They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Handicapping the Oscar Shorts
By J. Don Birnam
February 12, 2019
With just under two weeks to go until the big night at the Oscars, it is time to take a look at how each race may break down one by one. We start today with the categories that are often the difference in ballot contests, the Shorts.
If you want to see my track record in this field over the past few years take a look here. Three years ago I got all three right, only to miss on all three the following year. But, I recovered a bit with last year’s ceremony, though not without some initial trouble. My initial guts were all wrong. Thankfully, by the time the Oscars rolled around, I saw the light on two of the three shorts, correctly calling, as everyone did, Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 for the Documentary prize, and going against the consensus and picking The Silent Child in Live Action. Where I refused to budge was in Animated, declining the chance to predict Kobe Bryant’s Dear Basketball. But, if you look, the BOP staff did pick that. In other words, you can usually sort of get to the result by looking through these pages and making one or two lucky guesses.
So, here goes nothing again. Hopefully I can correctly knock out at least two choices for you. Here is my Twitter and Instagram for complaints.
Best Documentary Short
Starting with what I think is the relatively easiest category this year of the three, Best Documentary Short. The nominees are: Black Sheep, End Game, Lifeboat, A Night at the Garden and Period. End of Sentence..
Of those five, quickly knock out A Night At the Garden. It is seven minutes of real, disturbing archival footage of a pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in 1939. The images of this doc are the ones most likely to sear in your memory as they indict us so directly, and resonate today with disturbing force. But it is more of a disturbing newsreel than an informative piece, and I can’t see this going anywhere.
Next I would cross off the Guardian doc Black Sheep, which seems more apt for the Live Action/fictional category. Although it centers around real life interviews of Cornelius, a black teen who faces—and then joins—a racist gang in suburban London, most of the piece is recreated. The movie is tonally compelling and ultimately very sad, but does not quite hit the emotional notes of past winners in this category.
Now we are down to what I think are the three likely winners, though I would likely not pick the Netflix doc about end-of-life care, End Game. Last year, I thought Netflix would have it in the back for the timely movie Heroin(e) particularly given that Academy members could just watch it at home. But, either because most do not seem to vote unless they see all the films, or because they did see them and the eventual winner was more compelling, Netflix did not win here this time around (they did two years ago with White Helmets).
Anyway, so this movie, from two-time Oscar winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is a sad tale that showcases the brutal decisions family members must make surrounding their ill loved ones. The documentary though, as beautiful as it is, just seems to be a collection of stories, a quilt if you will, without one unifying message other than to, laudably, honor these individuals. You should watch the film, but I am not quite sure it will triumph at the Academy Awards.
This leaves us with the uplifting tale of the women in India who install a machine to make sanitary pads in a local house and use the proceeds from that labor to pursue their dream careers (Period. End of Sentence), and the harrowing stories of volunteer rescuers in the Mediterranean Sea (Lifeboat). The latter movie’s theme has, no pun intended, surfaced a couple of times now in the documentary races at the Oscars of late, but has not triumphed. And rescuers doing good things have won before (again, the Syrian rescuers doc two years ago). This time around, however, I think an uplifting, inspiring tale will carry the day as it also has in years past….
Will Win: Period. End of Sentence
Could Win: Lifeboat
Best Live Action Short
Slightly harder are the Live Action Shorts which, full disclosure, I did not thoroughly enjoy this year. The nominees are Mother, Fauve, Skin, Marguerite, and Detainment. Incidentally, this is the only time in the history of this award, which harkens back to the fifth Oscars, where five nominees are one single word. Strange.
The problem here is, I can make an argument for all five of these winning. Nevertheless, I would not advice picking Fauve or Mother. Both are sort of unsatisfactory in their arcs and conclusions. The former is about two kids being mischievous and getting into deadly trouble. It has some great cinematography but an ultimately cold story. The Spanish entry, Mother, is viscerally compelling. A mother gets a call from her son, who was supposed to be vacationing on the French Riviera with dad, that dad is gone and he is all alone. She is hundreds of miles away. The stage drama that unfolds is the most gripping of all, but, again, ultimately resolved in a less than satisfactory way for voters.
This brings us down to three possible winners. Skin is the one you will remember the most. The story, about a black man who is brutally beaten by skinheads in rural America, and the revenge that his friends exact upon the attackers, is told from the eyes of the sons of the men at the center of the vicious and an unnecessary link of hatred. But some of the images are disturbing and the story seems even gratuitous and borderline blood-lusty. Still, it has potential as it is the most arresting.
So it is between the story of an aging woman and the moving relationship she forms with her caregiver, Marguerite, and the recreation of a horrendous real-life crime surrounding the murder of a toddler by two young boys in England in the 1990s, Detainment. This one is stumping me because from the last years, English-language films tend to do better in this race. On the other hand, the longer of the two, in this case Detainment, also does not always do well and, here, it is rife with controversy. Another close one, but my gut tells me pleasing over traumatizing.
Will Win: Marguerite
Could Win: Skin
Best Animated Short
Finally, the tough call of the night. You may as well flip a coin 50 times rather than read this. The nominees are: Pixar’s Bao, Weekends, Late Afternoon, One Small Step, and Animal Behavior. Even more than for the Live Action, I can make a case for all five of these.
The obvious pick is the Pixar one, Bao, though Pixar is only victorious about 50% of the time here. When it first won, back in 2015, it did so with Feast, an amazingly beautiful short about a dog and food. It is not surprising then that they are sort of trying to replicate this with a story about eating, the touching allegory of this film.
But when Pixar has lost, it has done so to profoundly touching stories that seem to put their heart on the screen. That can be said for three of the other four contenders. That includes Weekends, a story about a child spending weekends with a foster parent, until the parent movies away; Late Afternoon, about an aging woman living with Alzheimer’s who slowly remembers her life through beautifully animated objects; and One Small Step, about a young girl who uses her father as a role model to become an astronaut. The last entry, Animal Behavior, is the funniest one, about animals in therapy, but sort of loses its way in the middle.
So, why can all five win? The easy reason is that the four emotional ones could split the votes, making way for the funny entry. But I have been watching the Shorts for ten years now. Only one year did the clever, quirky one win, in 2009 with Logorama, and none of its adversaries were properly described as emotional films. When in doubt, pick the one that makes them go “aw.”
This one is really tough. Bao, again, seems obvious, but it is so tonally identical to One Small Step, that it makes me wonder. And while the latter film features themes of female empowerment and equality, one also wonders if the entire new Academy is watching these yet. Maybe they are? Though the win for Kobe last year does not suggest as much. I am going to go with Bao by default, but make a better choice!
Will Win: Bao
Could Win: One Small Step