Oscars 2020: Best Live Action Short Shortlist

Today we’re going over Live Action Shrot because, as much as I want to wait to see if I can find most of these, not only have I been unable thus far to do that, there’s also no chance I’d actually have done it by the time this article went up. So we’re just gonna go over it now, because the other categories actually do have stuff I’m watching. Plus, let’s not pretend like 98% of people give any fucks about this category (even though there’s usually some good stuff on it).

Here’s your Live Action Short shortlist:

Bittu
Da Yie
Feeling Through
The Human Voice
The Kicksled Choir
The Letter Room
The Present
Two Distant Strangers
The Van
White Eye

BittuA close friendship between two girls is eclipsed by an accidental poisoning at school.

The entire short is (was, maybe by the time this goes up before I notice) on Vimeo.

https://vimeo.com/505266010

Da Yie — Young Matilda and Prince are taken on a life-changing trip by a stranger. Kids, gangsters and Ghana’s vibrant coast as you’ve never seen them.

Feeling Through — A late-night encounter on a New York City street leads to a profound connection between a teen-in-need and a DeafBlind man.

This is/was on YouTube:

The Human Voice — A woman watches time passing next to the suitcases of her ex-lover (who is supposed to come pick them up, but never arrives) and a restless dog who doesn’t understand that his master has abandoned him. Two living beings facing abandonment. (This is directed by Pedro Almodovar, from a play by Jean Cocteau, and stars Tilda Swinton.)

The Kicksled Choir — Ten-year-old Gabriel loves to sing and has one desire: to sing in the local choir. The group rides kick-sled through the snowy landscape of Northern-Norway and is known for their kindness and charity towards the village refugees. But when Gabriel’s father gets into a fight with one of the local refugees, Gabriel’s quest to join The Kicksled Choir becomes challenging.

The Letter Room — When a corrections officer is transferred to the letter room, he soon finds himself enmeshed in a prisoner’s deeply private life. (This stars Oscar Isaac.)

The Present — On his wedding anniversary, Yusef and his young daughter set out in the West Bank to buy his wife a gift. Between soldiers, segregated roads and checkpoints, how easy would it be to go shopping?

Two Distant Strangers — Cartoonist Carter James’ repeated attempts to get home to his dog are thwarted by a recurring deadly encounter that forces him to re-live the same awful day over and over again. Starring Joey Bada$$, Andrew Howard and Zaria Simone.

The Van — The Van stops, the doors open, and Ben comes out alive. Another few fights and he will be able to leave Albania. He still hopes his father will leave with him.

(This short is available on Amazon.)

White Eye — A man finds his stolen bicycle, which now belongs to a stranger. While attempting to retrieve it, he struggles to remain human.

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So I made it a point to not even watch the trailers for these so as not to sway my thinking on them. Since I want to try to see as many as I can before nominations. And that almost never happens, but that’s the goal. So I’ll wait to expose myself to any of these in any meaningful way and just guess this one for now purely on what I know from the synopses and who made them/is in them.

Feeling Through

The Human Voice

The Kicksled Choir

The Letter Room

The Present

Alternate: White Eye

Dark Horse: Da Yie

Surprise: The Van, Bittu, Two Distant Strangers

There’s no such thing as a shock in this category, and even the surprise category is only there because I had to put the other contenders somewhere. Again, this is based solely on my gut. Almost all of these sound like they could get on, but until I see them/trailers, I really don’t know.

I’m going on — The Present sounds like the kind of short that, if done correctly, should get on. The Human Voice nobody is betting against, with Almodovar and Swinton. Oscar Isaac could be enough star power on The Letter Room and I’ll be on that for now. But it is his wife who made it, and maybe the shortlist is the respect they’re showing and it actually won’t get on. That might actually be where I go with this in the end, depending on what I can see/how I’m feeling at the time. But for now, we’ll toss it on to show it respect. Plus it sounds like it’s more comedic and they like those comedic ones here and there. Kicksled Choir just sounds exactly like what wins this and the title is unique enough that it should for sure get enough votes to get on. So I’m never betting against that one. And Feeling Through just sounds like their speed if it’s any good. So that’s why I went those five, and the other five just had to go below. I randomly picked where they went because, as I said… haven’t seen anything yet.

I’ll become versed in this by the time we get to nominations, but for now, you have two of them and trailers for the rest. We’re all in the same boat here. We don’t get any help with this. So it’s just guesswork based on what you see in the shorts (if you’re lucky enough to see them) and how they usually vote. So we have three weeks to figure it out.

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UPDATE:

I ended up watching seven of the ten shorts. At the moment I have YET to see The Human Voice, The Kicksled Choir or Two Distant Strangers.

The other seven I’ll review here, so as to not waste room in my eventual Oscar predictions article:

Bittu

This is a short about a girl named Bittu who goes to a rural Indian school. Her best friend is Chand and they, despite occasionally getting into fights are inseparable. One day, after being embarrassed in class, Bittu storms outside to sulk. Chand comes out, only to find that Bittu is mad at her because she laughed along with everyone else. Eventually Bittu dumps ink on Chand’s shirt and gets into a fight with her. The teacher comes out and, having discovered that she stole his ink (the implication being that this is a very poor and isolated school and he can barely afford supplies), sends her to the principal’s office.

The principal, meanwhile, runs the school and her son owns the local shop where the school gets all their supplies, food, etc. The school cook goes to get oil for cooking lunch, only to discover that the containers for bringing the oil smell really bad. She tells the principal that something is wrong but the principal dismisses her and tells her to use what they have. Bittu, sent outside as punishment and told she won’t be getting any lunch, ends up coming in and helping the cook with the food. The cook gives her money to go to the shop and get tobacco (with a little extra to get a snack for herself). Bittu runs off and, on the way to the shop, encounters a wedding party dancing in the street. She dances with them for a while until she sees the principal rush past toward the shop. Thinking she’s going to get in trouble, she sneaks away and heads back to school. The principal arrives at the shop and asks her son what was in the containers used to transport the oil. He says pesticides for the plants. Meanwhile Bittu returns to the school and finds Chand and all the other students who ate the lunch dead.

This is quite the short. It slow plays where it’s going and is apparently based on a true story. I’m not sure if it’s based on the director herself or someone she knows, but it’s a harrowing little tale of a girl whose life was only saved because she happened to get in trouble that day.

Da Yie

This is set in Ghana and is about a boy named Prince. Tasked with watching his sister while his mother went out for some errands, he is convinced by his best friend Matilda to come play soccer. He does, but loses track of time and gets home to find his mother furious. He runs away, determined to wait until she calms down. So he returns to the field to hang out with Matilda. Suddenly a nice car pulls up with a well-dressed foreign man who invites the two out for some food. Matilda readily agrees and Prince, while hesitant, also agrees (knowing his mother is mad at him and he can’t go home anyway). The three get food, ride around in the man’s car, go to the beach (where the man helps Prince overcome his fear of the ocean) and film everything on a camcorder the man gave to Prince. Eventually the three go to a bar to watch the night’s soccer match. It’s there the man receives a call and we realize that he is a gang member tasked with finding two kids for a ‘job’ later that night. Only we start to see that he’s having second thoughts, having spent the day with the kids and taking a liking to them. But, pretty much forced to, he brings the kids to a very nice house/compound where the kids hang around these older gang members. Though after the gang leader sees the boy filming everything (innocently), he starts to get upset. And as the man tries to calm him and make it so the kids can get away, the other gang members suddenly start beating him. The kids then run away and end up on the street with no idea where they are. Eventually they’re able to get a ride home and say goodnight to one another (which is what the title means), as the boy goes and hides the camera he’d been using to film the day’s exploits.

It’s a nice little short. I felt myself very much invested in the early parts with the two kids. Then the guy showed up and you sort of knew where it was going. Only it never really got there and then just sort of rushed to a finish. I feel like this would’ve been better had they had the time to expand on everything and add in extra subplots and subtleties between the characters, because they hint at it but not enough for me to feel like they fully fleshed out everything the way I’d want them to. Still, it’s very engaging for what it is.

Feeling Through

This is about a homeless teen who, in trying to find a place to stay for the night, meets a deaf-blind man who needs help to get to the bus to get home. The teen begrudgingly takes him there, hoping to get him on the bus soon because he managed to find a place to stay. The man (who communicates via a notepad) asks to go to a bodega because he’s thirsty. The teen takes him there and buys him a drink. He also buys himself a candy bar and pockets some of the change for himself. They head back only to discover that they missed the bus. As they wait for the next one, they get to know a bit more about one another, exchanging names. The man feels the teen’s hand and realizes he’s young. Each asks what the other is doing out so late and both reply that they’re on a date. The two nod off as they wait and at one point, the teen wakes up to find out he’s lost his chance at a place to stay for the night. He then looks over the man’s notebook and sees the things he’s recently written inside it, which indicate that the man’s ‘date’ was actually with a prostitute. The teen attempts to see what it’s like for the man and closes his eyes while putting his hands over his ears. At that point, the bus comes and the teen gets the man on board. He relays the man’s instructions to the driver (tap him when he gets to his stop), and it’s clear that the teen has started to really care for this man and wants to make sure he’s taken care of. Before he leaves, the man hands him some money for helping him and writes ‘you’re going to be ok’ (implying that he’s aware of the teen’s situation). The teen then heads back out on the street and gives the money to a homeless man sleeping on the street.

I have to admit — I was iffy about this one for the first couple of minutes. But the minute Robert Tarango (the man who plays Artie, the deaf-blind man) shows up, the film just takes off. It’s really heartwarming and accomplishes a lot in a relatively short run time. Honestly, I’d watch an entire feature like this. They’d have to add more characterization and subplots, but they could do so much with a story like this. It’s really one of the more emotionally affecting shorts on this list and is one of my favorites of the bunch.

The Letter Room

This stars Oscar Isaac as a lonely prison guard (he lives a single, solitary existence. A lot like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment) who gets put in charge of reading all the letters that come in for the prisoners, checking to make sure there isn’t any illicit or criminal content in them and scanning and logging them into the system. He ends up becoming intrigued by the correspondence being sent by one of the death row inmates’ wives, whose letters are much more poetic than all the others. He starts to look forward to reading these letters, even going so far as to read through all the older ones that have been previously logged into the system. Eventually he reads a letter from the wife that says if (her husband) isn’t exonerated and the execution proceeds as planned, she’ll keep the promise she made to him to commit suicide so as to ‘be together’ with him once more. This gets Isaac to decide to go visit her. Of course, when he does, he finds her in another relationship and pregnant. She says she wrote the letters to help him relax and keep him from being scared about his impending execution and never intended to get a response back. The short ends with Isaac writing a letter to another death row inmate (one he is friendly with whose daughter hasn’t written to him in over two years), pretending it’s from the man’s daughter in order to make him feel better (with the implication that he’s going to keep doing it).

I… I’m not sure how I feel about this one. Obviously the Oscar Isaac casting counts for a lot, and I feel he brought a little more depth to the character than might have been otherwise (though you could also argue that he prevented the character from being as characterized as maybe he should have been, if they had cast an actor who fit the part in the role instead). But I feel like it only took about three minutes into him reading letters to know where it was going. And I know the ultimate payoff of ‘he learned to see these prisoners with more humanity and pay it forward’ is the point there. But he did show humanity to the prisoners beforehand and the guy straight up knew it was him who wrote the letter. And there’s that middle section where he just turns into a dick out of nowhere. I don’t know. I’m not sure all the dots connected for me. It’s good, but I do feel like they could have done more with it. (I’m also not sure what the tone of this was supposed to be. They seem to be labeling it a comedy, but that didn’t really come through for me at all.)

The Present

A story about the daily injustices Palestinians face in the West Bank. It’s about a Palestinian man who, on his anniversary, takes his daughter into town to go shopping and buy a new refrigerator for his wife. The man works nights and has a bad back from overwork and takes painkillers in order to function. Yards from his house is an Israeli checkpoint, meaning that every day, when this man wants to go anywhere, he has to essentially go through border patrol. So we watch him stand in a long, slow-moving line through a checkpoint about the size of a metal detector, while Israelis get to waltz through the checkpoint on the road without being bothered.

As he’s questioned by one of the guards, he responds to a question a little too sarcastically and is then detained — which means they stick him in a cage for several hours for no reason other than the fact that they can. Eventually he is let out and able to continue into town, only to discover that his daughter (stuck waiting outside the cage for him) peed her pants because she was unable to hold it in any longer. So now, on top of being humiliated in front of her and being unable to do anything about it, he now has to know that she has to walk around with wet pants until they can get into town and he can get her another pair. As they get into town and run their errands, the man discovers that the pharmacy where he gets his medication is closed, meaning he’s gonna have to push this fridge all the way back home without anything to ease his back pain. And to make things worse, as they walk back home, it starts to rain and his daughter realizes she left her coat at the store. So he takes off his to keep her dry and continues pushing the fridge, in pain, in the rain.

They get back to the checkpoint and can practically see their home. By now it’s much, much later than they’d intended and the daughter is already half-asleep. The guards mock him and deliberately give him a hard time by making him open all his bags of groceries for them to check even though they know there’s nothing illegal in there (even calling him/Arabs ‘animals’ after finding the daughter’s urine-soaked pants in a tied up shopping bag). But the man is too tired to care by this point. He just wants to get home. Only… the fridge ends up being too big to fit through the little gate. He asks if he can just use the road, but the guards tell him he can’t; ‘protocol’. Only Israelis get to use the road and he has to use the little entryway. So either he fits the fridge through or he turns back around. He tells the guy his house is right there and pleads with one of the guards who knows him to just let them use the road this once. Only the head guard refuses to let him. Finally, after all the little micro-aggressions and humiliations that have built up over the course of the day, the man snaps. He shouts at them to just let him use the fucking road, and suddenly all the guards have their guns up on him and the situation has escalated from zero to a hundred. There’s shouting, everything’s getting worse and it sure looks like they’re about to shoot him. But then, the man’s daughter takes the cart the fridge is on and pushes it along the road herself. And the guards, unwilling to shoot an innocent child, let the two of them through. And the short ends with the man and the daughter walking up the road to get back home after all this ordeal to simply go shopping.

It’s a really smart short that handles the arc of the main character really well and really hits home at what everyday life is like for Palestinians. This is no different than U.S. border patrol or even airport security to an extent. This type of racial profiling happens every day in every country. What I like most about it is how, when people think of the Israeli-Arab tensions in the West Bank, it’s always the big, violent stuff. People don’t always consider the type of racism and humiliation that happen in every day life and the things people have to suffer on a day to day basis. You could make this exact same short and set it in the American South with a Black man and his daughter and a white tollbooth operator and it would land the exact same way. You could quibble about the ending with the daughter, but there’s at least three shorts every year that get shortlisted that do the exact same thing. It’s not about that moment. It’s about how honest the material feels and whether or not the message and themes of the film get across in a way that feels clear, engaging and fulfilling (or if not fulfilling than at least appropriately communicated). And I think they do that beautifully here. I really loved this short.

The Van

This is about a guy who participates in bare knuckle fights inside the back of a van. He and another guy are locked inside and the van drives around the city until one man knocks the other out. He gives most of his winnings to a bookie who is going to help him and his father (who doesn’t want to leave) escape the country. He helps his father work construction during the day and looks for more than just his father’s hope to maybe own his own business. His father cares for him every time he comes home bloodied and bruised. After he loses a fight, the bookie comes to collect the rest of the money from the father. The film ends with the father and son locked in the back of the van, having to fight one another to the death.

I was intrigued by the premise of the film but it felt like it was more interested in the concept than it was in the characterization. The stuff with the father felt slight and a bit rushed and before we got any sort of tension or anything the two of them were just suddenly left to square off. I feel like this could have used an extra ten minutes to really flesh out the story and make the final moment more heartbreaking. I did like parts of this but I do feel like it only skimmed the surface of what it could have accomplished.

White Eye

This is an Israeli short (shot in one take, mind you) about a white guy whose bike was stolen. He finds it locked up on the side of the road and calls the police. They say they have no record of the complaint he filed but agree to send a patrol car. Meanwhile, he finds a locksmith who says he can take the lock off, but only if the police said it was okay. The guy lies and says the police did say that. Then the police show up and say that without any proof the bike is his, they can’t do anything. They tell the guy if he touches the bike, he’ll be arrested for stealing (at which point the locksmith leaves). They advise him to wait for the thief to arrive and call back then.

After they leave, the guy finds some other people hanging around outside the local bar. He tells them the situation and asks if they have a tool that’ll help him cut the lock. One guy says he does and goes off to get it. Then, as the guy surveys the bike, a black guy exits the building where the bike is locked up and says, “Hey, what are you doing with my bike?” They get into an argument, the white guy accusing the black guy of stealing the bike and the black guy saying he paid for it and that it’s his. The black guy then abruptly leaves and hurries around the building (a meat-packing plant) to enter from the front. The white guy follows and encounters the manager out front. He says one of the employees stole his bike and the manager takes him through the building to figure out which one. After the white guy identifies the black guy, the manager angrily confronts him and asks why he stole the bike. The black guy swears he didn’t, at which point the plant’s owner gets involved. She brings the two men outside to get to the bottom of it. She asks her employee if he stole it and he swears that he didn’t, that he bought it at the bus stop. Knowing her employee to not be a liar, she tries to tell the guy that the black guy clearly bought the bike and that it’s now his. (Clearly what happened was that someone stole the bike from the first guy and then sold it to the second guy and it’s all just a misunderstanding getting worse because everyone is jumping to conclusions and no one is communicating with one another.)

By now the white guy has called the police back. The black guy, trying to smooth over the situation, says that he bought the bike because he has to take his daughter an hour every day to kindergarten and she wanted a bike to make the trip easier. The bike is essentially his car. He says he bought it from a guy for 250 shekels. He says he appreciates that the bike was once this other guys, but says he really needs it or the 250 shekels he paid for it. The white guy refuses to give him the money (even though he was readily available to give the locksmith the exact same amount to cut the lock). The cops then show up and begin questioning the black man. They then ask to see his visa (even though it has nothing to do with the dispute at hand). They then discover that the man (an Eritrean)’s visa is four months expired. He says he’s gonna get an extension later this week, but the cops then take him into custody and start getting his information to send to immigration. They tell the white guy that they can’t do anything about the bike until he files a complaint and then, in a few days, they can get it back to him. They leave him to go process the black man (who it’s implied will almost certainly be deported over this along with his wife and daughter). The white guy suddenly has a change of heart and goes over to try to amend things. The cops aren’t having any of it and the owner of the plant asks him if this was worth the 250 shekels. The man says he’s gonna go to the ATM and get it (but the damage has already been done).

We follow the man as he walks through the plant (where the rest of the workers, also clearly illegal and on expired visas, hide in the meat locker so as not to be discovered by the cops) and to the ATM to take the money out. Only when he returns, he finds the cop car, the black man and the plant owner gone. At which point the second guy he asked to help out with the lock returns with the tool he needs. The man takes the tool over to the bike and contemplates his next steps for a minute before turning the tool on. The camera pans around as we hear cutting sounds to see the rest of the illegal plant workers hurrying away from the plant and a local prostitute (who has been openly doing business in the background throughout the entirety of the film, completely unbothered) being dropped off by her latest john before panning back to reveal that the man has cut the bike in half and left.

It’s a very, very strong short. The title refers to the black man having one white eye (and also a lot of other things, obviously). The message it gets across is very clear and very much worth telling. Personally, I feel like it would’ve had even more impact if they ended it with the white guy, after all of this and after ruining a man’s life over a stupid bike (and the equivalent of $75 American) just cut the chain off the bike and rode away with it. I get why you’d do the symbolic cutting in half of the bike, but that feels like it’s for the viewer to feel a little less shitty about the whole thing and have that sense of satisfaction of ‘I’m one of the good people’. I say fuck that. Make people angry. Show this guy, having ruined this other guy’s life without once considering the reality of the situation, try to make an empty gesture of giving him the money after he’s already done the damage and then, after it’s all over, go, “Oh, well fuck it,” and take his bike and go home, without really caring what he did to this other guy. THAT, to me, is the effective ending. I’m always very pro pissing off the audience so as to make them want to take action to rectify what you saw on the screen. But, that aside, this is one of the best shorts of the year. It’s incredible.

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