They are not the big shots when it comes to Oscar night. It’s rare that many of the millions viewing the awards ceremony on TV have seen or even heard of them.
But that does not mean they are not worthy. Quite the opposite. The short subjects, the smaller films that vie for awards, are often indications of where larger films to follow will go. They are cinematic markers of progress. And often they can pack as much emotional punch or whimsy as a three-hour epic into far fewer minutes.
Every year the Detroit Film Theatre presents these shorts during the month of February and every year it is deservedly one of its most popular programs. How could it not be? Quality-wise, it is the equivalent of running “Lady Bird,” “Get Out,” “The Shape of Water,” “Dunkirk,” “Phantom Thread” and “Call Me By Your Name” on the same screen without the exhaustion factor.
Not that all the nominees are golden; some falter. The same can be said of most Oscar categories. But as a group, these short films sing.
This weekend the animated and live action shorts begin their run, with the documentary shorts still to come.
In modern times it seems inevitable that Pixar has a place among the animation nominees, and this year’s entry is a typically magical tale, “Lou,” which finds a schoolyard bully transformed by a mystically spunky lost and found box. Equally astounding, although with far more bite, is the wondrously realistic “Garden Party,” which sees curious frogs exploring a mansion in the wake of some elaborate party.
The longest animated entry by far is “Revolting Rhymes,” an adaptation of a Roald Dahl story that manages to intertwine extreme variations on the tales of Snow White, Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs with some notable voice assistance from the likes of Dominic West and Rob Brydon. It’s witty, ultimately gritty fun,
More touching is “Negative Space,” a stop-motion piece in which a man recalls how he and his father bonded over packing suitcases efficiently; it’s a film with an underlying sadness balanced by a faith in order.
It’s depth makes the inclusion of “Dear Basketball,” in which Kobe Bryant drones on about his love for the game seem like such a misfire. Glen Keane’s sketchbook animation is fine, but this is pretty superficial and lightweight stuff for an Oscar nominee.
If there’s a misfire among the live action nominees it’s “The Eleven O’Clock,” which is at first witty, but turns out to be predictable. A psychiatrist has a patient who has delusions that he’s a psychiatrist: Which is the real doctor? Unfortunately that answer is fairly apparent and the riddle soon wears thin.
Far more representative of the nominees is “DeKalb Elementary,” a tense and stark story of an armed man who threatens an elementary school. The entire film takes place in the school office as a receptionist tries to calm the shooter. It is entirely too realistic and timely.
“My Nephew Emmett” focuses on the night in 1955 Mississippi when white men came to a house and took away 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black child accused of whistling at a white woman, and subsequently murdered him. The film is shot in shadows for the most part; how fitting.
More hopeful, yet equally as brutal, is “Watu Wote — All of Us,” in which a Christian African woman takes a long bus ride through a dangerous area where Muslim extremists prowl. Based on a true story, it is equal parts brave and tragic and a condemnation of religious fervor.
The absolute jewel of the live-action shorts, though, is “The Silent Child,” in which a young deaf girl (Maise Sly, a 5-year-old who is actually deaf) is taught sign language by an earnest tutor and comes alive, before her over-busy, can’t-be-bothered mother intervenes. There is as more emotion and complexity in this 20-minute film than most blockbusters can muster. Sometimes brief is better.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘The Academy Award-Nominated Shorts’
Running time: 151 minutes