They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Handicapping the Shorts
By J. Don Birnam
February 12, 2018
The Writers Guild of America awards happened this weekend and give their top prizes to Call Me By Your Name for adapted (a lock at the Oscars) and to Jordan Peele for Get Out in original, but the Oscar race is still tough against Greta Gerwig. Meanwhile, we will continue today to handicap the Oscar categories race by race to try to improve our odds of a good prediction ballot on March 4th. Today we tackle the pesky shorts.
The Oscar short films are one of the most pleasant cinematic experiences of the year and one of the most frustrating to handicap. One of the reasons it is so difficult to handicap them is that there is no discernible pattern over the years. Except for the really far out nominees, there is precedent of at least one of each type of movie winning, in each category. And, if you think about it, those three categories can really make or break your Oscar pool.
Last year, when I did spectacularly bad in general, I really embarrassed myself with the shorts. I had doozies such as calling the Best Live Action Short “The easy call” of the night, and then eliminating the eventually winner, the Hungarian entry, in second place. I did not even place the winner in the “could win” category. For the other two, I had the actual winner in “could win,” showing that I let my own tastes get in the way. And even though I had good reasons for picking them (for example, a short like Borrowed Time had previously won, I still went 0-fer.
Two years ago I did a lot better—going two for three. I also had a 21/24 ballot that year. And the year before that, I got all three right.Really the shorts can be the whole ballgame. So, you know, no pressure or anything. This feels like another 0-3 year. Sigh, the vicissitudes of the Oscar game.
With all that said, here goes nothing. Make your own judgments in these of course, I hope only to guide you in the right general vicinity. Thoughts? Twitter and Instagram.
Best Animated Short
This I think is the toughest one this year, with all five potential winners. What I will do here is tell you which ones I like, but also give you some stats about past years. But, this is the new Academy and everyone can vote without seeing these. So, you really cannot predict these very well, it just not possible.
The first one I was going to knock out was the claymation short Negative Space, about a man who shares an obsession with his father with compacting space and packing. The movie has a sort of dark comedy twist. I thought it was boring and then as I was researching this column I found out it had 53 awards over the year, more than the other four combined!! My God. And it is undoubtedly the most emotional of the bunch (or one of the most), and there is A LOT of precedent for that here, in the ten years or so I’ve been catching up with the shorts. So, *shrug* emoji here.
I would next knock out the longest of the entries, Revolting Rhymes. This short is based on a Roald Dahl series of stories where traditional tales like Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs are mixed and matched and turned upside down in his usual dark style. The short is likely the best of the five, so it has a shot. But I am eliminating simply because in the ten years I’ve gone to the shorts, the long entry has never won. It is purely a stats-driven prediction, but, they seem to be looking for a little punch here, not long-form story-telling.
My personal favorite was the dark and twisted, and hilariously clever, Garden Party, about a series of animals and their adventures to obtain food in a big mansion where some unspeakable crime has happened. I simply loved this short, but it lacks all emotional gravitas and is just sort of fun. There is little precedent for that winning.
That takes us down to two—the Pixar entry Lou, which played ahead of Cars 3, or the Kobe Bryant film Dear Basketball. Do not confuse yourself into thinking that Kobe or Pixar means win. Pixar actually has a somewhat spotty record here. It won last year, but lost the year prior. And it was the same one off, one on record the two years before that. Overall, they are just 4-14 in their history. What I will say is that a pretty weak movie, Piper, about a cute little bird, won last year. That is not much like that, and may signal new Academy tendencies. If it were the old, I’d knock out Lou only because it’s quite but not much more. The Kobe film, meanwhile, speaks from the heart.
Conversely, don’t think that because it’s Kobe he’s going to win. They don’t let people into their club that easily. Remember Sylvester Stallone? And the short is somewhat solipsistic and narcissistic. That said, if it were an anonymous piece, I’d pick it hands down. It is beautifully animated and a very touching little piece.
Will Win: Lou
Could Win: Dear Basketball
Best Live Action Short
This one seems slightly easier, but only slightly. If you look at past years, they really like really emotional movies, for example if they involve children like Helium in 2014. They also love stories about an underdog or a subversive, little-known element, like Stutterer in 2016 or even Sing last year. Really, the style here is all over the place.
I would knock out DeKalb Elementary first. Although the movie is tense and well-made, it lacks all of the above. It is about a mentally-ill man invading an elementary school and threatening to shoot cops that approach, and how the school secretary deals with him and talks him down the ledge. It is very stressful and gripping, and that will get it votes. But I am not sure it will feel “important” with some of the other ones on the last.
Indeed, more than any year, this year the category is full of movies with a lot of socially relevant messages. I have actually never seen one of those win in this race in the 10 years I have been looking at these shorts. They just do not seem to want that out of the fiction branch. But, of course, that could change, specially if given no choice. Still, I would probably eliminate My Nephew Emmett, a horrific true story of the lynching of a teenager in the 1950s in the South. As horrendous as the true act is, the film feels like a documentary and straightforward.
It is likely between The Eleven O’Clock and Watu Wote (All Of Us), though I cannot shake my love for my favorite of the bunch, The Silent Child. The first of these is the quirky of the bunch, a quick comedy skit about a psychiatrist whose new patient is convinced he is a psychiatrist. But who is the confused patient and who is the doctor? The movie elicits the most laughs and would win in a cake walk in other years, if it were not competing with that many “socially-relevant” entries.
Meanwhile, the only non-English entry in the film, Watu Wote, is based on the true story of an attack by Muslim terrorists on a bus travelling the Kenya and Somalia border. What happened on that bus is remarkable and is told in a gripping, amazing tale of human resistance. However, a remarkably similar film was nominated here in 2011, called Na Wewe (Do I at least get points for memory people?) and it lost. So, unless “new Academy” or whatever I will go with that lose here again.
My personal favorite is The Silent Child, about a deaf girl who learns to sign language but faces resistance from her parents, who wish she would just learn how to speak. It is touching and sad, so it hits the “child” and “emotional” tones that past winners have.
Will Win: The Eleven O’Clock
Could Win: The Silent Child
Best Documentary Short
This one is tough also because there is precedent for just about everything in this category—from the more emotional ones to the personal story of triumph over adversity, to the socially relevant ones. Last year’s winner, The White Helmets, was about people rescuing victims of bombings in Syria. And it was on Netflix. May that be a new trend for the Academy? Still, HBO won the prior two years, and movies about the Holocaust and such subject also do well here. If only we didn’t have all five of those present here. So, again, I am just going to go with my own personal views. Caveat emptor.
The first I throw out, though not cavalierly, is Traffic Stop, the true story of a woman who was physically battered by an Austin police officer during an otherwise routine traffic stop. The story is pretty horrific and personal, and also very timely, so, again, if you believe in this “new Academy,” watch out before you throw it out. But, it was the least compelling of the bunch in that it felt two personal.
Next to go is the beautiful Eddie and Edith, a moving story of two 95+ year olds married and facing resistance from one of their children, more focused on an inheritance. It is sweet and sad but it just does not feel as relevant or as important as the others, and movies about old people (think King’s Point in 2013, about retirees in Florida) have lost before.
It comes down to two very well-made, soups to nuts documentaries, and my favorite of the bunch. One of those three is the truly inspiring story of a restaurant in Ohio run entirely by former convicts. Knife Skills, available free online to Academy members and by a past winner in this category, is interesting, compelling, and feels important. It is also impeccably made by who is obviously a very talented filmmaker. Watch out for this one.
The biggest threat here, though, is Netflix’s Heroin(e), about a group of three amazing women doing essentially rescue work in a town in West Virginia gripped by the opioid crisis. One is a Drug Court judge, the other the chief of the fire department, and the last a volunteer to give meals to street workers. You can’t help but admire these women deeply. It is really about them, and to the extent they reward the subject matter more than anything else (and this movie is flawless anyway), this is your likely winner. Indeed, the movie feels almost like it was made as a sequel to White Helmets--it feels that similar.
But my personal favorite is Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405. Though the title is sort of off, the movie is by far the most inspiring, moving, and effective of the bunch. Its subject is the artist Mindy Alper, who personal life tribulations are heartbreaking and devastating. Yet, she has overcome so much adversity to put it all on the canvas of her art, which uses several different media, culminating in an impressive art show. While the quality of the film itself is average (it focuses too much on choppy interviews of her with disjointed shots of her doing things), this is just such an emotionally satisfying and lasting movie, its subject matter is honestly one of the most amazing of this year’s Oscar race, in all categories. And there is precedent for a win for a film like, most recently when the movie about the undocumented young artist Inocente won in 2013. Of course, that involved the topic du jour, immigration, whereas in this race it is the movie about heroine that has that feature.
Will Win: Heroin(e)
Could Win: Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405