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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer


The beautiful, the sad and the funny: DPAC screens Oscar-nominated short films

This past weekend the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center screened all 15 of the short films nominated for this weekend’s Academy Awards. Ever since the nominees were released earlier this year, I’ve taken it upon myself to watch as many of them as I can before the ceremony. The opportunity to watch all the short films over the course of a weekend was one I could not pass up.

Here are my thoughts on the short films and my picks for who I think should take home the hardware on Sunday.

Best documentary short film

“The ABCs of Book Banning,” Sheila Nevins and Trish Adlesic

This short film foregrounds several children whose school libraries have been affected by the recent uptick in book bans, especially relating to works dealing with Black and LGBTQ+ subject matters. Through these interviews, the film does a good job of demanding a “why” from those who have sought to restrict the literature available in schools.

However, I did feel like after a certain point the movie is kind of beating a dead horse, which is a lot to say when the runtime is just 27 minutes. I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the recurring red text that is slapped on top of the banned book covers. I found it a bit tacky and annoying with the loud, thumping sound effect that accompanies it.

“The Barber of Little Rock,” John Hoffman and Christine Turner

Targeting the racial wealth gap, this film is wonderfully propelled by a charismatic and empathetic protagonist in Arlo, Washington. The cast of character helped by his endeavors also offer incredibly sincere and emotional testimony which drives the film’s message extremely effectively.

In one memorable line, a formerly incarcerated man now enrolled in Washington’s barber college is asked about the American dream. “I wouldn’t know,” he replies. It is a terrific documentary and one that felt absolutely essential as I was watching it. This was my favorite from this category and the one I’ll be rooting for on Sunday.

“Island in Between,” S. Leo Chiang and Jean Tsien

I went into this one knowing very little about Taiwan-China relations, and the island of Kinmen was entirely unknown to me. Still, I found the story compelling, the idea of an island stuck in the middle of a historic conflict. The director’s own personal connection to the conflict heightens the narrative as well. Maybe most of all the docs, there are some absolutely gorgeous shots in this one, especially around the water in Kinmen.

“The Last Repair Shop,” Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers

This documentary follows the four people that work repairing musical instruments for the students of the Los Angeles Unified School District. More than anything, I was struck by the how much pride they all took in their work. All their lives had been fundamentally impacted by music and through these instruments they found a way to pass that gift on to the next generation in a beautiful way. It’s quite inspiring. The film also closes with a beautiful orchestral performance done by musicians young and old, all graduates of the L.A.U.S.D.

“Nai Nai & Wài Pó,” Sean Wang and Sam Davis

A short and sweet slice of life with the director's two grandmothers. They offer some sobering reflections on life during your final days, but it is also funny and full of heart. I was struck by the contrast between the two women. One is tall, the other short. One says she feels young, the other old. One is funny, the other serious. It just works really well in this short film to create a very loving portrait of these older women.

Best animated short film

“Letter to a Pig,” Tal Kantor and Amit R. Gicelter

This short film ponders the Holocaust and the nature of collective trauma. Nearly entirely in black and white, the movie creates an oppressive sense of atmosphere with its dynamic animation style. It’s really a treat visually. However, I found the narrative a bit abstract and difficult to follow at times, obscuring the overall message in the moment.

“Ninety-Five Senses,” Jerusha Hess and Jared Hess

This movie starts and you think you know where it’s going, then suddenly, you don’t. The twist is unexpected, and it adds a really heartbreaking dimension to this story. Still, the animation is beautiful and it’s a powerful depiction of mortality, memory and the senses. This one gets my vote for this category.

“Our Uniform,” Yegane Moghaddam

The narrative is effectively one woman’s experience with mandates about wearing a hijab in Tehran as a child. For that reason, the entire movie is animated so that all the figures live on pieces of clothing, with the textiles varying widely throughout the movie. It is wildly creative and a unique, clever way to emphasize the film’s ideas through visuals.

“Pachyderme,” Stéphanie Clément and Marc Rius

Similarly to “Ninety-Five Senses,” this film begins innocently enough before taking a dark turn. But this is a change that isn’t as obvious as in “Ninety-Five Senses”; this movie thrives with its subtlety. It achieves a lot through deliberate imagery that comes together to create an eerie, uneasy mood that permeates this short. You know something is wrong even if you never see it.

“WAR IS OVER! Inspired by the music of John & Yoko,” Dave Mullins and Brad Booker

While “War is Over,” tells the simplest story of the nominees in this category, I think it is a truly gorgeous piece of animation. It might be a bit corny and cliché with its messaging, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile message. I also couldn’t help but love the pigeon/chess narrative that drives this short.

Best live action short film

“The After,” Misan Harriman and Nicky Bentham

In my view, this was the weakest of the five nominees for this award. It is fine, but I don’t think the emotional weight of this story really translated for me. I felt the pacing was a bit strange and there were a few moments with the lead’s performance that lost me a bit as well.

“Invincible,” Vincent René-Lortie and Samuel Caron

I really liked this one. The movie basically gives you the ending in the opening scene and spends the rest of its 30-minute runtime connecting the dots. When it all comes together it is fantastic. Teenage mental health is a difficult and complicated subject that I felt was handled with care and finesse.

“Knight of Fortune,” Lasse Lyskjær Noer and Christian Norlyk

This Danish short was delightfully awkward and funny, but with enough emotional punch to carry you through. It sets the premise well in the beginning and then takes on a few unexpected twists and turns before closing out. It was very clever and enjoyable to watch.

“Red, White and Blue,” Nazrin Choudhury and Sara McFarlane

Another real tough watch. It opens with a narrative about a poor, single mother dealing with life in Arkansas post-Dobbs decision. It is difficult to watch her struggle with an uncompromising reality, but the moment you realize what this short is actually about is unavoidably devastating.

“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” Wes Anderson and Steven Rales

This “adaptation” of the Roald Dahl story of the same name is fabulous. I use quotations there because the script is the story exactly as written, and it is a charming, whimsical narrative that I loved from start to finish. The main cast of Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dev Patel was fantastic as well. All that, combined with the outstanding set design and production value typical of Wes Anderson, makes this my pick for the award.