‘The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Short Films’ Review: With Little Running Time Comes Great Power

This year’s shorts pack a wallop — so much so that watching them all together can be emotionally draining

Last Updated: February 8, 2018 @ 1:49 PM

If you’ve ever scratched your head over the nominees for Best Short Subject — not recognizing a single, solitary film — you’re not alone. We’ve come a long way from the era in which short live-action, animated and documentary movies were a staple at the local movie theater, and nowadays you typically have to seek them out. Fortunately, “The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Short Films” are playing at select theaters across the country, so watching them all is a snap.

The only problem, of course, is that these 15 films were not specifically intended to be screened together, which means that watching them all in one sitting can be an emotionally draining experience.

The nominated documentary shorts confrontationally tackle topics like racist police officers, opioid addiction, abuse of the elderly, and mental illness. Even the most light-hearted entry (if you can call it that) is about the difficult process of rehabilitating ex-convicts. They’re all finely crafted shorts but mainlining them all together can be a nerve-jangling experience.

Thomas Lennon’s “Knife Skills” tells the story of Edwins, a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, staffed almost entirely by ex-cons, who learn the fine art of French cooking over the course of weeks, not years. It’s a sensitive and optimistic portrayal of people eager for second chances, and a proprietor whose overwhelming sense of shame demands that he make them the offer.

It shares its sense of hard-earned hope with Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “Heroin(e),” which deftly offers multiple perspectives on the opioid epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia, where the overdose rate is ten times higher than the country’s average.

Watching decent people persist at being decent, even in the face of all-encompassing hopelessness, is the sort of inspirational experience that transcends the art of filmmaking and feels, instead, like the distilled essence of the best in humanity. In comparison, Laura Checkoway’s “Edith+Eddie,” about a nonagenarian mixed-race couple torn apart by familial infighting and legal apathy, and Kate Davis’ “Traffic Stop,” about a wholesome black math teacher mistreated by a white police officer for what should have been a routine speeding ticket, offer harrowing illuminations of terrible injustice. The audience is expected to bring their own hope.

Somewhere in the middle of the horror and healing is the final doc short, Frank Steifel’s “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” which tells the story of the impossibly talented 56-year-old artist Mindy Alper, who takes her inspiration from a half-century of severe mental illness. The best and worst life has to offer are combined into one immensely affecting narrative, in which Alper never quite overcomes her anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (and the list goes on), but manages to make something beautiful out of all of that darkness.

The live-action shorts aren’t exactly an assortment of sunshine and sparkles either. Even the one comedic short, Derin Seale’s “The Eleven O’Clock,” manages to leave you feeling unnerved by the end. The film plays like a rogue Monty Python sketch, in which a psychologist tries to psychoanalyze a patient whose delusion is that he’s the real psychologist, and that the actual psychologist is his patient. It’s a clever exercise in non-stop double-speak and perpetually mounting frustration, but it’s hampered by logistical inconsistencies and the general sense that it’s a bit more post-modern than it is actually “funny.”

Three of the other nominees tackle social violence from the point of view of people trying, in the heat of the moment, to prevent shocking murders. Reed Van Dyk’s “DeKalb Elementary” follows a receptionist as she spends a quarter of an hour talking down a high-school shooter, Kevin Wilson Jr.’s stunningly photographed “My Nephew Emmett” is the sad tale of a black man doing what little he can to protect his family from white lynchers, and “Watu Wote: All of Us” is about Muslims protecting a Christian woman from the Al-Shabaab during a bus hijacking in Kenya.

Each of these three shorts is an exercise in tension, each of them is earnest and pained, and each of them is based — to one degree or another — on a true story. And they each come across as a nightmare, averted or otherwise. “DeKalb Elementary” and “My Nephew Emmett” wring the most power by drawing out the suspense, forcing the audience to live in the endless moments immediately after violence breaks out, and to wonder what we would do in the protagonist’s place. In comparison, “Watu Wote” plays out in broader storytelling strokes, making its points clearly but, perhaps, not as viscerally as the two other films that otherwise mirror its narrative so closely.

Rounding out the live-action nominees is Chris Overton’s “The Silent Child,” a drama about a woman hired to tutor a deaf little girl, in a family so preoccupied with their own lives that none of them bother to learn sign language and communicate with her. What appears at first to be a feel-good tale about finding the right teacher instead evolves into a sobering and sad saga about what happens when your needs are too inconvenient for other people.

At least we can always count on the animated shorts to liven things up a bit. For instance, there’s Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s “Negative Space,” a stop-motion animated story about a life defined by packing suitcases, which is actually even more melancholy than it sounds. Hammering home my ironic segue is “Garden Party,” directed by six different animators, which seems like a whimsical photo-realistic story about frogs getting into a fancy house and messing up the kitchen, before taking a stomach-churning turn. Both films use silence and subtle visual cues to immerse the audience, but “Garden Party” plays like a stylish but cynical gag, whereas “Negative Space,” also relatively simple in its storytelling, finds itself in greater emotional depths.

The sillier nominated films are, however, a delightful counterpoint. Dave Mullin’s “LOU,” which had a wide theatrical release in front of Pixar’s “Cars 3,” is the story of a schoolyard bully who runs afoul of an anthropomorphic and playful pile of junk. He learns a sweet lesson about why it’s more important to give than it is to take, even though it fails to answer the question of why, if the huge “Lost and Found” box is right there on the playground, nobody who lost those items ever found their own stuff.

More attention to narrative detail was given to Jan Lachauer and Jakob Schuh’s “Revolting Rhymes,” a mash-up of several stories from Roald Dahl’s classic, mean-spirited children’s book, which retells old fairy tales from a subversive and even more violent perspective. The cleverness of the material, the slyness of the voice cast, and the playfully grim finale make it a bit of a treasure.

But the short that may just bring the most wonderful tear to your eye is “Dear Basketball,” from Disney animator Glen Keane and basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, who — through astounding animation and sincere, honest narration — manage both to pay homage to Bryant’s lifelong dreams and to bid a tearful farewell to them at the very same time.

Which of these films will win the Oscar is, ultimately, less important than the impact they will continue to have. It may be strange and even harsh to watch so many emotionally forceful, socially significant, and stylistically bold motion pictures all at once, but then again, it’s that impact that made them stand out in the first place, and that makes them well worth the trip to the theater.