoming mail. Both are finely tuned, engrossing stories that speak to the talent behind the camera and will hopefully lead to bigger opportunities for both directors.
And finally, the Documentary category is a curious mix of politics and poetics, and though Do Not Split and Hunger Ward make strong attempts to turn our eyes to the crises unfolding in Hong Kong and Yemen, respectively, I responded more strongly to the films that foregrounded their artistry. A Concerto Is A Conversation from Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers uses a conversation between Bowers, who is an award-winning composer, and his grandfather to explore family, race, and art, thoughtfully edited to keep the wider significance in constant focus. And A Love Song for Latasha, which revisits the convenience-store shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1991, is willing to dip into visual abstraction to ask what such a tragic loss of life really means to the people that feel it most. These two are worth spending some time with – as are all the shorts mentioned here, really. And with JPT making them available to watch at home through April 25, that’s especially easy this year. Click here for details.