Oscar Nominated Short Films Dazzle at the Michigan

What makes a movie Oscar-worthy? The films made for best animated short, documentary short and live-action short are all as impeccably made and diverse, as you’d expect. But it is the universal themes that unite the 2024 flock of noteworthy shorts’ slick camerawork, shock value and ability of being a technical marvel.

2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films are showing at the Michigan Theater through Feb. 28.


Live action

Red, White & Blue

One of the most politically and culturally relevant live action shorts to Americans is this one about a loving but impoverished family in 2023 Arkansas, and abortion.

Even if you live in a state that has abortion access, like Illinois, you are likely to find your center flooded by Americans stemming from states with total bans like Arkansas, where this film begins. There, a single mom, raising her son and daughter in a one bedroom apartment on a waitress’ salary is desperately finding out how to get to Illinois for an abortion. It is a powerful, brutally realistic and humanizing portrait of how women in a post-Roe world get access to abortions, how they come to the decision, what the real life implications are and what the post-Roe process of getting an abortion is actually like.

The After 

The fear of senseless violence is often used to scare people into voting for someone or to buy something. But what happens when your family is attacked for no clear reason and you, the father of the family, is the only one who survives? That is the question of this entry from the UK. 

The film doesn’t even pretend to give a reason as to why. Is it because the family is a Black British family? Is it because they’re Londoners? The point is the grief, pain, loss and knowledge that you’ll never see the people you love most ever again – how to process and deal with a sort of unbearable pain that is only ever going to get worse – never, ever better.

Racked with grief and guilt, the main character barely says a word after the opening credits. David Oyelowo’s performance is so good that he doesn’t have to. His face, reactions to other people who don’t know how broken he is, and his convulsive physical performance are the backbone of the film that only a handful of actors at any given moment are capable of. Mr. Oyelowo is one of them.

Invincible

Everyone has met a kid like Léokim Beaumier-Lépine’s character, Marc – a young, likable, hot headed teenager who isn’t really antagonistic or malicious to anyone in particular. But he has a temper, an immaturity mixed with above average intelligence and a bullheaded refusal to accept punishment for minor infractions, which eventually snowballs into actual crimes.

Marc is in juvenile hall, rebelling against a well meaning but increasingly exasperated warden who finally has had it with him and yanks away his privileges. A sense of unfairness, frustration, immaturity and contempt for authority fuel the plot. You might see the end of this coming from the start. But it is the humanization of a kid who is so easy to dismiss as unfixable, the understated but piercing glimpses of the effects this is all having on Marc’s family. The fact of how obvious it is that it didn’t have to be this way makes it especially heartbreaking.

Knight of Fortune

Everyone grieves in a lot of different ways that are often hard to understand. That is certainly the case in this morbidly funny Danish film told from the perspective of a distraught husband trying to find a dignified way to work up the gumption to open the casket holding his recently departed wife in the local morgue.

The main character soon meets another mourner. Anyone who meets the oddball man who looks a bit like the main character would also be befuddled by his antics. But stick with it like how the grieving husband sticks through the story and you’ll be surprised by the organic, surprisingly sweet, deeply human, and suddenly understandable reasons why the strange man he meets is behaving the way he is.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar 

Wes Anderson provides the only truly comedic option you have in any of the three short categories this year. This impeccable fable is Wes Anderson in his truest form. If you loved “Asteroid City,” “Bottle Rocket,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” or “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” you’ll love this short.

Documentary

The Barber of Little Rock

One of the best documentary shorts of the five nominated is this one focusing on racial wealth inequality in America. For all of the astounding power and miracles that the American economy has brought to the world, it has never been a fair or equitable system, especially when it comes to race. This sprawling, highly technical problem is made very human by zooming in on the difficulties of “banking while Black” in Little Rock, Arkansas.

But this isn’t what you might be expecting. It is a truly uplifting and compelling story about a local entrepreneur who founded a non-profit savings and loans firm to service low income and disadvantaged people.

Arlo Washington got the idea for this when he was a barber in the Arkansas state capitol. He was approached by a regular customer who had just lost his job, asking for a $150 loan. Sheer compassion is what led him to loan the money, never expecting to get it back.

But his customer did pay it back in full. And then he asked for money again, Washington agreed, and was then promptly repaid. Then Washington thought: wait a second…

This documentary is an intriguing look at a business model that attempts to short circuit that, and chip away at the inexorably increasing wealth gap in America in general.

The ABCs Of Book Banning

The hyper-partisanship that characterizes the era of American democracy that we live in was perhaps always going to end up at our school boards eventually. Pen America, a free speech group that tracks book bans and book ban attempts, said on their website that during the 2022-2023 school year they “recorded 3,362 instances of book bans in US public school classrooms and libraries. These bans removed student access to 1,557 unique book titles, the works of over 1,480 authors, illustrators, and translators. Authors whose books are targeted are most frequently female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals. Amid a growing climate of censorship, school book bans continue to spread through coordinated campaigns by a vocal minority of groups and individual actors and, increasingly, as a result of pressure from state legislation.”

But what is missing from this back and forth between America’s left wing and the conservatives when both are claiming to be the ones defending America’s children from their agenda? Ask this documentary and they will say that is the American kids; so they put interviews with America’s 8 to 15 year olds as the centerpiece of this documentary.

Island In Between

Global geopolitics is complicated, and it is easy to get confused or get so overwhelmed that you decide to not engage. If you are feeling that way about the potential for war over Taiwan and its longstanding fight with the Communist Party of China, which controls mainland China, then this documentary provides a good snapshot of what is happening, the history behind it, what the stakes are and what might happen yet. 

It would be unreasonable to expect any short film to provide a comprehensive take on the potential war between the two governments both claiming to be the legitimate rulers of China, but this short is so good that it comes as close as you can get.

If you don’t know anything, take seeing this as a golden opportunity to get your foot in and at least understand what is what, who is who, and why the forces vying for control are doing what they are doing.

The Last Repair Shop

This doc short cuts itself into four segments where four employees of a Los Angeles schools’ department detail two things: how they keep music in the lives of Angelino students, and how their personal lives inform their work. The music is dazzling.

Nai Nai & Wai Po

This is one of the sweetest short documentaries presented. The attics that these old immigrants to America get to are adorable. In this short, they telegraph hints of something deeper all throughout the whole thing. But you don’t get much more than hints…

Animation

Our Uniform

From a technical aspect, “Our Uniform” was one of the most memorable films. This Iranian film uses fabric – jeans, corduroy, etc., – as the backdrop of the animated short.

As this film points out, it is not a criticism of the hijab itself, but of the nature of the government mandated conformity. It is an intriguing protest film that demonstrates personality, independent thought and dreams that don’t just refuse to be suppressed by the nature of a religious police state or even show much anger towards it.

95 Senses 

The biggest twist across all three categories comes from the narration of Tim Blake Nelson. What starts off feeling like a long story told by your grandpa, takes a gut wrenching left turn very quickly.

It asks: When should the government have the ability to execute a convicted criminal? If you did something horrible decades ago, do you still deserve death? Does it matter if it was an accident? This film’s narrator and swooshing pastel dreamlike-style doesn’t pretend like it has any easy answers.

Letter to a Pig

The art style of this film about intergenerational trauma and prejudice stemming from attempts at genocide is minimalist – technically. Or maybe it isn’t because the film portrays so much about the cycle nature of bigotry-based violence, letting go, remembering, survival and diversity that it almost feels like the opposite – maximalist.

Pachyderme

This minimalist French film leads viewers to read between the lines of the super-abstract nature of the narration, and dare to think about the unforgivable. 

Wild Summon 

One of the most straightforward ways to get people to care about something is to humanize someone or something.

This film’s environmental message about overfishing, dams, pollution’s impact on wildlife habitats and the cycle of life and death goes quite literal with that. The humanized salmon that populate the hyper-photorealistic film may put some people off, but it is hard to argue that this film feels like a new edition of Planet Earth with anthropomorphized wildlife.

War Is Over

aAnother mixed bag comes from another minimalist film. This anti-war short trods familiar ground with a message that you may find familiar, but with a lovely pastel-meets-Pixar minimalist style.

In a battlefield from somewhere in the World War One era two soldiers are playing chess in different tents. They utilize messenger pigeons – little birds kept in cages by the militaries of the era. In this age before modern telecommunications, where telegrams could easily get their lines cut and the newfangled telephones were even more iffy, it was commonplace to attach short messages to the birds legs and release them. This simple pastime that the soldiers used on top of their military communication jobs to relax in between fighting soon becomes crucial at the climax of the film.

I’m Hip

In this jazzy musical, there is a cat that sings through the narration and the art style is reminiscent of a 90s Nickelodeon show-meets “The Aristocats.” It has a jazzy, Saturday-night-on-the-town feel.

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Drew Saunders is a freelance business and environmental journalist who grew up just outside of Ann Arbor. He covers local business developments, embraces his foodie side with reviews restaurants, obsesses over Michigan's environmental state, loves movies, and feels spoiled by the music he gets to review for Ann Arbor!