This year’s selections include a film about the disappearance of a sibling and one about the appearance of 100,000 walruses.
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By Jeannette Catsoulis, Amy Nicholson and Ben Kenigsberg
This year, the Oscar-nominated short films are being presented in three programs: live action, animation and documentary. Each program is reviewed below by a separate critic.
Fans of sticky sentiment will be delighted with this bundle of live-action shorts, only two of which deserve note. Two strangers bond to repel bullies; a man with Down syndrome loses his mother and possibly his home; a passel of orphans is denied cake at Christmas. By all means, let’s promote tolerance and kindness; but emphasizing message over, say, daring or provocation, can leave us feeling more lectured to than entertained.
We can swiftly dispense, then, with Tom Berkeley and Ross White’s “An Irish Goodbye,” in which two brothers reunite in rural Ireland to bury the mother whose bucket list is impeding their relocation. There’s a jet-black comedy of grief fidgeting in the wings, but the movie has neither the thorniness nor the emotional restlessness to access it. It does, however, have fart jokes.
Equally cloying, if significantly more ornate, is Alice Rohrwacher’s “Le Pupille,” set in a Catholic school in 1940s Italy. Boasting none other than Alfonso Cuarón as a producer, this terminally cute confection follows one diminutive rebel determined to nab a slice of Christmas cake from the wily Mother Superior.
Also set around Christmas, this time in Norway, Eirik Tveiten’s “Night Ride (Nattrikken)” has a dwarf hijack a tram before coming to the aid of a transgender passenger. It’s a cool idea that needs more room to develop beyond a simplistic defense of difference.
Things perk up considerably with Anders Walter’s “Ivalu.” Adapted from a Danish graphic novel and shot in Greenland, this dreamily beautiful film reviews the shared past of two sisters, one of whom has disappeared. As the remaining sibling, Pipaluk, searches, Walter meticulously records the fjords, mountains and vast expanses of ice where the sisters played, peeking into Pipaluk’s memories to reveal the shadow over the disappearance. In a mere 16 minutes, Walter wonderfully evokes the wistfulness of a childhood too soon ended.
So cleverly constructed is “The Red Suitcase” that it would almost work as a silent movie. Set at Luxembourg airport and intuitively directed by Cyrus Neshvad, this tense drama anxiously observes a young Iranian woman as she retrieves her suitcase and nervously eyes a middle-aged man waiting impatiently outside. Suspenseful as any thriller, the film grips right up to its perfect final shot: a slow crawl toward an advertisement showing a woman whose carefree laughter, when the camera stops, more closely resembles a scream. JEANNETTE CATSOULIS
Squeeze the ink from these animated shorts nominees and one could paint a banner with their shared message: Be here now. This stronger-than-average selection boasts four excellent entries and one celebrity-studded sugar glop that shouldn’t win (but might).
“The Flying Sailor,” by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, springboards off the 1917 Halifax catastrophe when a speeding vessel collided with a cargo ship cradling benzol and TNT. In the blast — the largest human-made explosion at the time — one survivor was flung half a mile. Here, the sailor hurtles past the stratosphere as a collage of his life flashes by, from fistfights to dancing girls. In his weightlessness, we feel the weight of mortality and, ultimately, the gasping relief of getting one more day on earth.
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João Gonzalez’s similarly wordless “Ice Merchants” also seizes onto gravity as a metaphor for the fragility of existence. A grieving widower and his son share a cabin harnessed to a frozen mountainside in a bittersweet story that makes inspired use of striking angles and a stark color palette. Every rope creak sends Bernard Herrmann-levels of tension shivering down the spine.
Likewise, audiences will twist into knots during “My Year of Dicks,” a five-chapter accounting of the memoirist Pamela Ribon’s comically awful attempts to lose her virginity. The director Sara Gunnarsdottir ruthlessly illustrates the gulf between the high schooler’s florid romanticism and her beaus, who are, mostly, a parade of creeps. The confused teenager’s imaginative palpitations drive the animation, which captures how she shape-shifts to please guys — and how she’d rather rip off her ears than hear her father’s tone deaf advice.
In a neat reversal, “An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It” has its subject, a stop-motion cubicle worker, realize that his fate is puppeteered by a pitiless overlord: the film’s director, Lachlan Pendragon, who allows his lead character to tumble off the set and into a bin of his own deconstructed faces. Smartly, Pendragon pulls back from beyond the frame to show a time-lapse of his own hands in the act of creation, elevating the meta-gag into a meditation on how we spend our hours.
And for those who prefer their insights as subtle as a snowball to the face, there’s “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse,” directed by Peter Baynton and Charlie Mackesy from Mackesy’s best-selling children’s book. The four mammals, each tenderly sketched, meander through a wintry forest spouting maxims of love and kindness. Even Paddington might find it cloying. But with J.J. Abrams as one of the producers; and Gabriel Byrne, Idris Elba and Tom Holland among the voice cast; it’s a heavyweight contender that, if it manages to lose, can find solace in its own needlepoint wisdom: “If at first you don’t succeed, have some cake.” AMY NICHOLSON
Walruses or elephants? A doc that’s mostly archival clips or a movie shot over 16 years? These are decisions facing Oscar voters in this year’s documentary shorts category.
The most blandly crowd-pleasing nominee is Kartiki Gonsalves’s “The Elephant Whisperers,” which follows a couple named Bellie and Bomman, who eventually marry, as they raise an orphaned elephant named Raghu at a reserve in southern India. Near the end, the forest department makes a wrenching demand that “The Elephant Whisperers” never adequately explains, even if it provides the sort of heart-tugging finale a screenwriter would love.
For viewers whose blood runs colder, the better animal doc is “Haulout,” directed by Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev. With little dialogue or exposition, the movie observes a man living a solitary life in the Siberian Arctic. Suddenly, around 100,000 walruses turn up at his doorstep. The film captures the surreal spectacle of the big-tusked mammals amassed outside his shack as he dictates observations. Closing title cards fill in the back story: The man is Maxim Chakilev, a marine biologist, and the scale of the walrus convention is a result of climate change.
Viewers can go from 100,000 walruses to 525,600 minutes with “How Do You Measure a Year?,” which borrows its title from “Rent” and its conceit from the “Boyhood” (made partly during the same period) and the “Up” documentaries. The director, Jay Rosenblatt, up for an Oscar last year with “When We Were Bullies,” filmed his daughter every year from ages 2 to 18. While there is inevitable drama in watching her grow from a Hannah Montana superfan to a college-bound high school senior, the technique isn’t exactly new.
“The Martha Mitchell Effect,” directed by Anne Alvergue, deftly assembles colorful clips of Mitchell, who, as the garrulous wife of the Nixon attorney general John N. Mitchell, became known for speaking her mind, not least about Watergate. While it probably doesn’t offer much that will surprise those who remember Mitchell, this principally archival movie limits original interviews to voice-over, always keeping its subject and her attitudes in the foreground.
“Stranger at the Gate,” the other of the two nominees from The New Yorker (along with “Haulout”), opens with an interviewee saying that you never imagine a mass murderer living in your home. Directed by Joshua Seftel, the movie tells the story of how a Marine vet named Richard McKinney (who goes by Mac) contemplated a hate-based slaughter at an Islamic center in Indiana before stepping back from the brink. While it’s a relief when the movie turns out to be about killings that did not happen, the framing of it as a true-crime doc — and the way Mac is photographed, so that viewers might assume he is speaking from prison — feels inappropriately slick. BEN KENIGSBERG
The 2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters.
The 2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animated
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In theaters.
The 2022 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 46 minutes. In theaters.
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