Oscar Gold 2021 – Live Action Short

We’re in the home stretch, folks! Just three categories remain to break down before I officially make my predictions. And before you know it, Sunday will be here, and it’ll be showtime! But before we get to the two biggest awards of the ceremony, there’s still one more specialty subject to tackle.

Live Action Short is not typically the category you think of for star power or hype. In fact, as long as I’ve been covering the category, only twice have I seen a significant A-list involvement. One was 2014’s winning entry, The Phone Call. Thematically almost identical to that year’s Documentary Short winner, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, the film is about a call to a suicide hotline and the operator’s attempt to prevent the worst. That film starred Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent. The other came out the year before, The Voorman Problem, featuring Martin Freeman.

This year, however, there’s a lot of Hollywood heft behind the operation. One entry stars one of the best actors working today, while another features a fairly well-known character actor and has a slew of big names that either produced or helped finance it. The latter has even been featured in nationwide press, giving it arguably the highest profile of any short film this century. Even one of the shortlisted films that didn’t make the final cut had acclaimed director Pedro Almodóvar at the helm.

A lot of years, this can appear to be the somewhat overlooked Short category. Hell, the Academy infamously tried to relegate it to the commercial breaks during the “Popular Film” scandal from three years ago. For many filmmakers a short is their foot in the door, and the powers that be almost robbed the best of the best of their well-earned spotlight. How far we’ve come in just two and a half years that now there’s measurable buzz around the category. Part of it is the relevance of the subject matter, but also it, like several other nominees, is actually just really good.

The other thing to bear in mind is that unlike the other two categories, this year it really feels like the nominees all share a theme, that of perception. Every entry in this field basically asks the question, “What do you see?” This is especially true from the standpoint of looking at people whose life experience differs from your own. I’m not sure if that was intentional on the part of the Short Films and Animation Branches when they were casting their votes, but it’s an intriguing through line to keep in mind while watching and assessing this set.

The one bit of sadness is that I can’t complete the trifecta of reviewing the entire shortlist like I did with Animated and Documentary. Unfortunately, apart from the five nominees, I could only track down one other entry. Still, it gives me something to shoot for next year.

This year’s nominees for Live Action Short are:

Feeling Through – Doug Roland and Susan Ruzenski

In a year filled to the brim with depressing stories, this is one of the few that turns out to be uplifting. Inspired by a real-life encounter that writer/director Doug Roland had once in New York City, the story is one of perspective. No matter how bad things seem for us, there’s always someone who has it worse, and sometimes the person who sees the clearest is the one who can’t see at all.

Tereek, a homeless teenager, is looking for a place to crash for the night after hanging out with some friends. Played by Steven Prescod, he’s a confident semi-hustler, but has obviously taken a turn for the worse in his short life. He even snaps at an older homeless man begging for change, clearly feeling that he deserves better than his current lot in life.

While walking to a friend’s place, having secured a couch for the night, he encounters a man named Artie on a nearby corner. Artie is deaf and blind, holding a sign requesting help to get to a bus stop. Feeling pity, Tereek assists, leading to a delightfully charming bonding episode between the two. There’s genuine pathos, a couple of laughs, and a truly sweet ending as Tereek’s perception alters towards those even more unfortunate around him.

This film also strikes something of a blow for representation, as Roland enlisted the help of the Helen Keller National Center to find an actual DeafBlind person to play Artie, discovering Robert Tarango, who just gives a tremendous performance. Prescod does admirable work as well, growing as a person in believable fashion in the relatively short timeframe of the film. This is just a real feel-good story, and that’s been rare over the last year.

The Letter Room – Elvira Lind and Sofia Sondervan

All too often the incarcerated are dismissed as actual people, particularly the ones serving the harshest sentences for the worst crimes, including those on Death Row. This film allows the viewer to momentarily empathize with the basic humanity of all people, even the worst of us, through the lens of prison correspondence.

Oscar Isaac stars as Richard, a kind, jovial prison guard who befriends a good deal of the inmates, including the condemned. One day, he’s promoted to running the titular Letter Room, where all incoming and outgoing mail is inspected to ensure that nothing illegal is transpiring. Initially he’s able to read, scan, and enjoy all the letters while still remaining professionally detached, but that all changes when he gets an ominous note from the girlfriend of one of the Death Row inmates.

Written by a woman only identified as “Rosita,” (Alia Shawkat), she and her lover entered into a suicide pact when he was arrested for murdering a police officer. Since his conviction and sentencing, she has written him regularly, but he has not responded. Strictly speaking, Richard is only supposed to be concerned with whether the inmate will do anything wrong or worse, not the affairs of people on the outside, but he takes it upon himself to seek out Rosita to make sure she’s not going to hurt herself, leading to a somewhat profound confrontation where one’s personal perceptions come into great detail and relevance.

This is a very creative entry, but not the best of the bunch. I love the overall message of being empathetic and trying to help wherever possible. But it is just a touch creepy the way Richard goes about his mission of finding Rosita. It’s not that off-putting, and it certainly doesn’t sink the film, but I feel like there was another way to do this that didn’t come off as mildly stalker-ish.

The Present – Ossama Bawardi and Farah Nabulsi

You want to talk about how people view other people? Look no further than this Palestinian entry. Regardless of your opinions on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it cannot be denied that there’s a deep-rooted acrimony between the two peoples, and even if you agree with it, Israeli occupation of Palestinian land has dire implications. This film is one such example.

Yusef (Saleh Bakri), a Palestinian husband and father living near Bethlehem, takes his young daughter Yasmine (Maryam Kanj) across an Israeli checkpoint to go shopping in the nearby town of Beitunia to buy his wife Noor (Mariam Kamel Basha) an anniversary gift, a new refrigerator, as the one they have won’t stay shut. At the checkpoint, Yusef is deemed to have insufficient identification (he was banking on a favor from a soldier who isn’t on post that day), and gets harassed, threatened, and detained for quite some time, leading his daughter to some distress.

When they finally secure the fridge, the store owner won’t take it across the checkpoint, so Yusef must again endure the accusations of the soldiers, including an absurd dilemma that the military intentionally makes more difficult until Yasmine takes a very dangerous risk.

This is a bold, ballsy entry, as it directly challenges the perception of Palestinian people. Whether you agree with it or not, the Israeli military/occupying force in Gaza and the West Bank treats Palestinians as inherently suspicious and potentially violent. This plays a major role in the tense confrontations between the heavily-armed soldiers and the increasingly distressed Yusef. The filmmakers themselves had to engage in a little bit of guerilla filming, as an early scene with Yusef crossing the checkpoint with hundreds of other Palestinians going to work at the crack of dawn was not approved by any governing body, and as such, Saleh Bakri is the only actor there. All the other Palestinians, as well as the Israeli soldiers in that shot are the actual people, being filmed surreptitiously. Given the very default setting that they’re challenging, this was a very risky move, but it paid off.

Two Distant Strangers – Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe

I’ve never seen an American live action short film get the kind of attention that this film has. Thankfully, given its very relevant subject matter and expert execution, it’s earned it. This is a film that will likely stay with you well after it’s finished, unless you’re a complete cynic or a racist.

Waking up in the bed of a lovely young woman with whom he hooked up with the previous night, an on-top-of-the-world black graphic designer named Carter (played by rapper Joey Bada$$, who also contributes the title song during the credits) has a brief conversation with his date, Perri (Zaria Simone) before leaving her apartment to head home and feed his dog. Once outside, he opens a backpack, and a roll of bills falls out. He then lights up a hand-rolled cigarette and accidentally bumps into a pedestrian, spilling his cup of coffee. That little accident is enough for NYPD officer Merk (veteran character actor Andrew Howard, seen recently in Tenet) to accost Carter and accuse him of a litany of crimes including assault and marijuana possession before tackling him and putting him in a chokehold. A woman running a street cart begs Merk to stop and films the incident on her phone, but it doesn’t matter, as Carter soon dies from the attack. Then he wakes up back in Perri’s bed.

This makes the second film this year to really do wonders with the time loop device (the other being the wonderful, but sadly overlooked Palm Springs). Throughout the course of the film, Carter continues to wake up in Perri’s bed, attempt some different outcome to the morning’s events, only for every single one of them to end with his death at the hands of this cop. The cycle continues to repeat, with Carter eventually deciding to confront the problem head on and engage the officer on human terms, talking to him heart-to-heart, in hopes of avoiding the inevitable, because as he puts it, he will get home to his dog eventually.

This is very hard-nosed, but artfully done. From little details about Perri’s apartment leading to potential disaster to one particular death where Carter lies in a pool of blood shaped like Africa itself, there are a lot of artistic notes in the film. I think the most blatant of these is an aerial shot where the names of several black victims of police violence are painted on walls and rooftops. This film has the celebrity backing of NBA superstar Kevin Durant, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Adam McKay, and Damon Lindelof among others, and you can tell their endorsements were either designed to get the most out of the concept through enhanced budget or purposely given after the fact as a marketing boost for a product they believed in.

Where the film really shines for me is all the manners in which Carter meets his end. Literally every single one mirrors the real-life circumstances of an unarmed black person who died at the hands of police, from Eric Garner to Tamir Rice to George Floyd. We’ve all seen these horrific deaths play out in real time, and now they’re being recreated in a continuous stream of undeserved violence.

But the film goes one step further, in a move that is not only bold, but deeply insightful and profound. As Carter realizes the time loop and tries to save himself, he employs the very excuses that police apologists, right-wing media, and just out and out racists have spewed over the years to justify these deaths. “Don’t resist.” Okay, Carter doesn’t resist. He still dies. “Do whatever they say.” Okay, he still dies. “Be respectful.” He still dies. “Answer their questions calmly.” Dead. “Don’t run.” Dead. “Call for help.” Dead. Dead. Dead. Fucking DEAD!

This film masterfully gives lie to all the bullshit excuses people come up with to condone murder, because the filmmakers, cast, and crew know one inherent truth that a lot of white people still don’t understand. When a cop decides you’re going to die, you’re dead. Once they have made the conscious decision that they are going to take a life, that life is taken, irrevocably. There is no way for the pre-deceased to save themselves, because they lack the power to do so. Even if they somehow become violent and take out their immediate attacker, they’ll be hunted like dogs and killed by the justice system. When the police decide to kill you, you will be killed. It’s as simple as that, and no 20/20 moralizing will ever change that. This is bold, provocative, confrontational filmmaking at its finest.

White Eye – Shira Hochman and Tomer Shushan

This is not the year for white Israelis, I’ll tell you that much. The Present dealt with the simmering animosity between Israelis and Palestinians, while White Eye is more universal, and can apply to basically any racial/immigrant situation. It just happens to take place in Israel.

A young Israeli man, played by Daniel Gad, comes upon a bicycle locked up on a chain next to a meat packing plant. He believes the bike belongs to him, and thus calls the police to come and break the lock so he can retrieve it. The police have no record of his complaint, but agree to come out anyway. The incensed man insists his bike was stolen, and that this is it, so he demands that it be returned to him, either by the authorities or with the help of bystanders.

It turns out the bike is currently in the possession of an Eritrean immigrant played by Dawit Tekelaeb who works in the plant. He bought the bike secondhand from someone else, presumably the person who originally stole it. When the police arrive, there’s no evidence to rule in favor of one person or the other, but unfortunately, the immigrant has an expired visa, and thus gets arrested and likely deported. The original man, who spent the whole movie acting like a male, Israeli Karen, now feels guilty for the life he potentially just destroyed.

Honestly, this is the weakest of the group, with an entry-level moral about not being quick to judgment and how we shouldn’t be suspicious of minorities or immigrants. But the story basically goes nowhere with most of the action taking place offscreen. The only thing the film really has going for it is that it’s presented in one-shot format, with the obvious cuts coming through camera pans and wall passes in and outside of the plant. It’s a good idea, but they needed more time (only using 21 minutes of the max 40) to flesh out the characters and give the lead some motivation beyond, “This mine! Me want back!”

***

My Rankings:
1) Two Distant Strangers
2) Feeling Through
3) The Present
4) The Letter Room
5) White Eye

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Next up, it’s the penultimate award of the evening, for the master who controls the vision we see on screen. It’s Best Director!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Who do you think should win? Do you believe that future categories should feature a thematic link? Should more A-listers do shorts? Let me know!

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