Academy Awards: 15 shorts vying for Oscar gold headed to local theaters

·9 min read

The most overlooked portion of the annual Academy Awards telecast are the three “Shorts” categories: animated, live action and documentary. And since these nuggets tend to be, at most, 40 minutes in length, that’s easy to do. But often, cinema’s equivalents of tapas are tastier than a full-course Best Picture meal. That’s certainly the case this year, with lukewarm servings of “Don’t Look Up,” “Belfast” and “Nightmare Alley” on the table. I guarantee you’ll be more satiated by Maria Brendle’s poignant “Ala Kachuu” or Ben Proudfoot’s fascinating “The Queen of Basketball” than any of the aforementioned trio.

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You can see for yourself, too, starting Feb. 25. That’s when theaters and the streaming service, ShortsTV, will offer up the lot in the buildup to the March 27 Oscar ceremony. Not all are up to snuff (a pandemic will tend to cause that), especially the animated offerings, which for the first time in memory have been deemed off limits to kids. But there are definitely diamonds in the rough.

The subjects range from highly dysfunctional families to Afghan refugees to imbalances in the American justice system, all created by equally diverse filmmakers. There’s literally something for everyone, except children. So, to provide an overview, here are my takes on all 15 contenders.

Animated short films

"Affairs of the Heart" (USA/Canada, 16 minutes) Director: Joanna Quinn

Cheeky British humor is generally not my cup of tea, but this hand-drawn satire created by Quinn and her writing partner, Les Mills, is uncharacteristically crude and distasteful. Brimming with animal cruelty and graphic depictions of grotesque body parts, the content is so off-putting that it debases an intriguing story – one of a series featuring, Beryl (voice of Menna Trussler), a 59-year-old factory worker – focused on a family of zany manic-obsessives. Grade: C-

"Affairs of the Heart"
"Affairs of the Heart"

"Bestia" (Chile, 16 minutes) Director: Hugo Covarrubias

By far the oddest, most impenetrable of the shorts is this head-scratcher about the fears and passions of a female member of the Chilean secret police. The stop-motion animation is creepy, with characters resembling porcelain dolls. And the story is even weirder, if not incomprehensible. Grade: D

"Bestia"
"Bestia"

"Boxballet" (Russia, 15 minutes) Director: Anton Dyakov.

Set in his native Russia, Dyakov’s variation on “Beauty and the Beast,” offers deliciously macabre hand-drawn illustrations that drastically distort the features of his two would-be lovers, a brutish boxer and a delicate ballerina. It’s strangely beautiful, but his clichéd storytelling renders it all moot. Grade: C

"Box Ballet"
"Box Ballet"

"Robin Robin" (UK, 31 minutes) Directors: Dan Ojari and Mikey Please

The best of the bunch, albeit by default, this charmer from Britain’s Aardman Studios (“Wallace & Grommet,” “Shaun the Sheep”) tackles issues of inclusivity, as seen through the eyes of an orphaned robin taken in by an accommodating family of felonious mice. As a bird, she’s woeful and flightless, but upon joining her new kin in the family business of swiping crumbs from “who-man” homes, her klutziness threatening to bring the whole enterprise. Will she ever be fully accepted? It’s fun finding out, as Ojari and Please fashion a heartwarming tale fully in keeping with their film’s theme of Christmas wishes coming true. Grade: B

"Robin Robin"
"Robin Robin"

"The Windshield Wiper" (Spain, 15 minutes) Director: Alberto Mielgo

I’m not sure if Mielgo’s examination of human relationships is a celebration or damnation of love. We’re presented with various examples, from hearts and flowers to a teenager’s suicide, but not much else. The shaky watercolor animation is lovely, but the storytelling is trivial and far from inspired. Definitely, nothing to love. Grade: C

"Windshield Wiper"
"Windshield Wiper"

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Live-action short films

"Ala Kachuu" (Switzerland, 38 minutes) Director: Maria Brendle

Of all of this year’s shorts, this deathly serious variation on “Runaway Bride” is by far my favorite. In it, Alina Turdumamatova plays Sezim, a fiercely independent young Kyrgyz woman whose hopes of attending college in Bishkek are derailed by her family’s insistence she cede her dreams to an arranged marriage. The title translates to “Take and Run,” and we disturbingly discover that, in some cultures, it’s still acceptable to kidnap a woman and force her to marry. It’s basically a prison sentence, and one Sezim desperately fights to overturn. Grade: A

"Ala Kachuu"
"Ala Kachuu"

"The Dress" (Poland, 30 minutes) Director: Tadeusz Łysiak and Maciej Ślesicki

Anna Dzieduszycka aims straight for the tear ducts with her superb portrayal of Julie, a middle-aged dwarf longing to find a man to take her virginity. She has a prospect in a lonely, handsome truck driver (Szymon Piotr Warszawski), but where is a little person to find a sexy dress to entice him in a world that doesn’t cater to her size – in more ways than one. For Julie, there are no magical, Cinderella-like happy endings. And Dzieduszycka ensures it leaves a lump in your throat. Grade: A-

"The Dress"
"The Dress"

"The Long Goodbye" (UK, 12 minutes) Director: Aneil Karia

Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) shines as the lone recognizable, big-name star in this year’s crop of shorts. But the story he co-wrote is so truncated and confusing, he’s pretty much wasted. He plays Riz, a member of a Muslim family preparing for his sister’s wedding. But amid the joy, real-life political terror intervenes. What ensues is startling. Unfortunately, it lacks the context to achieve its desired impact. Shame, because Ahmed is riveting. Grade: C

"The Long Goodbye"
"The Long Goodbye"

"On My Mind" (Denmark, 18 minutes) Director: Martin Strange-Hansen

A nearly empty karaoke bar is the setting for an even emptier tale of a man on a mission to create a recording of Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind” for his terminally ill wife. Rasmus Hammerich is affecting as the bereaved and remorseful hubby, but the story lacks energy and depth. And the ending is a hackneyed ploy for tears. Grade: C-

"On My Mind"
"On My Mind"

"Please Hold" (USA, 19 minutes) Director: K.D. Davila

Erick Lopez is wonderful as Mateo, an unwitting victim of an entirely automated justice system that falsely imprisons him and renders him helpless to plead his case to an actual human being. Davila has fashioned an absorbing look toward the future that successfully illustrates the sad realities of a current court system that favors the rich and punishes the poor, especially if the accused is Black or brown. You’ll laugh, and above all, directly relate to the techno hell of dealing with automated answering systems. But you’ll also come away irate over how the courts have nullified "justice for all.” Grade: A-

"Please Hold"
"Please Hold"

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Documentary short films

"Audible" (USA, 38 minutes) Director: Matt Ogens

There’s a strong hint of “Friday Night Lights” in Ogens’ moving profile of Maryland high school football star, Amaree McKenstry. So what makes him special? How about the fact he and his teammates were part of a 45-game winning streak? Oh, did I mention they are all deaf? It’s inspiring witnessing the boys gather as one to prove they are just as good as any hearing team. But we’re also reminded of the costs of such a challenge when one of McKenstry’s crew falls victim to suicide. Grade: B+

"Audible"
"Audible"

"Lead Me Home" (USA, 39 minutes) Directors: Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk

The filmmakers embedded for four years to get up close and personal with a handful of people forced to live on the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The stories of years of despair and neglect are familiar, but it’s no less heartbreaking to absorb their tales of woe, brought on by addiction and a rigged socioeconomic system. But what are we to do about it? Appearing to exploit homelessness isn’t a viable means of solving it. And, sadly, that’s where “Home’s” heart resides. Grade: C

"Lead Me Home"
"Lead Me Home"

"The Queen of Basketball" (USA, 22 minutes) Director: Ben Proudfoot

By far the most joyous of this year’s nominees is Proudfoot’s absorbing profile of the sadly forgotten Lusia Harris, the Mississippi sharecropper’s daughter who put women’s college basketball on the map in the early 1970s. Proudfoot wisely allows Lusia – or, Lucy, as she prefers – to tell her own story of how Bill Russell and Oscar Robinson, et. al., inspired her to be just like them. And she was, as we see in terrific archival clips. Unlike her heroes, there was no pro league available to her after college. Does she regret it? You bet! But earning a place as the first woman elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame sure helped make amends. Grade: A-

"The Queen of Basketball"
"The Queen of Basketball"

"Three Songs for Benazir" (Afghanistan, 22 minutes) Directors: Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei

You can’t get more topical than the events transpiring over a four-year period in the life of young newlywed, Shaista, an Afghan residing with his loving wife in a displacement camp near Kabul. While under constant surveillance by an American drone, we watch in disbelief as the happy-go-lucky Shaista is beaten down by a lack of job opportunities and dire living conditions. Like many young Afghan men, his only occupational option is harvesting poppies, a profession that too often results in drug addiction. Grade: B

"Three Songs for Benazir"
"Three Songs for Benazir"

"When We Were Bullies" (Germany/USA, 36 minutes) Director: Jay Rosenblatt

Easily the most captivating nominee centers on Rosenblatt’s chance meeting with a former fifth-grade classmate, and discovering their most prominent memory is of the day they and two dozen peers attacked a vulnerable classmate on the playground at PS 194 in Brooklyn. The incident infused such intense guilt in Rosenblatt, he was compelled to understand why he and the other participants were still impacted by it 50 years later. Grade: A

Watch the Oscar-nominated shorts

The 2022 Oscar Shorts program opens Feb. 25 at the following theaters:

Plimoth Cinema, 137 Warren Ave., Plymouth

Showcase Cinemas, 73 Mazzeo Drive, Randolph

Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston

Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge

Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline

Embassy Cinema, 16 Pine St., Waltham

Showcase Cinemas, 25 Middlesex Canal Parkway, Woburn

The Center for the Arts in Natick, 14 Summer St., Natick (Note: program runs March 6-19)

Showcase Cinemas, 32 Reiss Ave., Lowell

Luna Theater, 250 Jackson St., Lowell

Newburyport Screening Room, 82 State St., Newburyport

Cinema Worcester, 34 Shattuck St., Worcester

Starting March 22, the Oscar-nominated short films will also be available to stream via video on demand for rent or purchase via iTunes, Amazon, Verizon, and Google Play.

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This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Oscar-nominated short films are heading to South Shore theaters