Oscars 2018 Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Short

So what we do here each year as a warm up for the Oscars is, I break down each of the 24 categories. The idea is to both familiarize everyone with the category and its history. I look at what the major trends are throughout the past bunch of years, how the precursors tend to go, whether they matter or not, that sort of stuff. I look at how the category came to be this year, and just anything else that seems totally pertinent about it. Then I rank each of the nominees and tell you what their likelihood (at this particular moment in time) of winning is.

This is all prelude to my giant Oscar ballot that I’m gonna give you. But I figure, if you have these as the warmup, it’s not as intimidating. You’ll have seen a lot of the pertinent trends here and we’ll all be able to reference these as a sort of cheat sheet. Plus it shows you where my head is at for how I think each of the categories are gonna go, and you can see me working my way up to all the bad decisions I usually make while guessing. Pretty much, with this, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the category is gonna turn out.

Today is Best Documentary Short. Possibly the second least interesting category in the entire show. Get hyped!

Year Best Documentary (Short Subject) Winners
1941 Churchill’s Island
1942 The Battle of Midway

Kokoda Front Line!

Moscow Strikes Back

Prelude to War

1943 December 7th
1944 With the Marines at Tarawa
1945 Hitler Lives
1946 Seeds of Destiny
1947 First Steps
1948 Toward Independence
1949 (tie) A Chance to Live

So Much for So Little

1950 Why Korea?
1951 Benjy
1952 Neighbours
1953 The Alaskan Eskimo
1954 Thursday’s Children
1955 Men against the Arctic
1956 The True Story of the Civil War
1957 No Award Given.
1958 Ama Girls
1959 Glass
1960 Giuseppina
1961 Project Hope
1962 Dylan Thomas
1963 Chagall
1964 Nine from Little Rock
1965 To Be Alive!
1966 A Year Toward Tomorrow
1967 The Redwoods
1968 Why Man Creates
1969 Czechoslovakia 1968
1970 Interviews with My Lai Veterans
1971 Sentinals of Silence
1972 This Tiny World
1973 Princeton: A Search for Answers
1974 Don’t
1975 The End of the Game
1976 Number Our days
1977 Gravity Is My Enemy
1978 The Flight of the Gossamer Condor
1979 Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist
1980 Karl Hess: Toward Liberty
1981 Close Harmony
1982 If You Love This Planet
1983 Flamenco at 5:15
1984 The Stone Carvers
1985 Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements
1986 Women – for America, for the World
1987 Young at Heart
1988 You Don’t Have to Die
1989 The Johnstown Flood
1990 Days of Waiting
1991 Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment
1992 Educating Peter
1993 Defending Our Lives
1994 A Time for Justice
1995 One Survivor Remembers
1996 Breathing Lesosns: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien
1997 A Story of Healing
1998 The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years
1999 King Gimp
2000 Big Mama
2001 Thoth
2002 Twin Towers
2003 Chernobyl Heart
2004 Mighty Times: The Children’s March
2005 A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin
2006 The Blood of Yingzhou District
2007 Freeheld
2008 Smile Pinki
2009 Music by Prudence
2010 Strangers No More
2011 Saving Face
2012 Inocente
2013 The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life
2014 Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
2015 A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
2016 The White Helmets
2017 Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405

There are no precursors for this one. All we really have is knowing what has won previously and what they go for.

Here are your last ten winners of the category:

  • 2017 — Mentally ill artist overcomes her illness to create art
  • 2016 —  Men who save people from the rubble of buildings in Syria
  • 2015 — Honor killing in the Middle East.
  • 2014 — Hotline for veterans having PTSD problems.
  • 2013 — Holocaust survivor plays music every day and used music to overcome the horrors she’s encountered in her life
  • 2012 — Homeless girl paints in order to overcome her situation and surroundings.
  • 2011 — Doctor who performs surgeries on Iranian women who have had acid thrown in their faces
  • 2010 — School in Israel has kids from 30 different countries and all different backgrounds coming together to learn
  • 2009 — A girl with a deformity overcomes the prejudice against people with her condition (in her country, people with her deformity are usually left for dead or cast aside) to make music
  • 2008 — A little girl in India is given surgery to fix a cleft palate.

They definitely have a type.

Best Documentary Short

Black Sheep

End Game


A Night at the Garden

Period. End of Sentence.

So there was a shortlist of ten, and I’m not overly surprised at what was nominated. Of the five they didn’t nominate — Los Comandos sounded up their alley, but I wasn’t able to see it, so I can’t say why they didn’t go there. Women of the Gulag sounded like a nominee, but the production values looked subpar based on the brief clip I saw. Maybe that had something to do with it. Zion didn’t feel like a fully formed documentary (and I hate that my saying that sounds like me making a horrible joke, but I’m not. It just doesn’t feel like they’re telling a story so much as presenting a subject and leaving it at that). My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes would have been the best nominee ever on title alone, but that’s another one that didn’t really amount to much past the title. It didn’t go anywhere or reveal anything, even though it could have been great. ’63 Boycott is the one that surprised me in that they didn’t go for it. A Night at the Garden is kind of the same deal, using past events to connect them to present-day, but that one is much more at the forefront of today’s issues. So that omission is the only one that surprised me.

Otherwise — A Night at the Garden is the only surprise for me that it got on. It’s just old Nazi footage and nothing else. But hey, they went for it. So sure. And Lifeboat… I thought they were “over” the whole refugee crisis (they tend to move on from topics once they’ve “addressed” them with an award, thereby, in their mind, helping solve them), so that was one I wasn’t really expecting. But hey, I guess not. The other ones make different degrees of sense.

Quick breakdown of what they’re all about:

  • Black Sheep — Cornelius’ mother, scared for her son’s safety, moved their family out of London. Cornelius suddenly found himself living on a white estate run by racists. Rather than fight back, Cornelius decided to become more like the people who hated him. But as the violence and racism against other black people continued, Cornelius struggled to marry his real identity with the one he had acquired.
  • End Game — Facing an inevitable outcome, terminally ill patients meet extraordinary medical practitioners seeking to change our approach to life and death.
  • Lifeboat — Volunteers from a German non-profit risk the waves of the Mediterranean to pluck refugees from sinking rafts pushing off from Libya in the middle of the night. LIFEBOAT puts a human face on one of the world’s greatest contemporary, global crises and provides a spark of hope surrounding how civil society can intervene in the refugee crisis in a meaningful way.
  • A Night at the Garden — Archival footage of an American Nazi rally that attracted 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden in 1939, shortly before the beginning of World War 2.
  • Period. End of Sentence — In an effort to improve feminine hygiene, a machine that creates low-cost biodegradable sanitary pads is installed in a rural village in Northern India. Using the machine, a group of local women is employed to produce and sell pads, offering them newfound independence and helping to de-stigmatize menstruation for all.

Kind of an interesting year. Not a whole lot in the way of what they normally go for. Makes it seem pretty simple, honestly. I’ve seen all but Lifeboat, so I can speak relatively intelligently about what I’ve seen, if that even matters. Here’s what I’m seeing so far on this one:


5. A Night at the Garden — You can watch the entire short here. Does this seem like something they’re gonna vote for? I feel like voters are gonna look at it and go, “Where’s the rest of it?” And I get it. It’s both a document of historical record to say, “Look, this wasn’t just happening in Germany. The Nazis held a rally right here in the most famous arena in the country and people attended,” and also a clear comparison to the current president and the rallies he holds (and the general ideology of the administration and all that). Totally get it, and that may work for some voters. I just don’t see how this can be an Oscar winner over a Criterion remaster release. Can’t see this being anything other than a fifth choice, because I can’t see how anyone actually votes for this as a winner. MAYBE I make it fourth to not get caught not having it in case it wins, but I can’t see how anyone sees this as a potential frontrunner in any way.

4. Lifeboat — It’s Aleppo. They’ve moved on. They have. Analysis is about objectively seeing where the Academy is at on their decision-making, and this is not the topic du jour. The White Helmets was two years ago. They put an Aleppo documentary on the Feature list last year, but it’s basically just there to be a nominee. This feels like more of the same. It’s the only nominee I haven’t seen, which is what’s preventing me from putting it fifth at the moment. I gotta see it to truly know what it is and what I feel its chances are. That said, I can’t see this winning. Maybe it’s great. We’ll see. Right now, I don’t see it any higher than fourth. Right now, the top two are very clearly spelled out and everything else is battling for third at best.

3. Black Sheep — It’s about race, and that’s a huge topic nowadays. Not sure the whole short fully comes together enough for them to want to vote for it, but at least on the topic, it has sort of what they go for. Basically, “We moved out of a city because of racial violence, but surprise, racists are everywhere!” It’s interesting in that it has a narrative of sorts that could easily be turned into a movie (they like that). You see how the kid was changed by this attitude and almost became a different person because of it. So maybe it’ll get votes. My history with this category tells me it probably won’t win, but none of us know anything. (By the way, this is on Prime, so you can easily see this should you want to.) It’s never going higher than third for me just because the other two have more compelling reasons to list them as frontrunners. Maybe it could win. It has half the criteria going for it.

2. End Game — It’s Netflix. Therefore more people had the opportunity to see it and more people might vote for it because of that. It’s looking more and more that people won’t be swayed by Netflix just throwing money at this category. They got nominated in this category the past two years for similar documentaries and both lost. (Though granted, one of those lost to The White Helmets, which was also Netflix.) One of them, Extremis, is like, the exact same documentary as this one. That one was about emergency room situations and this is about end of life situations. Not much different and no real emotional hook other than, “Yes, I understand how this is hard from personal experience with (this relative).” So because it’s Netflix I have to put it second, but I can’t see this being the winner because it generally doesn’t fit with what they go for. And I’m starting to have enough of a track record in this to see that people don’t necessarily care how much money Netflix has — they’re gonna vote for what they liked best. So I’ll put it second, but I’m not sure this has the legs to win.

1. Period. End of Sentence. — So Netflix sent End Game out as a screener to Academy members once it was nominated. However, they sent it with this short as well. Which means this is going to be on Netflix, even though it is not yet at the moment. So it’s both Netflix and exactly the kind of thing they go for in this category. Look at the past ten winners. And now if I randomly added in there “about Indian women trying to make menstruation pads and overcome the stigma about menstruation in their country,” would that not immediately fit in as a winner? And, I don’t feel like this is an insignificant detail — the publicist who runs Netflix’s entire Oscar campaign (that is across the board campaign, from Roma to this), who also used to run Harvey’s campaigns back in the day (oh, and also ran the campaigns for both La La Land and Moonlight)… is a producer on this film. Really hard to not consider this the frontrunner. And that’s before I gave you that piece of information. At this point, I’d be surprised if this lost. Not gonna call it a lock, because you can never really call something a lock in a shorts category, but come on, now. This is a clear favorite in this category.

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