I’ve probably typed some version of “the fictional short films nominated for Oscars this year are a mixed bag” a dozen times, but that phrase doesn’t apply in 2020. All 10 are good and several are great.
The five nominees for the animated short prize are especially strong, and with three directed by women, they’re a hopeful sign of increased opportunities behind the camera. (You can see them at the Lagoon in Minneapolis.)
My favorite is “Dcera (Daughter),” a wordless gem from the Czech Republic that gains in power because it was so evidently handmade. Featuring papier-mâché puppets on whose faces you can see the lovingly created creases and paint spatters, it contrasts the artificial look of the stop-motion characters, a woman and her dying father, with realistic backdrops as she reflects on a childhood that she spent trying to connect to him.
Two other nominees also are mostly dialogue-free. From Pixar’s program to fund experimental work by its employees, “Kitbull” is the sweetly familiar tale of two strays, a tiny cat and a timid pit bull, who become buds. “Hair Love” is another upbeat one, although a heart-tugging moment at the end feels unearned. It’s about a black girl, being raised by her dad, who tries using online tutorials from a maternal vlogger to help her tame her bountiful (although, frankly, gorgeous as is) hair.
My second-favorite in the category — and, if I had to guess, the winner — is “Memorable,” an impressive display of animation techniques. Its shifting form is dictated by its story: An elderly artist, who has a memory disorder, is losing his grip on reality. Only marred by his wife’s bizarre failure to comprehend what’s happening when he can’t remember how to eat a banana or doesn’t know what a pepper grinder is, “Memorable” finds surprising, poignant ways to illustrate how frightening it would be to gradually disconnect from your own life.
Disconnection also is the theme of “Sister.” It may pack in one social issue too many but its tender story has the intimate ring of autobiography as a Chinese man reminisces about the adjustments his family made when his parents brought home his baby sibling.
Coincidentally, “A Sister” is the title of one of the stronger live-action shorts. It opens with a seemingly benign scene of a woman in a car, supposedly calling her sister to chat about child care. Everything we believe about that opening scene changes when “A Sister” shifts to the actual recipient of that call, a baffled French 911 operator who is about to hang up until she realizes the caller is in distress and speaking in code. Not unlike the recent Danish film “The Guilty,” which also featured an operator trying to solve a case, “A Sister” is a gripping, real-time fight for survival and understanding.
All five live-action shorts concern protagonists whose lives are changed by a stranger, and none is better than the beautifully acted “The Neighbors’ Window,” written and directed by Marshall Curry, whose Cory Booker documentary, “Street Fight,” was a previous Oscar nominee. Maria Dizzia (“Orange Is the New Black”) plays a New Yorker who spots her curtain-less neighbors having sex. That leads to the window becoming the equivalent of a reality show that’s constantly playing across the street. What she sees causes her to question her own life and gives her new perspective on it.
Frequently, short films are directors’ attempts to raise enough money to extend them to feature length. I’d guess that’s the case with both “Saria” and “Brotherhood.” The former is based on the true story of girls who hatch an elaborate plan to escape an abusive orphanage, a tale that is never less than absorbing but that omits important events and fails to give its supporting characters nuance. “Brotherhood” shares those failings, although it’s beautifully made and its spring-loaded plot keeps us engaged as a soldier returns to Tunisia from Syria with a mysterious wife in tow.
The movie that seems likeliest to launch a career is Yves Piat’s good-natured “Nefta Football Club,” also set in Tunisia. Its two stars are a pair of endearing soccer fans who stumble upon a donkey loaded down with drugs. Mistaking the drugs for laundry detergent, the boys try to peddle it on the way to the story’s enormously satisfying conclusion.
A bleak lineup of docs
The documentaries are at times almost intractably grim. You can see them at the Riverview in Minneapolis.
The best of the lot is Yi Seung-Jun’s “In the Absence,” a terse, harrowing, infuriating account of the sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol that killed more than 300 in 2014. “Life Overtakes Me,” directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, examines resignation syndrome among children of refugee immigrants in Sweden. The story of children who fall into almost coma-like states in reaction to deportation is fascinating, but its telling is affected.
The self-explanatory “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” is set in Afghanistan. The approach of the director, Carol Dysinger, aims for dollops of lightheartedness. The activist portrait “St. Louis Superman,” directed by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan, is inspiring and troubling. The fifth entry is "Walk Run Cha-Cha," directed by Laura Nix, about a Vietnamese couple who reunite and become ballroom dancers.
The New York Times contributed to this report.