Oscars 2020: My Nominations Ballot

You know what this article means — Oscar nominations are around the corner. I started writing up this particular article because I’ve always felt when people write up Oscar predictions, there’s always at least 20% of ‘I want this to happen, so I’m guessing it’ in there. And I hate that. Plus, at the beginning, when I’d post my guesses, I kept feeling the need to try to qualify each guess with, “But I would rather see this other thing happen.” And I like to keep my feelings as separate as I can from guessing, so I just decided to make them two articles. One day of just, “This is purely what I’d do” and one day of “this is what I think is going to happen.” It’s kinda like all the endings to the movie Clue.

So today is just me saying, in a magical dream scenario where I am somehow able to vote in every category (and differently than voting actually goes in some situations, specifically Best Picture), this is what I’d nominate. Not saying this is what should be nominated. Not saying if I could force them all to be nominated I’d do that. Simply saying, if I somehow could vote amongst the other several thousand voters across the entire ballot, this is what I’d nominate in every category.

The one change I’m gonna make this year in relation to other years is — other years I’d name my category and then justify the picks. I don’t really care so much about the justification so much as I am trying to explain my thought process and figure out what I would put on a ballot as I fill out this imaginary one and talk through all the stuff I liked for it, even if I ultimately wouldn’t nominate it. Since, as anyone who’s followed the evolution of this place, these days I’m really more about trying to talk up the things I think are cool and get people to see more movies.

So on that note, here’s what my Oscar ballot would look like:

We begin with Best Picture. The way Best Picture voting works is, everybody ranks anywhere from 1-5 films and they go through complicated math to end up with a list of anywhere from 5-10 nominees. Obviously if I had a real ballot I couldn’t do what I’m about to do. But since this is all hypothetical, I can do whatever the hell I want. So I’m gonna list my ten preferred choices, and wherever the Picture list cuts off, that’s where my list cuts off. I do the same thing with nominations when I guess. It’s not complicated.

My top ten list from this year was: Soul, Mank, Trial of the Chicago 7, Small Axe (technically Mangrove), Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Tenet, News of the World, Minari, The Vast of Night. And then, other films I quite liked that I’d consider for spots are Bad Education, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal, Sylvie’s Love, On the Rocks and Palm Springs. Though Small Axe, Bad Education and Sylvie’s Love are not eligible for Best Picture (which tells me they’re not eligible for anything, so I can’t vote for them anywhere). I’m not sure if there’s anything of the 2021 stuff that’s eligible I’d have on over any of those. So I think we’ll just stick with what we have and I’ll make up my list from there.

To begin with the set five (since we’re guaranteed a minimum of five nominees), if I just went purely from my own list, my first five would be Soul, Mank, Trial of the Chicago 7, Never Rarely Sometimes Always and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Which — I’m cool with those being my main five. I loved all of those. So that part was easy.

Now I have to pick and rank a 6-10. My next ranking film is Tenet, and… honestly I don’t need to see that nominated. So I’ll skip it. That leaves, from my top ten, News of the World, Minari and The Vast of Night. And then from 11-20, On the Rocks, Palm Springs, Promising Young Woman and Sound of Metal.

Just looking at those… I don’t need to vote for On the Rocks. Palm Springs also is one I don’t feel like I need to. So that leaves News of the World, Minari, The Vast of Night, Promising Young Woman and Sound of Metal. So five films, five spots. I’m set right there and it just comes down to the numbers.

Of the six, the two that I feel most should be nominated are Minari and Promising Young Woman, so I’ll make those my #6 and #7. And Sound of Metal I also feel legitimately deserves it, so that’ll be my #8. We don’t always get 9, but we have a lot of the time, but should we cut off at 8 as we sometimes do, I can live with all those 8. And then I’ll put News of the World at 9, which feels like a perfect spot for it. And then Vast of Night will be #10, since I did love but it also don’t need to see it get on, as fun as that would be. So that was relatively painless and I feel good about my choices.

Best Picture

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Mank

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Soul

The Trial of the Chicago 7

6. Minari

7. Promising Young Woman

8. Sound of Metal

9. News of the World

10. The Vast of Night

– – – – –

Okay, Best Director. This should be a 1:1 ratio to Best Picture, but I like to focus on which actual efforts I liked the best, which isn’t always what I put on for Best Picture. I wish I could have Steve McQueen here, but I can’t. Soul I don’t need to nominate for Director. Mank I 100% would. So Fincher is on. Never Rarely — ehh. Don’t need to. And Trial of the Chicago 7 — love Sorkin, don’t feel he needs Director here. I think he’s a very good director, but I’m not sure I’d have him on that final five. Then there’s Charlie Kaufman — and yeah, I’d put him on. So there’s Fincher and Kaufman Remaining top ten directors — Nolan, Greengrass, Lee Isaac Chung and Andrew Patterson. Nolan I wouldn’t vote for in this case. Greengrass — ehh. Chung, maybe. Patterson, maybe. Promising Young Woman I put on my Picture list, and yeah, I’d put Emerald Fennell on for that. So that’s three. Sound of Metal’s another maybe for me.

You know, another one I think I’d put on without having nominated it for Picture is Da 5 Bloods. I’d put Spike on. I love what he did with that, and honestly… Spike has never gotten his proper due as a director. Not that that should influence my decision, but if it’s between something like Sorkin’s effort, which is just solid, and Da 5 Bloods, which feels creative and energetic and exciting, I’d rather take that, even if my tiebreaker is ‘they don’t respect him as much as they should’.

So it’s Fincher, Kaufman, Fennell, Lee. And I have as maybes Chung, Patterson, Marder. I wish I could just put Steve McQueen on here. I’d be thrilled with that list. But, let me see if there’s anyone else I would consider… oh, Julia Hart for I’m Your Woman. I’d definitely consider her. But you know what? Let’s go Patterson. I feel like supporting Vast of Night this year. Fuck it. It’s my ballot.

Best Director

Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman

David Fincher, Mank

Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods

Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night

– – – – –

Best Actor.

This one’s fairly easy and will largely match the Oscar list. Loved Oldman in Mank. Loved Ahmed in Sound of Metal. Loved Boseman in Ma Rainey. Loved Yeun in Minari. I mean, I probably could find a performance I liked slightly better than Yeun’s, but they never nominate Asians in acting categories and he’s really good in that movie, so absolutely, let’s vote for him. (I love that this is my ballot because I can do shit like that and nobody can say anything.) Now, my final spot would be Hugh Jackman for Bad Education, but I can’t do that because apparently Bad Education is considered TV. And I can’t say Shaun Parkes for Small Axe: Mangrove. Anthony Hopkins is gonna be the Oscars #5, and as much as I love me some Anthony Hopkins… yeah, I’d rather just put Delroy Lindo on there. He’s awesome in Da 5 Bloods and he’s one of those great actors who never got his due. So let’s say him. Overall, I’m pretty happy with that category and I suspect I’m gonna be happy with the final category too.

Also shoutout to LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah. He’s amazing in that.

Best Actor

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal

Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods

Gary Oldman, Mank

Steven Yeun, Minari

– – – – –

Best Actress. This was the most stacked list I had this year. I had 25 performances I thought were exemplary. And of those, the ones off the top of my head that I know I’m putting on this list are Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman, Evan Rachel Wood in Kajillionaire and Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I feel like Mulligan gives the defining performance of 2020, so that’s a gimme. Wood was the one performance I kept going back to and thinking, “That was really great.” And I generally had muted reactions to most films and performances this year, so I’m not taking that feeling lightly. And then Flanigan was in the best single acted scene of the year for me and was consistently riveting in that movie. So that’s three.

Shout out to Letitia Wright in Mangrove, I know they’re not considering her eligible. I loved Eliza Scanlen in Babyteeth, but I don’t think she makes the final five. Ditto Cristin Milioti in Palm Springs. Also Clare Dunne in Herself, loved that performance too but it wouldn’t make the final five.

Andra Day is an interesting one. I feel like the performance is great but the movie around her is not. The performance is right there for me to nominate and is something I strongly consider, but in the end, the two performances I think I’d put in those spots are Julia Garner in The Assistant and Jessie Buckley in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Those two feel like the right final two for this list, and I end up very pleased with the choices I have for this one this year.

Best Actress

Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Julia Garner, The Assistant

Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Evan Rachel Wood, Kajillionaire

– – – – –

Supporting Actor. The most difficult category of the year for me.

To start, Daniel Kaluuya is on. That’s the first one where I go, “100%. Done deal.” So that’s one.

I need to watch Da 5 Bloods again, but I truly don’t feel like Chadwick Boseman has enough screen time to truly warrant me voting for him here. I understand why he’s likely to get the dual nominations, but personally I just can’t do it at this juncture. He’s on my Actor list and I’m leaving it at that.

In terms of Chicago 7 — there’s a lot of great performances in that. Sacha is very good but I’m not sure if I’d fully put him on here at the moment. The one performance in that movie I loved was Mark Rylance, who I thought was a lead but they seem to be pushing as supporting. So, that being the case, we’re putting Mark Rylance on next. And that’s two down, three to go. Also I think I’m gonna put Richard Jenkins on for Kajillionaire, as both a tribute to his consistent great work, great job in that movie and great work in The Last Shift, another performance absolutely no one saw this year. And because they seem to be pushing Stanley Tucci as supporting even though he’s the co-lead of that movie, and because I love Stanley Tucci and thought he gave a tender, realistic performance and didn’t try to overdo the role, I’ll put him on too. So that’s four. Actually less terrible than I thought it might be. But still one more. I quite liked Arliss Howard in Mank, but I’m not sure I’d nominate him. Also shout out to Billy Crystal in Standing Up, Falling Down. Part of me really wants to vote for him. Also Glynn Turman in Ma Rainey. He’s fantastic too. You know, Sacha’s already gonna be nominated and I quite liked Billy Crystal in that movie… fuck it, let’s go Billy Crystal. Maybe it’ll get some eyeballs on the work he did there. I didn’t really have a whole lot I loved here and will probably be okay most of the ways they go in this category.

Best Supporting Actor

Billy Crystal, Standing Up, Falling Down

Richard Jenkins, Kajillionaire

Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah

Mark Rylance, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Stanley Tucci, Supernova

– – – – –

Supporting Actress was real tough for me. I had some stuff that I liked, more so than Supporting Actor, but not a whole lot I’d nominate. So really I’m just gonna go for the people I liked the best or would like to see on even if I wouldn’t necessarily go for the performances most other years. Because I have no real other alternative. First off, shout out to Lesley Manville in Let Him Go. Supremely underrated movie and performance. I also think I’m gonna skip both foul-mouthed grandmothers this year in Glenn Close and Youn Yuh-jung. Both were great, but feel like boring and obvious roles and choices and frankly, I’ll just let them go there themselves. So here’s what I’m gonna do with my list —

I’m gonna start with Maria Bakalova. Because one, she’s awesome in that movie and two, I just want to see a complete newcomer get nominated for an Oscar for a Borat movie. That’s hilarious to me that we all seem to agree on this and the year played out as such that there really aren’t that many more memorable performances this year than hers. So I’m fine with it and I’m going for it. Second, Helena Zengel. I was really impressed with what she did with that movie, speaking entire in Kiawah and mostly using her face and body language to communicate with Tom Hanks. So those are two. I’m gonna put on Olivia Cooke for Sound of Metal even though I feel like the film short-changes her a shit ton by ignoring her for too many stretches of the film. But the performance is strong enough that I would nominate it despite that. In reality, Youn Yuh-jung will probably get on over her and that’s totally fine with me. And then I’ll put on Amanda Seyfried, especially since I think she was quite strong in the role and is someone people generally don’t respect as a serious actor. So I’ll put her on, even though I feel like she’s likely to not get it in the end (which is also fine with me). But I thought she was very effective as Davies and made her out to be so much more than you’d think the movie would offer her. And then… Saoirse Ronan. Because I can and because I love her. I don’t really have to justify anything on my personal ballot, so, without really anyone else I liked enough to put on, I’ll go with her.

Best Supporting Actress

Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Olivia Cooke, Sound of Metal

Saoirse Ronan, Ammonite

Amanda Seyfried, Mank

Helena Zengel, News of the World

– – – – –

Okay, we’re out of the performances. Time for the technical stuff.

I feel like most of the time the technical stuff ends up being what films I liked the most. Though to be fair, the actual nominees tend to be the films they liked the most from the crop of nominated movies, so it is what it is.

Starting with Original Screenplay — Palm Springs for sure gets on. As does Sorkin. And Mank. That’s three and we’ve barely got started. I just think everything Sorkin does is brilliant and have yet to find a situation where I wouldn’t nominate him. And Palm Springs I thought was a brilliant twist on a well-worn genre that was constantly entertaining and even, at times, surprising, in how it handled it. And Mank I think is a much better script that people might give it credit for since there’s so much there. The dialogue, like a lot of movies from that era, goes by so quickly that I don’t think people even catch half the stuff the first time through. I loved it. So that’s three. Oh and Promising Young Woman. Forgot about that for a second. That’s an easy fourth and I don’t think I need to justify that one.

So now I have one spot left and legitimately five options. I’m just gonna talk my way through them and figure out which one goes on:

  • Minari — really well-done. I like how he made his childhood interesting and cinematic. Might be a bit too formulaic in certain bits, but it still feels kinda fresh and honestly I like the idea of an Asian screenwriter getting nominated given how few have been historically. So, if we get down to a tiebreaker, that will be what I use.
  • Never Rarely Sometimes Always — loved the film, but I’m not sure I need to nominate the screenplay. You don’t get a really good film without a good script (it’s very rare), but this is gonna fall victim to all the pauses and the stillness of scenes. So much of the film is just following Sidney Flanigan’s reaction as she’s sitting on a bus or walking through the city. And while I know the script is perfectly solid and worth nominating, that is ultimately what is gonna keep me from putting it on that final spot. Because, in a strong year, between this and Minari (not to mention everything that’s coming, potentially), I’ll take Minari.
  • Soul — oh, well this is tough. But, you know what? Strong year, and I had slight issues with some of the plotting in the middle. I don’t need to nominate it. This doesn’t feel as well put-together as Inside Out did. Without having all the full spots as I do, this 100% would’ve been more of a contender and likely would’ve gotten on. But again, if I have one spot and it’s this or Minari, I’ll take Minari.
  • Sound of Metal — ooh, that’s tough. But you know what? I’ll take Minari there too. It’s close and it’s tough, but I will. This is that tiebreaker scenario I was talking about. Though I thought this was a very good script. I just ran out of space.
  • The Vast of Night — ooh, tough one. But you know what? I’ll again take Minari. Loved what Patterson did here, though.

So yeah, I got my list, and it’s a very good list that I suspect most people would be happy with if it were the actual list (though I suspect Palm Springs is most likely gonna be swapped off for Sound of Metal).

Best Original Screenplay

Mank

Minari

Palm Springs

Promising Young Woman

The Trial of the Chicago 7

– – – – –

Adapted Screenplay now. A tougher category. Which is so amusing to me since I feel like, as I was coming up (you know… in the Oscar game. That’s a thing), it was always the Adapted Screenplay category that was stronger and where most of the top tier films came from. Now, almost exclusively in recent years the opposite has proven true. And I am here for it. But that also means I have to figure out what the fuck I’m gonna do here.

I have to start with the one script that for sure I’m gonna include, which is I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Charlie Kaufman is a major yes, and that script is as important as the way he directed it. Bad Education would’ve been the second, but it’s not eligible because weird rules.

There is only one other movie in my top ten with an adapted script and that is News of the World. Which… honestly I feel like I don’t need to include that if I can find something else that’s well-written enough. Westerns typically don’t shout ‘screenplay’ most of the time. Though that was admittedly well-written and I will probably end up including it. But let’s not assume it’s a done deal.

What else did I love — oh wow. The rest of my top 20 is all original stuff, outside of Bad Education, which is ineligible. Damn. Good for cinema, I guess. Not that adapted versus original is really an issue. I just feel like the more original ideas, the better. Looking through tier two to see what, if anything, I’d go for there — oh my god, so much of this tier is original stuff too. Yes, God, Yes is technically based on a short, so that would count. Another one that’s 50/50. Midnight Sky’s another one — 50/50. Oh, but Nomadland. I’d nominate Nomadland for the writing, as much as parts of that movie feel improvised.

Okay, so that’s two. Jesus. Let’s go to tier three (by the way, I’m going through my own top ten list because, odd are, if I didn’t like a movie enough to put on that list, I didn’t think the screenplay was something I’d nominate. Just in case you wanna question my process here). Bill & Ted is adapted, but I wouldn’t nominate that. Birds of Prey is adapted. And I’d actually consider that. The Climb was funny and based on a short. Another 50/50. Boys in the Band is just the play on screen. Ma Rainey I feel is like Fences — I feel like the play gets most of the credit there. I mean, fine, if they wanna nominate it, but I’m not sure I’d do it. One Night in Miami… not sure I liked the script enough to nominate it. And then everything lower isn’t stuff I’d nominate.

Okay. Well shit, then. I guess this is what we have. So what I’m I looking at? News of the World. Midnight Sky. Birds of Prey. The Climb. Oh, but 2021 stuff. Pieces of a Woman I probably wouldn’t go for, script-wise, same for The Mauritanian. The Father I’d strongly consider. I quite liked The Dig as well.

So needing three, I’ll take News of the World and The Climb for sure. And let’s say Birds of Prey. Because fuck it. I’m not gonna overthink it and just do it and move on, because I can sit here for an hour trying to parse something that ultimately isn’t that big a deal.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

The Climb

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

News of the World

Nomadland

– – – – –

Best Editing.

This is one of those categories where I constantly think, “What really is great editing?” Because theoretically the best film would have the best editing since they cut the footage into the best movie. Sometimes people take it to mean ‘most’ edited. Lots of cuts and juggling of things. I don’t really know. I just kinda know what I think is well done and go with that. That said — Mank and I’m Thinking of Ending Things are the two that for sure I put on to start. Also Trial of the Chicago 7, because there is a lot of jumping around there and I think they handle that really well.

Another person you would normally expect to see here is Christopher Nolan. And I have no doubt that Tenet was well edited. I’m just not sure I want to nominate it since the whole thing just felt like a(n admittedly glorious) mess and I don’t feel like I wanna reward the editing of that no matter how much I ultimately enjoyed the movie. Also, Da 5 Bloods I thought was a bit bloated around the edges as much as I enjoyed the style and energy of it. News of the World felt pretty classically done and feels like one of those movies I’m just gonna leave off because there wasn’t enough ‘exciting’ stuff for me there.

Palm Springs I’m really considering. I thought they handled that so well and I think I’m gonna put that on. But now the question is the other two films I know I want to include here, and that’s Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman. And having to choose between those two, I’ll take Sound of Metal. Though ask me again tomorrow (and this article doesn’t really matter past today), and I might have Promising Young Woman on over Palm Springs. But today, this is the category.

Best Editing

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Mank

Palm Springs

Sound of Metal

The Trial of the Chicago 7

– – – – –

Cinematography. This is usually my favorite category to go over. I love looking at which films were the most beautifully shot. But I feel like this year not a whole lot really jumped out at me the way it normally does.

Before I begin — Small Axe is something I can’t vote for, but otherwise that would’ve been nominee #1 for me.

That said, the two that I’m for sure including on here are Mank and I’m Thinking of Endings Things. So those two I’ll put on. Shout out Erik Messerschmidt and Lukasz Zal. I also really loved what they did with Vast of Night on such a low budget so that’s on for me too. Shout out M.I. Littin-Menz. So that’s three.

Nomadland I know people loved, but I think it was just solid and wouldn’t put on my ballot as much as it is deserving. That was done by Joshua James Richards. Also shout out to Jay Keitel for She Dies Tomorrow. That looked really great and is one of the most underrated efforts of the year. Also shout out to Benjamin Kracun for Promising Young Woman. That also looked great. Also Katelin Arizmendi for Swallow, another pristine effort that beautifully uses frames that are so formal and so perfect that they sort of become like American Psycho, where you just know there’s so much underneath it that begins to come out over the course of the film. Oh, and another underrated one — Philippe Le Sourd for On the Rocks. His shots of New York were stunning and felt so comfortable and at home, which is a hard thing to do. New York’s been done a lot but it rarely feels as comfortable as it does in that film.

Those were all ones I really liked. But my final two spots are really gonna come down to four different efforts. First, Newton Thomas Sigel for Da 5 Bloods. I love the way they made those flashbacks look and I loved the vibrancy of that movie. Next, Dariusz Wolski for News of the World. Probably the most classical of the efforts, but what can I say? I love a good landscape picture. Dariusz is one of those cinematographers whose work is always very solid and usually very unfussy, to the point where he almost never gets proper credit for the work he puts in. Then there’s Daniël Bouquet for Sound of Metal. I love the way they shot that movie, somehow keeping it extremely intimate on Riz Ahmed’s journey while also making it feel so exploratory and transcendent at the same time. And finally, Bryce Fortner for I’m Your Woman. The entire look of that film just blew me away and I feel like not enough people are appreciating everything that went into that one.

There’s not really a strict method for me doing this. I’m just gonna go with the two that feel right to me today, and those are I’m Your Woman and News of the World. Why? Because that’s what I’m feeling. Not gonna overthink it or else I’ll never get the article done. I discussed all the others I liked. Those five just ended up being the five I put on the hypothetical ballot as I hypothetically filled it out. (Ask me tomorrow and I might take Philippe Le Sourd and On the Rocks.)

Best Cinematography

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Your Woman

Mank

News of the World

The Vast of Night

– – – – – –

Original Score. We have a shortlist of 15, which will make it easier:

Ammonite
Blizzard of Souls
Da 5 Bloods
The Invisible Man
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
The Life Ahead
The Little Things
Mank
The Midnight Sky
Minari
Mulan
News of the World
Soul
Tenet
The Trial of the Chicago 7

I listened to all of these scores and went over all my thoughts in my annual Favorite Scores article, so a lot of the leg work in this category is already done. The only one not covered there is The Little Things, which is technically a 2021 score. I’ll get to that in a minute.

To make it easier for those who haven’t read the scores article or don’t want to read the scores article, of the 15 shortlisted scores in this category, the ones that didn’t make my article and are the ones I wouldn’t consider voting for are Ammonite, Blizzard of Souls, Invisible Man, Jingle Jangle, The Life Ahead and Mulan. They’re all fine scores in their own right, but I just had nine other scores I’d vote for over them (not to mention a bunch more that weren’t shortlisted I’d have taken over them as well).

Next, to get the one outlier score out of the way — The Little Things. This is really the only time I get to talk about it in relation to this year, because it’s a 2021 score and that article isn’t coming out for another year. But, it’s Thomas Newman, and honestly kinda sounds like Thomas Newman nowadays. I feel like he’s one of those guys that has a pretty definitive sound. And apparently they like that sound, because he’s nominated a shit ton. But, for my purposes, it’s a solid score, and nestles nicely between the Newman score you’d expect and the kind of thriller score you’d expect out of a movie like this without ever veering too much in either direction. Would I nominate it? Over what’s left, probably not. So let’s just leave it off now and not bother trying to figure out where it fits between the eight other scores that are left on.

So I’ve got eight scores and five spots. Da 5 Bloods, Minari and Trial of the Chicago 7 are all scores that are in my 21-25 range, whereas the other five are either top ten or 11-15. In fact, four of the five scores are in my top ten including my #1, #2 and #3 scores. And then #7 an #14, for fun. So that’s my list of five. My thoughts on all of them are described in that article, but basically — Soul, Mank and Tenet are my top three scores, Midnight Sky is in my top ten and News of the World is my #14. So those first five end up being my list. It’s pretty straightforward.

Also, that’s double nominations for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Soul and Mank), one for Ludwig Göransson (Tenet), one for Alexandre Desplat (Midnight Sky) and one for James Newton Howard (News of the World). Reznor and Ross are previous winners for Social Network while Göransson won for Black Panther. In both cases, those are those composers’ only previous nominations. Desplat has won twice (for Grand Budapest Hotel and Shape of Water) and has been nominated 11 times since 2006 (and a nomination this year would make it 12 in 15 years). Newton Howard, meanwhile, has been nominated eight previous times (with no wins). So a category of people who know it well.

Best Original Score

Mank

The Midnight Sky

News of the World

Soul

Tenet

– – – – –

Original Song. We have a shortlist to work from here as well:

“Turntables,” from All In: The Fight for Democracy
“See What You’ve Done,” from Belly of the Beast
“Wuhan Flu,” from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
“Husavik,” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Never Break,” from Giving Voice
“Make It Work,” from Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
“Fight For You,” from Judas and the Black Messiah
“lo Sì (Seen),” from The Life Ahead
“Rain Song,” from Minari
“Show Me Your Soul,” from Mr. Soul!
“Loyal Brave True,” from Mulan
“Free,” from The One and Only Ivan
“Speak Now,” from One Night in Miami
“Green,” from Sound of Metal
“Hear My Voice,” from The Trial of the Chicago 7

It’s songs. I’ve covered them before, so mostly I’m just gonna reiterate my feelings on the category as I pick my five.

I was not a huge fan of “Free” at all. “Hear My Voice” is growing on me, but I’m not sure I’m currently at the point where I’d nominate it. “Green” was fine but not something I’d vote for. “Rain Song” was ‘whatever’ to me, and I’m largely indifferent on “Loyal Brave True.” Again, this is all based on my own personal tastes, as all music kind of has to be. So to each their own on this category. But I’m not really a fan of those songs enough to thrown them on a ballot.

That leaves ten songs for five spots. Of those — not overly crazy about “Io Si (Seen).” It’s nice, but all things being equal, I’d take most of the other songs over it. So that’s out. “Make It Work” I like because it’s from an original musical… but I also preferred the non-shortlisted song over this one and really would only take it because it’s from the original musical and for no other reason. So I’m gonna leave it off. “Speak Now” is fine but also felt kinda bland to me and just isn’t something I’d take. I’m sure it’ll probably win, but it’s not going on my ballot. Then there’s “Show Me What You’ve Done,” which I like, but am not sure I need to include. Honestly, of all of these, the only one I’d actually consider throwing on is “Make It Work” and only because it’s from an original musical and is a perfect example of the thing this category should be about.

But that leaves us with five songs. First — “Turntables.” In a year I didn’t particularly like much of the music, fuck it, let’s nominate Janelle Monáe. She’s gonna win one of these eventually anyway, be it for acting or songwriting, and the branch is stodgy and boring anyway, so let’s liven it up with her. Next, “Fight for You.” I liked the song and if there was any doubt about it, that was sealed by hearing H.E.R. do that awesome guitar-accompanied rendition of “America the Beautiful” at the Super Bowl. I know that shouldn’t really matter here, but trust me, this is how categories are actually swayed most years anyway, and again… not really a huge fan of the crop of songs this year, so pretty much anything to give something an edge to get on. That feels about as good a tiebreaker as any.

Then, “Husavik.” It’s an original song that actually has purpose within the movie and honestly sounded like one of the best songs of the bunch. I don’t see any reason to nominate it, plus I do think it’s kinda funny nominating the Eurovision movie (which I didn’t even particularly like) for an Oscar. Next, “Giving Voice.” John Legend wrote a nice song and it sounds like a song that would be in a movie. All things considered, it’s one of my favorite three songs on the entire list. And finally — “Wuhan Flu.” Why? Because this crop of songs felt weak and I think it would be hilarious to get Sacha up there singing this song. Is it the best-written song in the world? No. It’s basically the same two lines over and over. But I don’t give a shit. The awful decisions they’ve made in this category trump anything I’m putting on a single ballot (that isn’t even real, mind you). Does anyone remember the goddamn song “Real in Rio”? I rest my case. At least people will remember this song and this moment from the film, and that’s half the battle in the category anyway.

Best Original Song

“Turntables,” from All In: The Fight for Democracy

“Fight For You,” from Judas and the Black Messiah

“Husavik,” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

“Never Break,” from Giving Voice

“Wuhan Flu,” from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

– – – – –

Production Design.

Not a whole lot that I actively loved here, but, like a lot of these tech categories, two films really jumped out at me: Mank (for obvious reasons) and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. So those two for sure get on for me.

After that — I’m trying to think of what films had locations that really stood out to me. Because to me, that’s what this category is about. I know there’s more to it than that. But for me, I like to look at a category and be able to think, “Oh that film had great stuff in it.” The only one that comes to mind for me there is Sylvie’s Love, which I can’t vote for. So that only makes things more difficult for me.

Thinking of the usual suspects (for both the category and from my personal list) —

  • Ma Rainey was nice, but it felt pretty standard as far as the sets went. I have trouble with films that are very stagey and are set in single locations unless the location feels like it’s a part of the film. This set does its job. Really well. But I also — they could be on a bare stage doing this same thing with the bare minimum of props and the play would come across. I know it’s a bit of a double standard, but it’s my ballot and I’m allowed to have those here.
  • Tenet didn’t really do it for me. It didn’t feel as imaginative as Nolan films tend to be. You can’t really remember so many of the sets. You remember them crashing a plane and you remember the round things that make them go backwards. But other than that, what? The yacht? I don’t need to vote for that.
  • Midnight Sky I quite liked, in terms of how they made the ship and the lab look. But I feel like a lot of those sets were aided by VFX and I’m not sure how badly I want to go there. Same for Mulan. Looked nice, but I was also very aware that a lot of that could have just been digitally added and most of it could’ve been on a soundstage. Now, I know a good portion of it wasn’t, but that’s still how some of that felt, so I’m on the fence about those.
  • I loved how they used what they had in Vast of Night, but I wouldn’t nominate that.
  • Emma had the classical kind of production design and I feel is one of those things most people would automatically go for. It’s nice, and well done, but it’s kind of a boring choice to me. I’d really only go there if I had to. I liked it, but not enough that it would automatically go on for me over one of those sneaky great choices.
  • Minari was solid. You felt the inside of that trailer home. But a lot of the film felt like it was in that one field and in generic-looking warehouses or factories. Not sure I’d vote for it.
  • Speaking of open spaces movies — News of the World. I tend to like westerns, so I’ll consider that one too. I do like how they differentiated each place he went to.
  • I also quite liked what they did with Ammonite. I’d consider that too.
  • Oh, you know which one I’d also strongly consider here? Jingle Jangle. I loved how they set that one up. That’s a sneaky real possibility for me.
  • Oh, and I’m Your Woman. That one’s on. I forgot to mention that before. That one really stood out to me, the way they made everything feel perfectly 70s and very much enhancing the overall film without ever screaming in a brash kinda ‘look at us/nominate us’ kinda way. So that’s definitely on for me.

So where does this leave me? Mank, I’m Thinking of Endings Things, Sylvie’s Love and I’m Your Woman on. That’s four. I need one more plus another as an alternate in case Sylvie’s Love isn’t actually eligible to be voted for. Okay, not bad.

Let’s run through the ones I mentioned because I’m not sure there’s really anything else I’d vote for: Ma Rainey, Tenet are nos. Vast of Night is a no. Minari’s a no. Emma is a no unless I have to. But it doesn’t seem like I’ll have to. So say I eliminate all of those, what’s left? Midnight Sky, Mulan, News of the World, Ammonite, Jingle Jangle. I can get two from there. But which two? Mulan is a definite no there. Ammonite gets squeezed. So really it’s News of the World, Jingle Jangle and Midnight Sky. Westerns and space movies are personal favorites of mine, and Jingle Jangle is a nice colorful original musical.

So here’s what I’m gonna do — I’m gonna put News of the World on as fourth, and then, since I appreciate real sets over VFX, I’ll put Jingle Jangle fifth. Shout out to Midnight Sky, but Jingle Jangle was lovely and is the kind of movie that would never get any sort of recognition elsewhere. So that’s my five.

Best Production Design

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Your Woman

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Mank

News of the World

– – – – –

Costume Design.

For me, the big thing about costume design is period or genre appropriateness, memorability and what stood out. The latter two feel similar, but for me standout costumes don’t necessarily equate to memorable. For example: the costumes in Marie Antoinette stood out. The green dress from Atonement was memorable. You see what I mean? That’s kind of what I’m looking for.

So — costumes that stood out to me:

  • Ammonite. Well done. Period appropriate. Very solid yet not overly fussy, much like the Winslet character. So I appreciated that they didn’t go overboard with expensive costumes for someone who so obviously wouldn’t dress expensively. So I’m a fan of that.
  • Birds of Prey — they went big and they went bold and honestly, some of the more memorable costumes of the year.
  • Emma — the obvious ‘costumes’ film of the year. Kinda hard to argue with this one.
  • Enola Holmes — period, very well-made. Not sure they stood out enough for me over some of these other ones to vote for, but still very well done.
  • I’m Your Woman — very period appropriate, very nice. Not sure they stood out enough for me as much as the production design did for me to vote for them. But, like everything else in the film, extremely well done.
  • Jingle Jangle — costumes were better than the production design, which was also great. No matter how I slice it, some of the more memorable costumes for me this year.
  • Ma Rainey — ehh. I remember the dress but the rest is pretty boring suits.
  • Mank — the thing I have to figure out here is how much is the costumes and how much is just the fact that it’s in black and white. Since I feel like everyone in 30s and 40s movies all dressed kinda the same, with the exception of the female star who got a couple of really nice dresses. So I’ll have to see where I land on that.
  • Mulan — the best thing about the movie are the costumes. And her battle armor is memorable. So I’ll give it that as well.
  • Promising Young Woman — the most memorable costume of the year is that nurse’s outfit, and the rest of her wardrobe is pretty great and standout as well. It’s not often you see a straight contemporary movie this much of a contender.

And Sylvie’s Love is ineligible. Which sucks.

Okay, so looking at all of these — seven major choices. Birds of Prey, Emma, Jingle Jangle, Mank, Mulan, Promising Young Woman. Oh, this is tough.

I feel like Birds of Prey is pretty memorable, but I might be okay leaving it off. Emma feels like it needs to get on. Jingle Jangle I think I put on. Mank is one I have to consider. Mulan feels like I’d put it on. Promising Young Woman I really liked and almost feel like I have to nominate on principle. Oh shit, this is tough. Okay, so it comes down to Mank. Do I think Mank is worth putting on my ballot? I’m torn. Because on the one hand they nailed the period costumes of that era. Yeah… they really do. Okay, Mank is on, and then what I’ll do is take Birds of Prey off. I hate to have to do it, but that’s where I’m at. Who’d have thought Costumes would be the one category I had the most trouble in?

Best Costume Design

Emma

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Mank

Mulan

Promising Young Woman

– – – – –

Makeup & Hairstyling. We have a shortlist and they allow five nominees now. So we’ve got options.

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Emma
The Glorias
Hillbilly Elegy
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
The Little Things
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
One Night in Miami

Pinocchio

That’s your shortlist. Only gotta nominate half, and this is an elimination game. First off — Little Things. Didn’t see much there except Jared Leto’s hair and maybe some corpse makeup. Next, One Night in Miami. Prosthetic work was good, but I personally just wouldn’t go there for this category. Next off, The Glorias. Felt like maybe the hair was the thing? I don’t know. Didn’t do a whole lot for me. Ma Rainey? Also felt like it was all the makeup on Viola and not much else. Maybe I missed something there, but that didn’t really do it for me.

So right there, I’ve got six choices left and five spots, so really it’s coming down to what gets left off. Pinocchio is an obvious inclusion. Mank is an obvious inclusion. Jingle Jangle is an obvious inclusion. It’s between Birds of Prey, Emma and Hillbilly Elegy. Birds of Prey is admittedly mostly just the Harley Quinn makeup. Emma is just really nice hairstyling. And Hillbilly Elegy is the Glenn Close of it all. And honestly, I don’t need to nominate that. So fuck it. Birds of Prey and Emma are the last two and I have my category. Why overcomplicate things?

Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Emma

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Mank

Pinocchio

– – – – –

Visual Effects. We’ve got a shortlist:

Bloodshot
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Love and Monsters
Mank
The Midnight Sky
Mulan
The One and Only Ivan
Soul
Tenet
Welcome to Chechnya

This is one of those, like Makeup, where it’ll be made easier because I know which ones I’m not voting for. Namely Bloodshot, Love and Monsters, Mulan and The One and Only Ivan. That’s four right there with six to go.

Tenet is on. Nolan is great for visual effects (and practical effects), and so I feel like I have to do that. Midnight Sky I thought did a great job with effects. Soul — I don’t really know what the difference between VFX and, you know… the film… are, but the film looked great and did some wonderful things with the animation. So I’m fine putting them on. Welcome to Chechnya was pretty groundbreaking stuff, so I’ll include them on that alone.

So that really just leaves Birds of Prey and Mank. Mank’s VFX (I saw a reel) were largely extensions of sets. They had 60% of a set and then used VFX to broaden it out and make things look bigger and more ornate, specifically in the realm of Hearst’s castle and all that. Birds of Prey… I feel like that’s more of the same. Lot of set extensions and color add-ons. The hyena is an obvious one. Plus the plant explosion. Yeah. But you know what? That feels like ‘effects’. Mank felt like it did it more subtly. So I’ll put that on.

Best Visual Effects

Mank

The Midnight Sky

Soul

Tenet

Welcome to Chechnya

– – – – –

Now Sound. It’s one category now, so that’s easier. Thinking of what had great sound…

Mank did a great job of handling dialogue and music. So that’s on for me. Soul also. Pixar are just masters of sound mixing. So that’s two. Oh, and Sound of Metal. Of fucking course. That’s a no-brainer. So that’s three. Also, one of the more controversial choices here — Tenet. I know some of the film felt over loud and hard to understand, but I truly feel like that was by design. So I’m okay putting it on. That leaves one spot and honestly it’s going way quicker and easier than I expected.

Da 5 Bloods — ehh. Not sure I need to. Trial of the Chicago 7 — lots of dialogue and a riot scene. Serious contender. News of the World — western. Also a contender. I’m trying to think if there’s any absolute no brainer that I’m not immediately thinking of here. Oh, Midnight Sky is kinda one too. You know… News of the World had crowd scenes, western stuff, there was a lot of variation there. Whereas Chicago 7 had lots of straight dialogue stuff and Midnight Sky had a lot of still moments carried by score when he’s alone. So let’s take News of the World and make it easy and just be done with it, even though you ask me tomorrow and Chicago 7 has that spot.

Best Sound

Mank

Soul

News of the World

Sound of Metal

Tenet

– – – – –

Animated Feature.

There were 27 films eligible this year. They are:

Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus
Bombay Rose
Calamity Jane
The Croods: A New Age
Demon Slayer: The Movie: Mugen Train
Dreambuilders
Earwig and the Witch
Kill It and Leave This Town
Lupin III: The First
Mosley
My Favorite War
Nos Ili Zagoyor Ne Takikh (The Nose or Conspiracy of Mavericks)
No. 7 Cherry Lane
On-Gaku: Our Sound
Onward
Over the Moon
Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs
Ride Your Wave
Scoob!
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Soul
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run
Terra Willy
Trolls World Tour
A Whisker Away
The Willoughbys
Wolfwalkers

I covered all 27 of these here. The cliff notes version is this:

Did not care for: The Croods: A New Age, Demon Slayer, Dreambuilders, Lupin III, Mosley, Red Shoes, Scoob, Terra Willy, Trolls World Tour

Liked well enough, But No Vote: Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus, Calamity Jane, Earwig and the Witch, Kill It and Leave This Town, My Favorite War, The Nose or Conspiracy of Mavericks, On-Gaku, Onward, Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon, SpongeBob: Sponge on the Run, A Whisker Away, The Willoughbys

The tier titles speak for themselves. That leaves me with six films remaining, and basically my job done for me without one moment of thought. The six are: Bombay Rose, No. 7 Cherry Lane, Over the Moon, Ride Your Wave, Soul, Wolfwalkers.

Soul and Wolfwalkers are 100% on, no questions asked. Of the other four… Bombay Rose was gorgeously animated, No. 7 Cherry Lane also was well made and interested me. The question becomes, Ride Your Wave or Over the Moon. Over the Moon is Glen Keane and I love him and the movie was well-made. But Ride Your Wave also had some nice elements to it as well and was emotional and well-done. I think I’m gonna side with the actual Japanese movie over the half-American, half-Chinese film. I love Glen Keane and hope he makes it on, but I’d rather show my support to the other stuff. Plus, the middle section of Over the Moon didn’t always do it for me as much as the frame stuff did. Ride Your Wave felt like it largely held together. So, there’s my five.

Best Animated Feature

Bombay Rose

No. 7 Cherry Lane

Ride Your Wave

Soul

Wolfwalkers

– – – – –

International Feature. Shortlist of 15 that I’ve slowly been working my way through the past month:

Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
The Mole Agent (Chile)
Charlatan (Czech Republic)
Another Round (Denmark)
Two of Us
 (France)
La Llorona (Guatemala)
Better Days (Hong Kong)
Sun Children (Iran)
Night of the Kings (Ivory Coast)
I’m No Longer Here (Mexico)
Hope (Norway)
Collective (Romania)
Dear Comrades! (Russia)
A Sun (Taiwan)
The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia)

I’ve seen all of these except The Man Who Sold His Skin. So I can’t vote for that without having been able to see it. But I’ve seen the other 14, and here’s where they all rate out for me:

  1. Another Round
  2. Night of the Kings
  3. Hope
  4. The Mole Agent
  5. Collective
  6. Better Days
  7. Two of Us
  8. I’m No Longer Here
  9. La Llorona
  10. Sun Children
  11. Quo Vadis, Aida?
  12. A Sun
  13. Dear Comrades!
  14. Charlatan

Let me begin by saying that the two docs I’m gonna focus on in the next category. I consider them docs and quite frankly would rather just vote for them there. So I’ll discuss them both in the next category but know that I not only loved them both but also am not gonna vote for them here. (They’re also the threshold from stuff that I liked and thought was solid into the stuff I really liked).

The one film on the list I wasn’t a huge fan of was Charlatan, but maybe others will feel differently about it. Dear Comrades looked nice but I wasn’t overly engaged with the plot. Everything else I think rates on the ‘solid’ to ‘loved it’ scale. A Sun I thought was very engaging, even if parts of it dragged a bit for me.

Of the next tier of ones that I thought were solid even if they weren’t my favorites on the list: Quo Vadis Aida was good at maintaining the immediacy of the moment and the tension and felt like a well-made film. Sun Children was enjoyable. La Llorona was very well-made and I got what it was going for completely. But these types of movies aren’t really my thing, so my respect and admiration for it are pretty much the end of it. It’s not a genre I enjoy watching. I’m No Longer Here was very engaging and I quite liked the boy’s journey in America. I just wish I understood/engaged with the whole dance gang thing more than I did (which could just be ignorance, which I’m willing to accept).

That brings me to five that are gonna comprise the category I’m voting for. Another Round I think is self-explanatory. That’s the only film I straight up watched before the submissions and shortlist were a thing. I like Thomas Vinterberg, I love Mads Mikkelsen, I loved the concept and I just really liked the movie. Night of the Kings was just captivating from start to finish and I loved the world they created and the story they told with it. Hope I quite liked because it didn’t ever feel like it got too sappy or got into anything an American version of that same story would’ve gotten into, and I quite liked that part of it. It felt real and I really found myself thoroughly engaged with every moment of the film. Better Days I liked because it felt like something they’d have made as an anime. Did I have problems with it? Sure. But I was very engaged by it all the way through. And Two of Us I thought was very sweet, even if I wish it were maybe just a little bit longer, dealing a bit more with the couple’s relationship in the early stages. But overall, for what it is, it’s very effective. And so those five are my category.

Best International Feature

Another Round (Denmark)

Better Days (Hong Kong)

Hope (Norway)

Night of the Kings (Ivory Coast)

Two of Us (France)

– – – – –

Best Documentary Feature. Here’s the shortlist of 15:

76 Days
All In: The Fight for Democracy

Boys State
Collective
Crip Camp
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Gunda
MLK/FBI
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher
Notturno
The Painter and the Thief
Time
The Truffle Hunters
Welcome to Chechnya

And here’s my thoughts on all fifteen (as I was working my way through them while the other articles went up and never really had a space to discuss my thoughts):

  • 76 Days was something I didn’t think they’d shortlist, but the minute I saw the first scene I knew why they did. That opening scene is just devastating. Watching a doctor, who handles life and death situations every day, in full hazmat suit just weeping and eliciting the kind of sounds that it’s impossible to not feel for if you have any sort of a conscience because her father died and she never even got to see him or go near him or say goodbye. It’s truly like something out of a movie. Honestly they should show that scene to every piece of shit Republican senator and governor and elected official who helped allow these things to happen in this country on a daily basis. I really did not think I was gonna like this at all and really liked it a lot. Because they didn’t try to put a voiceover or anything over it. They just let the scenes speak for themselves. And that was so much more powerful than anything else they could have done.
  • All In: The Fight for Democracy was fine. These documentaries are usually not my cup of tea. They bore me. These are the ones where, within ten minutes, I understand the point they’re trying to get across and the rest of it just feels monotonous. And I get why they’re made and I get why they’re important. They’re educating people to something they may not know that’s important to know. Voter suppression in this country is as old as the country itself. And it’s still ongoing because one political party uses that as an actual campaign strategy. So on that level, I get it. But aside from the subject itself, the look and structure and feel of this is the same as like a half dozen other documentaries that come out every year.
  • Boys State is basically Boys Town but for state government. The idea is that they teach young boys (but no women, because it’s Texas. I’m honestly surprised there are even some non-white people allowed) how to get involved with government by simulating creating political parties, figuring out a platform based on party ideology and constituents, running for office, getting signatures, whipping up votes and the whole thing. Which is, on the surface, an admirable goal. But like I said, it’s Texas and it’s mostly white males and the whole thing feels pretty cult-y. I get the point of it — to show how fucked up the division are in the country and how they’re starting even from ages as young as this — but as a documentary it was just unpleasant. It might be my least favorite shortlisted doc.
  • Collective was quite solid. A love letter to journalism. You watch the aftermath of a club fire at a club in Romania that was ignoring health and safety codes and the journalists who pursued the story, as many of those injured in the fire died over subsequent months at hospitals. So we see them looking into how this happened and uncovering a wide-ranging case of public health care fraud. It’s like Spotlight or All the President’s Men in that you watch them build the story from the ground up, uncovering more and more, intercut with news stories of the reporting. It’s a really great documentary and one of those vital stories that (in its own way) ties to the current issue of healthcare in the U.S. and also is one of those things that acts as both a documentary and a film, since whereas so many documentaries feel like they’re talking at you, this one feels like an actual film you’re following along with and you occasionally forget that this is all real people and a real story. It’s pretty great.
  • Dick Johnson Is Dead is an interesting documentary from Kirsten Johnson, who made Cameraperson. It’s about her dealing with her father’s diagnosis with dementia and her feelings about the possibility of losing him. So she channels them into making this documentary, in which she and her father go and recreate all these scenes of him dying in various ways, mixed with footage of the two of them normally. It’s a really interesting method of processing grief, and also quietly a really nice way to highlight the importance of stuntmen. It’s quite fun and clearly personal, though I’m not sure I want to vote for it. It’s weird. It’s well-made and I enjoyed it, but it feels… I don’t know… slight? I can’t really explain it but fortunately I don’t have to because it’s my ballot and I can do what I want.
  • Gunda was great because it was almost a non-documentary. My favorite kind. It was literally just black-and-white footage of animals on a farm. But the idea is that they kept the pace very slow, to both remind people of the beauty and simplicity of the natural world (since now the way films are paced are so fast that everyone has ADD and expects things to ‘happen’ every four minutes) and then slowly, within the past ten-to-fifteen minutes you start to realize that these animals are gonna be slaughtered for food. It’s really well done and to its credit is very subtle in how it handles the reveal. It doesn’t do the preachy thing most documentaries do and because of that might be one of the most effective messages in trying to get people to stop eating animals we have. (It’s basically Okja without all the theatrics, on some level.)
  • MLK/FBI is what the title says — about how the FBI surveilled and harassed Martin Luther King and ultimately were culpable in his assassination. It’s a really well-made documentary. I knew this was a great documentary within about four minutes, when they use a clip of Reagan introducing a program saying ‘usually the villains are defeating and the ending is happy, but I can’t promise you that with this’. Right there, you knew the filmmakers knew what they were doing. And it’s just a really made documentary. Pretty standard, narratively, but important. The problem with this, ultimately, like most things now even as much as pure news — one section of the population doesn’t need to see this to know the reality and the other one will never see it because they don’t care and live in their own version of reality. But it’s a really well-made documentary.
  • The Mole Agent was charming as hell. I’m not really sure what the point of the ‘plot’ was in the film, though obviously it’s clear what the point of the documentary was, and that part was incredible. I’m curious if the themes of sadness and isolation of seniors living in home hits harder because of COVID in a good way or a bad way for some people. But otherwise, I loved this one a lot and I’m curious to see how the branch responds to it.
  • My Octopus Teacher is one of those classic manipulative nature docs. Though, to their credit, it’s not the usual, “Look at these majestic creatures… we’re killing them through poaching/climate change.” It’s more, “Hey, I found an octopus one day and just started hanging out with it for a year.” Which is unique and fine. Only it’s just manipulative as hell and is just trying to make you cry the entire time. You can tell that the whole thing is designed to lead you down a certain path. Which is fine. But that didn’t do it for me. Plus there was that whole vague ‘my family situation was fucked up’ but they never dwell on it whatsoever. Which, to me, serves no purpose in the documentary and really is only there to show people ‘hey, this is how you make a narrative feature out of this’. You know, guy having trouble being a husband and a father finds this octopus and learns how to be a better person from his interactions with it. But, see, that implication to me is what made me not give a shit about most of the story they were trying to tell. Because the idea is, “I was having so much trouble being a good husband and father, but then I saw this octopus and I thought, ‘What if I just went back every day?'” And apparently there’s no sense of self-awareness there about how that relates to being a husband and a father and just feels way too ‘movie’. So I don’t really care about that whole part of it. And then the octopus footage is nice, but there are so many nature docs that I can get footage like this almost anywhere. And I get that some people really liked this. Apparently I’m the person that’s gonna hate on the cute octopus movie that most people seemed to love. Oh well.
  • Notturno is a doc by the guy who did Fire at Sea. If you saw that doc, this is very much like that. It’s got more of a relaxed, fly on the wall vibe as it moves from scene to scene, slowly building up this full picture of what it’s trying to tell you. Remember Fire at Sea, how it was mainly just the lives of the people in this village (the little boy going for an eye exam, etc) and then in the background there was the refugee crisis playing out and we saw how it began to impact the lives of these people, even though most of the doc felt like this slice of life footage? That’s what this is, only about people in the Middle East. It’s a very artistic doc, and they like stuff like this. Me, personally… I kinda saw it already. It’s like Wendy vs. Beasts of the Southern Wild. I don’t dislike the fact that they did it again, but I’m not as excited as I was that first time. It’s still a really well-made doc and is something I do strongly consider for my final category, but I just am not as excited about it as I might have been if this was the first one and not the second one.
  • The Painter and the Thief is an interesting documentary. It begins with this beautiful time lapse of an oil painter creating this stunning painting that looks incredibly lifelike. Then we see it on display at a gallery. Then we see security footage of two men breaking in and stealing it. And so the documentary becomes about the painter meeting the guy responsible after his prison sentence and befriending him. Honestly it feels like the plot of a film that would be nominated for International Feature. They structure it in an interesting way, too. They give you the setup and then show her side and then fifteen minutes later change POV to him over that same period of time. It builds a really fascinating relationship dynamic between the two of them. Especially when it takes yet another turn 45 minutes in. I was absolutely fascinated by this entire documentary and can’t believe this either wasn’t the plot of a hugely successful foreign film or Sundance indie.
  • Time is a beautiful documentary that acts as a personal statement and a political one. It’s a compilation of home movies of a woman raising her six kids on her own because her husband was sent to prison for 60 years while also campaigning to free her husband from prison. It’s compiled from hundreds of hours of videos shot by the woman and scenes of her discussing the inequality of prison sentencing and things like that. It’s really well made. There’s no denying how well-made this is. Though I am curious how the Academy will respond to this. Not that it matters here. But I really am. For my purposes, it’s clearly one of the top ones I saw this year.
  • The Truffle Hunters didn’t really do it for me. Bunch of guys who go hunting with dogs to find truffles deep in the ground. And most of the documentary is them, their lives and them sitting around, talking about it. It just wasn’t for me.
  • Welcome to Chechnya is a very important documentary about the gay purge of Chechnya and the underground activists who fight to help and shelter the people targeted. They use pretty groundbreaking facial alteration technology that digitally alters each person’s face in all the footage so they don’t have to do the usual tricks of darkness and voice altering and still have emotion on the person’s face to sell the immediacy of what’s happening. The short version is — they Winklevoss’d them. If you look closely, you can see that it’s obviously a very smooth and digitized face (like when a celebrity puts out a photo of themselves and you can immediately tell how Photoshopped it is), but you’re also aware that it’s for their protection and, given the fact that they did this on live footage… it’s really impressive. Now, the documentary itself is kinda choppy. Sometimes with good reason, other times I think to its detriment. But overall you understand everything that they’re trying to tell you about the danger to these people and how this is an appalling human rights issue that seems to be going either unnoticed around the rest of the world or isn’t being properly dealt with to make sure these people remain safe (both of which are true). It’s really well done. Now of course I have to get to the part where I say, “I’m not voting for it.” There’s no nice way to say that, so I’m just saying it. I watched all 15 of these and this just simply wasn’t in my top five. This is the shit the Oscars make us do. But to me, it’s better to look at it as — now you know how important and groundbreaking this documentary is, and regardless of the statue contest maybe you actually want to go watch it now. To me, this is an avenue to introduce people to stuff rather than just, “Here’s what I’d give a relatively meaningless award to.”

So that’s my shoddy analysis on all fifteen. Here’s a quick breakdown of how I enjoyed them all as documentaries (not in terms of subject importance or anything like that):

Really liked: 76 Days, Crip Camp, The Mole Agent

Liked: Collective, Gunda, MLK/FBI, Notturno, The Painter and the Thief, Time, Welcome to Chechnya

Were fine/Ehh: All In: The Fight for Democracy, Boys State, Dick Johnson Is Dead, My Octopus Teacher, The Truffle Hunters

I’ve come a long way on appreciating documentaries this past decade. Ten years ago I’d have hated having to watch just the five nominees, and now not only did I watch a shortlist of 15, I actually enjoyed and/or appreciated the majority of them.

I’ve got ten that I’d consider voting for with three that really made me go, “Oh wow” in one way or another. Crip Camp was just joyful, The Mole Agent was charming and 76 Days was emotional. So I’m putting those three on. That still leaves me with seven docs for five spots.

Of the ones remaining — I’m not sure I’d vote for Welcome to Chechnya, as solid as that was. I thought it was a little choppy outside of the VFX (and I know why that is, but I still am not sure that becomes one of the top two of what’s left for me). Painter and the Thief is another one where — I liked it, but I feel like it lost some steam in the last half. I don’t think I’d nominate that either. Notturno I said was one that I didn’t like as much as I liked Fire at Sea, just because I’ve seen him do this before and I feel like, if I like all of these relatively the same, I’d rather go for one that feels like a better nominee. Then — Time. I really liked it, but I’m not sure I’d nominate it. So that leaves Collective, Gunda and MLK/FBI. Three films for two spots. Collective is a love letter to journalism and almost feels like a narrative feature on its own, so I think I’d put that on. And between Gunda and MLK/FBI, while Gunda was more personally enjoyable to me, since it’s just lazily watching farm animals for an hour and a half which I enjoy more than most documentaries telling me things that are wrong (that I probably already knew about anyway), MLK/FBI is a film I’d rather see get nominated. So that’s my category. Not as bad as I’d thought it might go. The benefits of being able to see all the shortlisted films in a timely manner.

Best Documentary Feature

76 Days

Crip Camp

Collective

MLK/FBI

The Mole Agent

– – – – –

Documentary Short time. We have another shortlist here. Only ten, so all I gotta do is get half.

Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa
Call Center Blues
Colette
A Concerto Is a Conversation
Do Not Split
Hunger Ward
Hysterical Girl
A Love Song for Latasha
The Speed Cubers
What Would Sophia Loren Do?

I saved watching these until I knew I had to write this article, so what you’re about to read is me watching these all for the first time and my thoughts as I see them:

  • Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa is an absolutely heartbreaking documentary. It’s only 13 minutes long but you get everything you need to know from those 13 minutes. It’s about the Woman’s Medical Fund, which aims to help supplement underprivileged women in need of an abortion. The organization works entirely on donations and has a fixed set of money they can give out each week and each shift. The title comes from the fact that everyone answering the phones adopts the name ‘Lisa’. The doc shifts between various calls taking place and clips from 1976 where a bill was passed preventing federal funds from going toward abortion, which has only served to harm poorer women, who are mainly non-white. It’s a wonderful call to action to show how the bigotry of people has had lasting effects on the country and this wonderful service that exists that is always in need of help so they can help women. I almost wish there were more to it, but honestly, they accomplish everything they need to accomplish in the time they have. I can’t imagine not having this on my list. If somehow this doesn’t make it, that means this category was way stronger than I expected it to be.
  • Call Center Blues is about people who have been deported from the U.S. who work at a call center in Tijuana and try to rebuild their lives. Because most of the people grew up in the U.S., they don’t have accents, which is what the companies look for when hiring people. And we follow a few of the people who work there and hear their stories. It’s interesting, though I’m not sure it grabbed me as much as they wanted to. Not sure this will end up being one I go for.
  • Colette is about a 90-year old woman who survived the Holocaust and worked with the French Resistance who decides to finally take a trip to Germany and visit the concentration camp where her brother died. It’s a tried and true Holocaust story, and I appreciate that Colette doesn’t overstate what she did. “I was young. They had me writing serial numbers of trucks. I wasn’t a hero. My ass was sitting on a rock.” But it is an interesting story of what this woman has had to deal with since that time since the war and her brother dying in a camp, including her own mother saying “It should have been you.” It highlights the important work done by researchers who have pieced together as much information as they can to not only explain to people how awful this was in the hopes it doesn’t happen again but also help the families understand what happened to their loved ones who were very likely taken away from them and never heard from again. I can easily see myself voting for this, though I can also see this end up being the sixth option with five I liked more. So we’ll see where we end up. But it is really emotional. Watching Colette walk on the grounds of where her brother died, experiencing her grief in real time is really something to behold. You couldn’t write scenes that good in a feature.
  • A Concerto Is a Conversation is about composer Kris Bowers, who tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather who grew up in the Jim Crow South, moved to Los Angeles and helped built a life for his family that eventually led to Bowers conducting an orchestra in playing a concerto that he wrote at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The doc looks very polished, and that’s because it was EP’d by Ava DuVernay, so this had more resources than most of these docs do. I’m not sure if I loved how they went about the filmmaking portion of this. The Spike Lee/looking into the camera set ups, while I understand why they did them, felt distracting to me. I wanted to pay attention to the story, not feel like they were trying to make me feel a certain way about the story. Because the grandfather’s story is interesting as hell. And I liked how they incorporated all the archival material and photos around it. Overall, I’m iffy on this one. Love everything that went into it, not sure I love the final product as it relates to having to choose five in this category. This is unfortunately the situation we’re put in when having to do this.
  • Do Not Split is a terrific documentary about the Hong Kong protests of 2019. The first half feels a lot like 76 Days in terms of getting immediate footage from people on the ground in the middle of everything. But by the end they do start to wrap it up and contextualize it by having interviews with the people protesting and explaining just what this means to them and how it’s changed the course of their lives. It’s impossible to watch this and not think of the outpouring of response to the George Floyd murder. The absolute state-run police brutality is almost 1:1, as well as the divide between people on the two sides. It’s an incredible documentary and might be the best one on this entire list.
  • Hunger Ward is about two female healthcare workers in Yemen helping to try to fight an epidemic of child starvation. So the doc is just scene after scene of these children who are horrifically malnourished and these women trying desperately to keep them alive despite a lack of supplies and an endless wave of cases. Some of the scenes in this don’t feel dissimilar to 76 Days, which is about the early days of the COVID epidemic in Wuhan. You see scenes of mothers screaming for their children in the halls of this hospital. And then you follow them to a room where their dead child is wrapped up in a blanket. And these doctors have to maintain decorum throughout all of this even though they see stuff like this every single day. There’s a moment where one of them suddenly has to leave the room and go to a private one because she can’t hold it in anymore and suddenly just breaks down. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch. It’s one of, if not the single best doc on this list. 100% this is going to be something I vote for.
  • Hysterical Girl is a reexamining of Freud’s only female case study from a modern feminist perspective. They hire an actress to ‘play’ Dora while using videos and images from film and pop culture and even modern day politics to re-contextualize everything. It plays out the story we’ve seen time and time again in recent years, of women who come forward with allegations of sexual assault and are not believed, dismissed and thought of as either making it up to try to take down the man or labeled ‘hysterical’. It’s a really great idea and a very, very, very worthwhile endeavor. I feel like the archival footage is a bit distracting at times, but I’m always a fan of people who take down Freud and show how fucked up society is when it comes to believing women. Overall, I love what they did here and I’m not even gonna hesitate to vote for it in this category.
  • A Love Song for Latasha is about the killing of a 15-year-old girl in South Central LA in 1991 over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Narrated by her best friend, it details how the two became friends and their friendship before the eventual incident as well as her recollections of the incident. It’s a really powerful documentary. It may seem deceptively simple, but when you hear the description of how she found out what happened and her recollections of a similar incident that happened earlier and the survivor’s guilt and grief that comes with that on top of the indignities Black people face in this country every single day — this is one of the best docs on this list.
  • The Speed Cubers is about professional Rubik’s Cube solvers. For those familiar with sports, it’s very much a Borg vs. McEnroe situation. Where the top ‘cuber’ (as they call them) who has a bunch of world records and is a veteran versus the young upstart. They highlight both people — the upstart is an autistic teenager — and build to the most recent competition where they face one another. But the best part about it? They’re friendly. There’s no ‘villain’ there and you’re happy for whoever wins. It’s incredibly touching. Just seeing Max’s story through the eyes of his parents is amazing. And the final competition, even though each solve is between 6-7 seconds long, is still riveting. It’s hard not to like this one.
  • What Would Sophia Loren Do is about an Italian woman who idolizes Sophia Loren. That’s literally it. This lady talks about her life and about how important Sophia Loren is in it. The film acts as both her story and Sophia Loren’s in a way, building toward a moment where the woman gets to meet her idol. It’s a real testament to the things we use to help us get through life and find joy and just a testament to the great stories of everyday people we never hear about.

So those are my thoughts on all of them. Not to waste any time, these are the five I’m picking for the category and the ones I liked best:

Best Documentary Short

Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa

Do Not Split

Hysterical Girl

Hunger Ward

The Speed Cubers

– – – – –

Live Action Short. Another shortlist of ten, with five spots:

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

I’ve been able to see seven of these, so I’m gonna paste my thoughts (and synopses, for those who haven’t been able to see any of these) here:

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.

– – – – –

So, having seen seven of these, I for sure would vote for Feeling Through, The Present and White Eye. I wouldn’t vote for The Van or The Letter Room. I also haven’t seen The Human Voice, The Kicksled Choir or Two Distant Strangers. So if I was picking a category based on what I’ve seen, I’d have to put Da Yie and Bittu as my final two choices. And I liked both, but mostly I’m curious about those other three because I feel like they’d be more likely to get on over those two were I able to see them.

I’m not gonna vote for Human Voice sight unseen, since I assume it doesn’t need the help. So what I’m gonna do is put Bittu and Da Yie on just to try to help them out. I can’t tell enough about the last two to know for sure whether or not I’d prefer them over one of the two. Human Voice I imagine I would like enough to vote for, but again… not doing it sight unseen for someone as big as Almodovar. I’m cool with these five.

Best Live Action Short

Bittu

Da Yie

Feeling Through

The Present

White Eye

– – – – –

And finally Animated Short.

Burrow
Genius Loci
If Anything Happens I Love You
Kapaemahu
Opera
Out
The Snail and the Whale
To Gerard
Traces
Yes-People

I’ve seen eight of the ten. You can read my shoddy analysis of the shorts here to hear my thoughts. The three I haven’t seen are Genius Loci, Opera and Yes-People.

Of the seven I saw — Burrow was cute and I’d probably include it. If Anything Happens I Love You is a 100% include. Kapaemahu I didn’t particularly care for enough to nominate. Out I liked, but had problems with on a narrative level (what’s with the dog thing for non-white or non-straight characters, guys? Oh, and while I know it’s part of the culture, the Mexican nominee was dead for the majority of that film. Just doesn’t look great when that’s your only representation and that’s what you do). Snail and the Whale was whatever for me. I’ve seen all of these and they’re all just fine. To Gerard I really enjoyed. Traces looked good but I wouldn’t take it. And Yes-People was cute, but also not something I’d vote for.

So that’s two for sure inclusions (If Anything Happens I Love You and To Gerard) and one probable (Burrow). Out is 50/50 for me and the other two are no gos. And, of the three I haven’t seen — Yes-People I haven’t seen enough of to know for sure, so without knowing more, I have to say no. Opera, I read a review for and it seems like a glorious Rube Goldberg machine of a short where the entire thing is operating in unison and it sounds glorious. So I think I might just include that on hearing that alone. And then, Genius Loci looks pretty stunning, so you know what? I’ll include that as well. I know Out for representation deserves it, but honestly? Don’t like that they made the main character a dog instead of treating him with respect. Remember In a Heartbeat from a few years ago? That was handling a gay character with respect. Maybe I’m the only one who feels that way, but it’s troubling to me that they keep doing this. So I’m leaving that off and will just let them put it on.

Best Animated Short

Burrow

Genius Loci

If Anything Happens I Love You

Opera

To Gerard

– – – – –

So those are my nominees. Tomorrow I’m gonna ignore all of this and simply go by what I think is actually gonna get nominated. It’s one of my five favorite articles of the year to write.

– – – – – – – – –

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