Oscar Gold 2020 – Live Action Short

For the penultimate entry in this year’s Blitz, it’s somewhat appropriate that we look at Live Action Short. Tomorrow will be Best Picture, so why not precede it with Best Picture… Under 40 Minutes? Looking back at my archives, it appears I did this last year, too. Gee, I hope I don’t end up repeating myself too much too much.

Speaking of repetition, you can make the case that this year’s slate of nominees is a bit of déjà vu. One of the films up for the prize is essentially a short version of a feature that was considered last year. Similarly, we continue for the third straight year with at least one entry that recreates a true story of teenage trauma and death. Between this and the Documentary Branch nominating every Syria film that comes out, I’m starting to wonder if the various branches aren’t trying to push an agenda until they get their way with the full Academy voting results.

That said, regardless of motivation, we do have a strong slate of films this time around, to the point where I wouldn’t be upset at any of these movies getting the win. In my mind there’s a sizable gap between my top three and bottom two, but really, there’s no bad film in the bunch, and all are worthy in their own way.

This year’s nominees for Live Action Short are:

Brotherhood – Meryam Joobeur and Maria Garcia Turgeon

Set in Tunisia, this collaboration between Tunisia, Qatar, Canada, and Sweden uses its title for two meanings. The first is obviously the bond between three siblings. The other revolves around suspicion of Islamist extremism, characterized by the group known as the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a remote area, a father named Muhammad teaches his son how to slaughter a sheep, a necessary step because it has been mauled by a wolf. The metaphor sets the tone for the entire proceedings, as the father and his two sons return home only to encounter the eldest son, Malek, who has been in Syria for the past several years, and who has brought home a new, pregnant, Syrian wife. This prodigal son rebelled against his family when he left, making his father suspicious that he has joined ISIS. The new wife, who keeps herself completely covered, also rouses the man’s suspicion. Malek tries his best to ingratiate himself back to his family, and works to set a good example for his younger brothers. His father, however, is unswayed, and when the truth comes out, it’s a race against time to save the entire family.

This is the most vague of the entries, but there’s some very fine acting done here, particularly from the father. I also give kudos to the casting team, as the three brothers (all brothers in real life) look very similar to one another, adding to the metaphor of the sheep and the potential wolf among them. There’s also some pretty decent camera work to be had.

Nefta Football Club – Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi

Also set in Tunisia, this delightful little farce is a hilarious comedy of errors involving innocent children, bungling criminals, and of course, soccer. The small village of Nefta is near the Tunisia-Algeria border on the west end of the country. There, the boys of this desert town delight in soccer. Two brothers, Abdallah and Mohammed, argue about their favorite footballers while cruising around on a motorbike, with the elder trying to control the situation and keep his impulsive younger sibling in line.

Meanwhile, two men argue about a lost donkey, wondering where it could have gotten off to, and why it’s so hard to find, as it wears headphones. We later learn that it is trained to follow orders based on the music it’s listening to. A mispronunciation in singers and playlists is what leads to the entire folly.

Abdallah and Mohammed find the donkey, with the younger deciding to befriend it. The elder, however, notices that it carries baskets laden with packages of white powder. Assuring his young ward that it’s just laundry detergent, they quickly gather all of the obvious drugs and take them home, with the elder brother looking to make a tidy profit. Of course, the younger boy’s innocence is quick to foil those lofty ambitions. The whole thing plays out in quick hysterical fashion, leaving us with a resolution that’s both funny and oddly wholesome.

The Neighbors’ Window – Marshall Curry

The only fully American entry in this year’s field, The Neighbors’ Window is a touching look at how green the grass actually is on the other side of the fence. Or rather, given the Manhattan setting, across the street.

The film begins with a married couple in their 30s who have two young children and one on the way. One night, they happen to notice a young 20-something pair across the way getting passionately frisky with one another, as their neighbors haven’t bothered to put up any curtains or blinds. What begins as morbid curiosity with just a hint of lustful nostalgia quickly turns into jealousy as the weeks and months wear on, with the wife thinking that her husband is ignoring her and their now three kids in favor of fantasizing about the young woman, and the husband pointing out that she gets her fair share of peeping in as well.

Things begin to turn a bit more dire and sentimental when the husband realizes that something is off about the young man in the other apartment. At that point, the story turns and his wife learns just how good they’ve got it when she finally meets her younger counterpart. The resolution is sad, but sweet, and it’s to the film’s credit that it never wanders into Rear Window territory or gets overly preachy about voyeurism. The point of the film is about perspective and appreciating the good things in your own life, and I think it succeeds in spades in getting that message across.

Saria – Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebvre

This is also technically an American production, but you wouldn’t know it based on the setting and characters. The film is a fictionalized account of the Guatemalan Orphanage Fire of 2017, where dozens of teenage girls lost their lives. The titular Saria is a dramatized character at that orphanage. She has a plan for herself and her friends to escape the labor camp that is their home and make a run for the United States, where she is sure to live a free, prosperous life. Oh if she only knew…

This is the third straight year where a short film has presented a child tragedy, along with last year’s Detainment and My Nephew Emmett the year before. It’s sad that there are so many of these stories to tell, and even sadder that it’s so easy to prevent such tragedies with just a little bit of understanding and empathy. In this case, the girls’ fate is pinned on a particularly cruel guard at the orphanage who is among the many who delight in humiliating and beating the girls who dare to have mothers who got murdered by other people. There’s a loving innocence to the children, all of whom are experiencing the same adolescent changes that we all go through, but who are doing so essentially behind bars with little to no running water. The last moments are something out of a nightmare, one that no actual parent would tolerate.

A Sister – Delphine Girard

Not to be confused with the Animated Short nominee, Sister, this Belgian production begins with a woman being driven around in a truck by a man, with her insisting that she call her sister because she’s missed three calls already and needs to check in with her daughter. After a moment of brief chatting, the scene shifts to an emergency response call center, where it is revealed that the woman is indeed not calling her sister, but instead covertly communicating with police dispatch, as she’s actually being kidnapped, and is trying to subtly provide information that can save her life.

If this sounds familiar, it’s basically a shortened version of the Danish film, The Guilty, from 2018, which was shortlisted for Foreign Language last year. As such, I couldn’t get as engaged with this as I did the other entries. It’s a fine film, and a well-executed story. It’s just been done before, and quite recently. Honestly I’m a bit surprised the Animation/Short Film Branch even bothered to nominate this film, as they had to know that this exact story was nearly nominated last year, as every branch nominates and votes on Foreign Language/International Feature as well as Best Picture. They all had access to the screeners of The Guilty, so they had to know of its existence, yet they decided to nominate a truncated version of the exact same film this time around. It’s a bit curious.

As I said though, this is still a well-made production. The two lead actresses put on fine performances in their necessitated stoicism, and there is a small degree of suspense in the proceedings. Had The Guilty not existed, I might have liked this more than I did. But given the previous material, this just seems derivative and a bit uninspired.

My Rankings
1. Nefta Football Club
2. The Neighbor’s Window
3. Saria
4. Brotherhood
5. A Sister

Next up: We come to it at last. Twenty-three categories down, one to go, and it’s for all the marbles. It’s Best Picture!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see any of these entries? If so, which did you like best? What practical uses can you think of for powdered drugs that don’t involve actually taking them? Let me know!

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