Once again, it’s time for me to handicap the Academy Awards short subject categories — and who knows, maybe this time I’ll finally get them right. Regardless of my personal success or failure rate, however, this year’s slate of animated and live action shorts (opening Friday, Feb. 9 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas) is a varied and (almost) uniformly fine collection.
The only thing close to a dud in the Animated category is Dear Basketball, a sentimental love song to a sport I’ve never enjoyed or understood. Burdened with a bombastic John Williams’ score, the film is narrated (and was apparently the brainchild of) basketball star Kobe Bryant. While Bryant’s passion is obvious, I wasn’t impressed by director Glen Keane’s animation (and yes, he is the son of ‘Family Circus‘ creator Bil Keane — and, for better or worse, it shows).
Pixar’s entry, Lou, suggests the studio is treading water and — dare I say it? — becoming a wee bit predictable. I couldn’t help but think that Lou — the story of a schoolyard bully who learns a valuable life lesson — was at least in part inspired by The Simpsons’ Nelson Muntz.
Garden Party is a truly impressive example of computer animation, albeit presented via a paper-thin story about amphibians enjoying a quiet reverie in an otherwise deserted back yard. Though beautiful to look at, the film’s jarring Sunset Boulevard-style dénouement is probably going to work against it.
From France comes Negative Space, an inventive lesson in packing luggage (and other things) blessed with a gorgeous score by Brian Meindersma. As much as it impressed me, though, Negative Space‘s five-minute running time is probably too brief to impress voters.
A wry mash-up of ‘Snow White’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, and ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ Revolting Rhymes is a BBC production based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name. At almost 30 minutes in length, it’s as long as the other four nominees combined, and frankly could have been longer. If it doesn’t win on Oscar night I’ll be disappointed (but not, of course, surprised).
This year’s Live Action shorts are even more evenly matched, and while it might be a cop-out to say any of them could win, it’s probably the truth. That said, I won’t be surprised if The Silent Child, an advocacy film about a deaf youngster, walks away winless thanks to its rather unsatisfying conclusion.
Watu Wote (All Of Us) recreates a 2015 al-Shabaab attack along the Kenya-Somalia border, and, while its heart is certainly in the right place, the film’s analysis seems a tad simplistic. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive and promising film school final project by German director Katja Benrath.
Outstanding performances by Tarra Riggs and Bo Mitchell are the highlight of DeKalb Elementary, another ‘based on a true story’ film about the disruption of an Atlanta school day by an armed man. Offering little in the way of motivation for its protagonist, the film’s message seems to be —depressingly — that this was just another day in gun-mad America.
Australia’s The Eleven O’Clock is a very cleverly written comedy-drama about a psychologist and his patient… or is it the other way around? I suspect it’ll be this year’s runner-up, as the Academy tends to prefer gravitas when giving out gongs…
…which brings us to our fifth and final nominee. My Nephew Emmett dramatizes the 1955 night when African-American teen Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman in rural Mississippi. It’s understated yet powerful, with L.B. Williams’ graceful performance as Till’s uncle Mose of particular note, and should probably be considered the favorite.