2020 Oscar Category Breakdown: Best Live Action Short

Today is Best Live Action Short, which oscillates between years of an absolute clear winner and years of ‘fuck if I know, any of these five can win’. This year is one of the latter years. So, while most years you should be fully prepared to do horribly in this category because it is one of the most unpredictable categories there is, you should especially be ready for that to happen.

The thing about Live Action Short is that there are no precursor and it’s a category based entirely around people’s tastes. Which, if you’ve been around Hollywood at all, you realize that most people don’t actually have any taste (and if they do, it’s usually bad) and that a lot of their decision-making is reactionary based on what’s making money, what seems to be popular and what other people are saying is the best thing. So a category like this makes you have to think ‘okay, who’s actually watching all the nominees and casting a vote (whether it’s them or their assistant) and which seems like it’ll get the most votes?’ Which, as I said earlier… is a dicey proposition this year.

Best Live Action Short

Feeling Through

The Letter Room

The Present

Two Distant Strangers

White Eye

Based on the shortlist of ten, most of the best and/or most obvious shorts made the list. The two major exclusions are the two I wasn’t able to see. First, The Human Voice, which was directed by Pedro Almodovar and stars Tilda Swinton. I assume they deliberately didn’t vote for it because they knew it would run away with the category based solely on who made it and was in it. And they’re probably right. They do that in the Documentary branch at detriment to the category. This category most people never know or care about, so they can’t really do much to hurt it. As long as the shorts that are here are largely good, there’s no problem. Since only a handful of people are ever gonna look them up and watch them anyway. So I get why that didn’t make it. The other was The Kicksled Choir, which I admittedly have not see, but based on the trailer it seemed like the kind of short that usually wins this category. But given the five that are here, they all make sense to me.

This category being the giant tossup that it is, these rankings are largely only based on my general feelings about the nominees and nothing else. You can legitimately make the case that any five of these can actually win.

5. Feeling Through — This feels like the slightest of the nominees in terms of both stature and story. It’s a really touching short, and has a lot of the hallmarks of what tends to win in this category. However, I’m not sure it has that ‘aha’ moment at the end that tends to really make them connect emotionally with it and want to vote for it. Think of The Neighbors’ Window last year. It’s got the nice hook of ‘people can see into their younger neighbors’ window and watch them constantly have sex and have the relationship they no longer have’ and then finally has that moment at the end of ‘we just watched a person die and realize we really don’t have it so bad’. They like that little moment at the end that ties up the narrative. Here — homeless guy meets the deafblind man, begrudgingly takes him around and then at the end actually feels for him. It has a little bit of the ‘other people have it worse’ thing, but I’m not sure it has it in that way that automatically screams ‘this is the vote’. But it’s there, and that’s why this could legitimately win. But based on all the cases to be made for all these shorts, I’m not sure this is the most likely winner.

4. The Present — This won BAFTA’s short film award, which isn’t nothing, since it means people saw it and liked it (or at least were aware that it was nominated here and voted for it, which is already a step to getting them to vote for it again anyway), but when you look at the few nominated shorts that won (or just were nominated) there, it’s not some automatic winner (the only other winner that went on to win an Oscar there in the past 20 years was last year’s winner, which won Documentary Short, which is a completely different category than this is in terms of voting). But it’s got that emotional hook (‘Palestinian man tries to get his wife a gift for their anniversary but is thwarted because of racism from occupying Israeli forces) and has that transcendent moment at the end they go for (just as it looks like Dad is about to get shot for doing something, the little girl does it to put the troops in the situation where they’re going to have to kill a child and suddenly realize, ‘you know, maybe we are overreacting’). This absolutely fits as a winner and could easily be seen as the #1 in the category. I just have it fourth because… I don’t know… gut feeling, I guess? Smart money might be on it being third, I don’t know. At this point I’m just assuming I’ll be horribly wrong, so I’m just going with my gut and will just let whatever happens happen.

3. White Eye — So my glib reason for putting this Israeli third over The Present (a Palestinian short) is because… we all know how Hollywood sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict (which may be a joke but also isn’t not true either). But the real reason I keep coming back to this as a major contender, which admittedly might be very much a bad idea and misleading and one of my major missteps on the ballot, is because it’s a short done in a single take. And I think the structure of it might appeal to some people, how it begins as something as simple as a guy whose bike was previously stolen seeing it on the side of the street. And so what begins as ‘I want my bike back’ turns into this complicated odyssey that seems to be making a point about bureaucracy and due process and instead ends up making a point about race and immigration and due process. And it ends up being really strong (even though some people may have an issue with how on-the-nose the ending is). Again, without knowing how people are gonna respond to anything assuming they actually watch all of them, I’m just kinda guessing based on what my instincts are telling me. In terms of its general profile, I wouldn’t put this above fourth, but based on having seen all five of these, I feel like it’s at worst third choice based on quality.

2. The Letter Room — This is only second because Oscar Isaac is in this and generally shorts with stars in them tend to do well here (the two this decade, The Shore and The Phone Call, both win). You might say this is the favorite on that alone. The story also kinda fits what generally wins here, even though the emotional catharsis of the ending they like doesn’t feel like it’s here. This is one of those, on a blind vote just looking at a synopsis, director and star, this might win, but if you watch all five, I’m not sure this becomes the odds-on favorite. But the cynical vote is to just assume this will win based on Isaac’s presence alone. And that might actually be how this goes in the end. But I’m keeping it second based on it not actually feeling like the short that allows you to most emotionally connect with it.

1. Two Distant Strangers — It’s Groundhog Day but with police brutality. Obviously a very ‘current’ subject for them, and given the increasing diversity of voters and lowering of the median age of voters, I feel like this will resonate with a lot more people than it might have a few years ago. Does that make it a surefire winner? No. Like I said, this category goes four, even five deep. But on paper this feels a lot like a good winner to promote as your ‘best’ live action short. Not sure that’s how people will vote, but I also think that if you just watched all five, this will get a legitimate number of votes based on the high concept premise and general satisfaction level of the short. Some people might want a more ‘concrete’ ending, but the short wisely doesn’t give one, because the problem is still ongoing. And I think, to smart voters, that’s the best thing it could’ve done. So, I don’t know how anyone will react to these shorts and any of them can win. I’m just trying to guess how I think this is most likely to go, and this is the set of rankings I’ve come up with today. I will likely use this same order to figure out what I’m gonna do for Sunday and make any alterations based on whatever the hell sways me between now and then. But, if there’s one thing I say almost every year when picking this category — you never really know how it’s gonna go, so just go with what generally feels the most like them and hope you get lucky.

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