Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Live Action Oscar-Nominated Short Films from 2019

Eclectic Mix of Despair and Humor

Reviews by Ken Burke

 I finally got to a screening for Oscar-nominated-Short Films (the Live Action ones to be specific although Animation and Documentary finalists are also playing in my San Francisco area), but it was just before the Academy Awards ceremony last Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, so I waited until this week to write about what I saw.  (Feel free to [re]visit my previous posting for predictions, preferences, updates on actual Oscar winners.*)  In looking over those predictions I’m a little saddened by how much of such speculation devolves to concerns about how Oscar voters may be influenced by such factors as popularity, hostility, bandwagon effects, concentrated attempts to spread the wealth around, influence from ad campaigns, etc. when ideally such decisions are made solely on the basis of cinematic achievement, so it’d be nice if in the future that’s what the speculation-verbiage would concentrate on (from me as well); however, especially in a national election year it’s difficult to ignore politics, even in the arts, so it’s nice to say whatever moves me about these 5 Shorts is based solely on their filmic-relevance because I (like most Oscar voters I’ll wager [this might have been the year to have bet some cash on my predictions because I got 18 of 24 correct]) knew nothing about these films’ contents nor production teams before seeing them, allowing me to simply react to their quality, which is varied but worth your attention even though the awards-giving has concluded.  While you’ll find nothing about any of them (last time I looked) on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacrtic you can visit this site, especially if you scroll to the Press Downloads section to view directors’ bios and lists of awards previously won.  In my comments below I’ll add trailers for each of them, then note Internet sites for seeing some in full length; however, I’ll also encourage you on that SHORTS TV site just mentioned to look over the Theatrical Release section where you can see what’s playing where for how long in a range of 10-500 miles from your location (Box Office Mojo says the Live Action and Animated Shorts [not screened together, though] are currently in 535 theaters).  For my format this time, while I’ll continue with spoiler alerts, I’ll drop using opening summaries as there’s not a lot to say beyond what’s in my non-spoiler-sentences anyway.  As best I know, none of these are rated, but there’s not much I saw inappropriate for even very young kids although you might want to check my full details in case I’m being too generous in that regard.  Most listings of these 5 films are alphabetical; here, however, I’ll go with my top pick, then descend.

*One thing I (and few others) didn’t predict is the notable haul of top awards for Parasite.  Here’s some discussion from NY Times film critics about the significance of this unexpected-mini-sweep.
                     The Neighbors’ Window (Marshall Curry) 
                                        USA, 20:37 min.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

 More-approaching-middle-age than they care to admit, Alii (Maria Dizzia) and Jacob (Greg Keller) live in a high-rise-apartment in NYC near the Brooklyn Bridge (on the Brooklyn side if I’ve got my geography right) where no one seems to have curtains so they can easily see (especially after getting out the binoculars) the 20-somethings-couple (Juliana Canfield, Bret Lada) in the apt. across the street whose nude frolicking, sex life, parties just lead to ongoing voyeurism especially for frustrated Alii who seems to have most of the parental responsibilities for their 2 very-young-kids and a baby.  Her disgust at Jacob for bringing out the binocs leads to a lot of early humor when her own gazing becomes an obsession.  ⇒Over the months of changing seasons, though, she sees the young man get increasingly ill (seemingly of cancer), finally dies as EMTs take him away from his distraught wife.  Alii goes downstairs, goes to comfort the neighbor as her husband’s body rolls away in an ambulance; they talk briefly with Alii surprised she and Jacob were also being watched by a young couple envious of their children as it became increasingly clear these Millennials would never be able to have any of their own.⇐  The mix of comedy and pathos was really touching as it reminded me of my long-ago-first wife (we married in 1971, divorced in '75) who remarried (the guy she left me for) but died 10 years later from breast cancer, never having the kids she’d wanted (a reason for our breakup; in my mid-20s I wasn’t ready, never have been since despite my wonderful second marriage—that early divorce was bitter, I never regained good feelings about my ex, but I’d also never have wished such a fate for her either).  The mood change in this film’s handled smoothly, the emotions feel genuine, the impact even in such a brief format’s quite effective.  A story based on a real event, it justly won the Oscar for this category (watch it here in full if you like).
                               Nefta Football Club (Yves Piat) 
                                  France-Tunisia, 17:15 min.

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

 Two young brothers, Mohamed (Eltayef Dhaoui) and Abdallah (Mohamed Ali Ayari), living in a desert town in Tunisia near the Algerian border are coming back home one day on their motorcycle (trailing a wagon) when Abdallah needs to pee, so when he walks up over a low hill to relieve himself in Algeria he comes across a donkey wearing headphones, carrying a good number of packages of white powder in saddlebags.  The kid thinks it’s laundry detergent while his slightly-older-brother knows it’s really a huge drug haul, so they load the many packages into their wagon, head back to town.  Meanwhile, the adults who should have first found the donkey, Salim (Lyès Salem) and Ali (Hichem Mesbah), are dumbfounded their usual procurement method hasn’t worked.  Mohamed thinks he’s sitting on a gold mine so he stashes the bags under couch cushions, goes to see a couple of motorcycle repair guys in hopes of getting easy money in exchange for the dope. ⇒When he brings them back to his house, though, he finds all the bags are gone so he’s mortified.  What we see as the film wraps up is Abdallah’s taken all the bags to where his football (to the rest of the world, what we in the U.S. call soccer) buddies—the "Club"play on a field constantly leading to arguments because it’s hard to tell when the ball’s out of bounds, in the goal area, etc.  They’ve solved their problem (much to Mohamed’s shock) by using this abundant white power to mark off legitimate soccer field lines which we see at the end as the camera tracks skyward, revealing the now properly-constituted-playing-area.⇐  Just because everything about this witty film was so unexpected (especially the headphones on the donkey, who’s trained to return to a certain spot when it hears Adele’s "Someone Like You" but Ali cued up another song by mistake so the animal wandered off) the humor level’s consistent, the seemingly-unrelated aspects of the plot connect, the whole thing’s great to watch (which you can do at this site), making it a tough choice to be only #2 in this group because it’s so delightful, plus it has some great cinematography in the desert scenes.
                          Saria (Bryan Buckley) USA, 22 min.

Here’s the trailer:

      Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

 This film’s based so closely on a real event it might have qualified for the Documentary Short Film category, showing what happened in 2017 replayed with actors as some docs do after establishing the needed facts of a situation.  However, it’s within Live Action considerations so we’ll treat it as a docudrama with fictional elements as in Oscar-nominated-feture-films (also not in the Documentary Feature group) based in reality (how much is sometimes up for contention) such as Bombshell (Jay Roach; review in our January 22, 2020 posting), The Irishman (Martin Scorsese; review in our November 21, 2019 posting), Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach; review in our December 11, 2019 posting), Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar; review in our October 23, 2019 posting), and The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles; review in our January 2, 2020 posting).  This story’s simple enough: We witness Guatemala’s Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home (orphanage) where teenage-sisters Saria (Estefania Tellez) and Ximena (Gabriela Ramirez) are in the girls’ barracks with many others in their same generally-hopeless-for-improvement-situation where conditions are like a slightly-milder-version of a concentration camp with repressive teachers (some who rape the girls), gruff guards, hardnosed adult dorm leaders (even so, Ximena’s attracted to Appo [Jorge Ávila] over in the parallel boys’ quarters but they have limited options to see each other, given the strict rules of the place).  ⇒At one point the situation gets so bad the kids revolt, escape their confinement, run into the nearby countryside, but they’re all rounded up again.  The girls are put in a locked room when one of them (not sure who; my viewing companions think it might have been Ximena) has a lighter so she starts a fire assuming that will allow the locked doors to be opened so they can escape again.  However, the female guard on duty ignores the chaos she can sense from under the door, lets the fire burn for about 9 min. resulting in the horrifically-tragic-deaths of 41 of the girls.  There’s no attempt here to give much backstory or follow-up to this gruesome situation (made even more awful by the fact no one at the orphanage has yet to be charged with any criminal conduct despite all of these unwarranted lives lost.)⇐   Without wishing to undermine my own spoiler-warning I think it might be necessary here because if you don’t know (as I didn’t) anything about the human misery that occurred at this place, don’t know if you’ll ever see this film (not available on the Internet yet that I’m aware of), then you need to know about this sad event in hopes such cruelty’ll not be repeated (unlikely, given the world we now live in).  This is a powerful film (shot at a different Guatemala orphanage using kids who live there as the actors) because of its subject but a bit too much (at least for me) like a restaged news story when compared to other options of this category.
                   A Sister (Delphine Girard) Belgium, 16 min.

Here’s the trailer:

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

  A Sister’s probably the most unique in concept of all these 5 finalists as it takes a single event, presents it largely in real time (with a few flashbacks)—but not intended to be seen as a single-shot as with the highly-manipulated-but-marvelously-successful-visual-approach of 1917 (Sam Mendes; review in our January 22, 2020 posting).  The premise involves a woman, Alie (Selma Alaoui), who's in a car at night, driven by gruff Dary (Guillaume Duheseme)—whom we (more-or-less) understand from those brief flashbacks raped her earlier in the evening, then forced her into the car as they’re driving to who-knows-where?  In a desperate move to save herself she makes a 911 call (or however they’d refer to such a service in Belgium) with the premise she’s talking to her sister who’s babysitting Alie’s children, doesn’t want her to be worried she’s not home yet.  The woman at the call center (Veerie Baeteus) finally understands what’s going on with this oddball conversation, helps Alie give useful information while Dary’s unaware of what’s happening (except he’s getting irritated Alie’s on the call so long, at one point grabs the phone away from her but the 911 woman continues the ruse so, despite his frustration, he finally gives the phone back to Alie).  ⇒As small clue after small clue falls into place, the call-center-operator manages to figure out their location, arranges for police to block their progress, so Dary’s arrested, Alie’s exhausted-but-relieved as this all just comes to a quick end.⇐  Once you figure out in those opening minutes the call Alie’s making has nothing to do with a sister or babysat-kids the tension quickly mounts, a rescue seems difficult if not impossible, we have further trauma as we sit watching as witnesses to all of this not knowing who these characters are, how Alie came to even be in Dary’s presence that night, what he intends to do next, why he’s such a monster, etc.; yet, the sense of this tension-filled-film is more like a vignette in a larger story or a short story so brief it requires your full attention even as it’s frustrating by throwing you right into the action, then wrapping it up so quickly.  It’s an engaging experience, but I think there are finalists in this category that are more successful overall.  The trailer noted above has a link to the full film at, but it’s not available for those of us in the U.S.A., so if you can watch it somewhere in the world (including my trusted readership out there in Google’s Unknown Region) I think you’ll find it to be one fascinating premise.
                             Brotherhood (Meryam Joobeur) 
                   Canada-Tunisia-Qatar-Sweden, 25:07 min.

Here’s the trailer: 
(Blogspot takes only YouTube videos for direct display so click on the above link to see this one.)

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

 Brotherhood has the longest running time of these finalists (and an impressively-long-list of awards over the last couple of years), so I guess I should appreciate it more (and might if I were better educated in the issues it presents), but I’ve got to be honest about what I saw which left me not nearly as resolved nor clear what it would take to get me resolved about what I saw, what I was intended to take away from it (shot in the old 4x3 format from long-gone-days of theatrical film and TV, further giving it a distanced sense of existence—just like The Lighthouse [Robert Eggers; review in our November 6, 2019 posting]).  The premise is simple enough: Mohamed (Mohamed Grayaâ) is a shepherd in rural Tunisia with a wife, Salha (Salha Nasraoui), and 2 sons doing what they can to survive in uneasy surroundings, including having to feast upon 1 of their sheep when it’s injured by a wolf.  A basically-hard-life gets conceptually-more-difficult when their eldest son, Malik (Malek Mechergui—I think; I couldn’t find a definitive cast list, even in the film’s end credits, but the pattern seems to be naming the characters after their actors so this seems to be a reasonable assumption), returns from Syria where he not only shamed his family by joining the fantatical-butchers of ISIS (out of obligation to his Muslim brothers he says; Dad’s more concerned about Malik’s Muslim family at home), further confounds them by bringing along his Syrian wife, Reem (Jasmine Yazid), pregnant, cloaked in full-body-covering-garb, not even speaking to Malik’s family.  ⇒Eventually, at Malik’s request from his parents’ insistence, she reveals more of herself both physically and emotionally, admitting the baby-to-be isn’t from Malik but the result of being forced into “marriage” with many ISIS fighters; by the time Mohamed learns this from Salha he’s already made some unclear (to us) phone call, possibly informing the authorities to pick up his ISIS-active-son.  When he learns the truth about Reem’s pregnancy (along with Malik’s willingness to care for her) he sends the women off to Salha’s sister for protection, runs to the beach calling for Malik not knowing all 3 of his sons have returned home with quick shots implying Malik’s being hauled off by the police.⇐  You’re welcome to watch this entire film to see if you get more out of it than I did, but except for feeling the father’s emphatic-consternation at the end (in a desperate scene reminding me a bit of Zampanò's [Anthony Quinn] emotional breakdown for his sins on an Italian beach at the end of La strada [Federico Fellini, 1954]) I just didn’t get it enough to be more enthralled with what I saw here.

 If you want more, go to this Oscars Live Action Short Film site, which has useful info in itself but you can also click at the top of the page on follow-up-sites for each of these 5 films for additional material.  Similarly, you can go to other sites for the same (including links to trailers or full versions) on the 2020-Oscar-nomimated-Short Films in Animation and Documentary, but don’t forget to check out your options of seeing any of these films in a theater, which I highly recommend.
 Normally, I finish each review with a Musical Metaphor attempting to bring final perspective on the subject at hand from the realm of the acoustic arts; however, rather than labor through the process of finding a song for each of the short films above I’ve tried to choose just one that could, in some manner, speak to all of them.  As I indicated in the title of this posting, I think what we have here is very serious material until that somber mood's lightened by the beginning half of The Neighbors’ Window (well placed in the theatrical-screening [after A Sister, Brotherhood]), followed by the grim aspects of its own story, then Saria, so that the program ends on a much-lighter-note with Nefta Football Club.  Accordingly, I’ve chosen a tune that speaks to this general theme of desperation lightened somewhat by levity in George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” (from The Beatles 1969 Abbey Road) at (a video enhancing the original recording with lyrics on screen and some pleasant visuals), a celebration of the ordeal of winter finally giving way to the rebirth of spring, just as these films deal with a cluster of heavy subjects but still manage, in their collective-screening-presence, to offer us some needed uplift as well, mirroring Harrison’s original inspiration of seeing a brutal English “long, cold, lonely winter” begin to thaw with the coming of spring even though “it seems like years since [warmth’s] been here.”  There’s a lot of genuine misery in these films, speaking to various troublesome aspects of our shared human condition, but, fortunately—even during those times of our darkest hours—we can experience a period of “Here comes the sun, and I say It’s all right,” even if it can't remain as long as we’d prefer.

 Love’s another situation that may not last as long as we may wish (I certainly went through enough failed attempts at it before meeting my marvelous now-and-forever-wife, Nina, almost 33 years ago [at Paul Simon’s Graceland concert in Berkeley, CA, leading to "diamonds on the soles of my shoes" ever since) even though we all need a loving relationship to help you through both good times and bad, one that, when it’s working properly, is another aspect of “Sun, sun, sun, here it comes,” one soon to be celebrated on this February 14, Valentine’s Day.  I know it’s often criticized as simply a commercial gimmick intended to sell greeting cards, flowers, expensive dinners (probably condoms; you can’t be too careful these days), but it can also be a fine time to resonate with the one you love, so for all of you out there wherever you might be reading Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark (knowing Pat Craig is with us in spirit until that magical day when he actually writes a review for this blog)—especially in Google’s Unknown Region, wherever in the hell that might be—we wish you at least one day when we can put aside political/social/religious/identity differences, find some love in our hearts enough to share even with those we normally disagree with, adding hopes for those currently without romance in their lives (whether it just hasn’t found you yet, left you before you were ready, didn’t connect as you hoped it might) that it will find you soon or at least you’ll continue to thrive through your own inner peace as we all continue to attempt to find tolerance, acceptance, understanding of ourselves, those already close to us, others we haven’t been able to reach yet on this Valentine’s Day.  There are some lessons of making connections in some of these Live Action Short Films, some warnings of what can go wrong when we pull apart, so whether you see them for yourself somewhere, read about them here and/or elsewhere, or just find your own avenue toward greater love this Valentine’s Day, may peace and joy fill your heart (just as I intend to share such with Nina, my own eternal soulmate).  If you’re as lucky now (or ever will be) in finding such a love, I think you can appreciate my final Musical Metaphor, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice" (a 1965 hit, then on their 1966 Daydream album), a sweet song about sweet people, which we should all try better to be as often as possible.
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*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2019’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 9, 2020 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2019 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the current Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2019 along with the Oscar nominees and winners for 2019 films.

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come. 
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 22,926 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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