Review: Oscar-nominated short films reflect the year of upheaval in which they emerged

Oscar Isaac's corrections officer studies a computer screen in the live-action short "The Letter Room" by Elvira Lind.
Oscar Isaac in the Oscar-nominated live-action short “The Letter Room,” directed by Elvira Lind.

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Each year, the Oscars’ shorts categories are an opportunity to spotlight a breadth of imagination and emotion across all filmmaking cultures, and for 2021 the sampling reveals a well intentioned tapestry of upheaval’s ripple effects.

The live action slate is marked by stories of interactions in which proximity doesn’t always imply easy understanding. For the Palestinian father and young daughter venturing into the West Bank in Farah Nabulsi’s understatedly tense “The Present,” a simple shopping trip to buy mom a gift is a humiliating reminder of institutionalized otherness with each security checkpoint ordeal. The divide between haves and have-nots is more strategically hidden in Israeli filmmaker Tomer Shushan’s “White Eye,” in which a man’s late-night discovery of his stolen bicycle triggers a confrontation with a stranger whose world is very different. Shushan’s one-take storytelling style is ill-considered, but the well-acted scenario still carries the weight of consequence.


Instead of choking up Union Station, the Academy Awards could have used the empty Music Center — and shown solidarity with L.A.’s performing arts

March 30, 2021

Another urban drama plays out in Doug Roland’s “Feeling Through,” which brings a nightcrawling teenager angling for a place to crash into the flight path of a deafblind pedestrian (played by a real deafblind actor) who requires assistance. It’s as engineered for bonding sweetness as you’d think. Trickier in its approach to fateful street encounters — and tonally uneven as a result — is “Two Distant Strangers” from Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, a “Groundhog Day”-via-“Twilight Zone” construct wherein a young Black graphic artist’s daily attempt to get home from an overnight date is — no matter his cleverness, charisma or compassion — unavoidably deadly.

The standout is Elvira Lind’s “The Letter Room” for the lived-in melancholy of Oscar Isaac’s paunchy, kind-hearted corrections officer, the confidently handled suspense in his concern for an inmate’s personal life, and in the outcome’s wry, poignant wisdom about storytelling as armor and escape.

Two women sit talking in an image from the Oscar-nominated animated short "Genius Loci," directed by Adrien Merigeau.
An image from the Oscar-nominated animated short “Genius Loci,” directed by Adrien Merigeau.

The animation category is the usual mixed bag of cute and curdle-y. On the former end of the spectrum is Madeline Sharafian’s “Burrow”— from Pixar’s side-project-friendly SparkShorts program — a fast-paced good-neighbors charmer about a go-getter bunny’s homemaking misadventure in an unexpectedly populated underground. A more starkly comic view of community living is Icelander Gísli Darri Halldórsson’s stop-motion trifle “Yes-People,” flitting among three pairs of snowbound apartment eccentrics but never really landing any noteworthy laughs.

Two shorts visualize internal turmoil to varying effect. “If Anything Happens I Love You,” from Will McCormack and Michael Govier, uses shape-shifting shadows to express the emotional fault lines in a marriage laid low by unspeakable tragedy. Its social issue relevance is heavy-handed, but in style and sweep it’s affecting. Adrien Merigeau’s fluidly surreal French dazzler “Genius Loci,” meanwhile, finds a solitary young woman’s restlessness about night in the city answered by the ceaseless transmogrifying of her surroundings, even herself. Reine’s journey is trippy, but it’s rendered emotionally in each changing line, form and hue — the internal made external and vice versa.

If “Genius Loci” seems like consciousness as a moving gallery exhibit, Erick Oh’s “Opera” definitely is — eight wide-view minutes displaying an animated Bosch-like pyramid representing the history of civilization as structured, interconnecting tiers of tireless cog-like figurines in an infinite day-night loop, their actions spanning systems of society from godhood to slavery. Only multiple viewings could ensure you capture every witty, weird, illuminating detail in this impressive work.

Horace Bowers handles a shirt at a dry cleaner in the Oscar-nominated documentary short "A Concerto Is a Conversation."
Los Angeles entrepreneur Horace Bowers in the Oscar-nominated documentary short “A Concerto Is a Conversation,” directed by Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot.

The short docs tackle some big topics too, but the highlights fine tune their blend of style and purpose. The least resonant is “Colette,” which brings a young Holocaust scholar and a 90-year-old French Resistance member together for a trip to the German concentration camp where the latter’s brother died. Colette’s many justifiably intense emotions are ill-served by Anthony Giacchino’s unremarkable mix of recollection and history. A more affecting portrait tied to pain — by way of tribute to the promise of a life cut short — is “A Love Song for Latasha,” Sophia Nahli Allison’s spirited, colorfully textured elegy to 15-year-old South Los Angeles shooting victim Latasha Harlins, whose senseless 1991 killing fueled the outrage that sparked L.A.’s unrest the following year. But Allison’s imagined archive of a film is driven by memories of the girl, not the symbol — who she was, and what she hoped for, as told by her best friend and cousin.

Premature grief is the specter hovering over war-torn Yemen’s famine cases — malnourished children at death’s door — in Skye Fitzgerald’s latest dispatch from the Middle East, “Hunger Ward.” The female doctors look as stricken as the mothers, and you too may find it difficult to look. At 40 minutes, it more than makes its point about who’s most vulnerable and forgotten in human-caused catastrophes.

Those who can fight back energize Anders Hammer’s turbocharged “Do Not Split,” a jagged bulletin from inside Hong Kong’s young, savvy and committed protest movement as 2019 saw unprecedented pushback against China’s harsh extradition law. The riot footage is heart-stopping, but there’s also a thoughtful snapshot of pro-democracy activist Joey Siu, whose fortitude is as inspiring as her voiced fear for her city’s future is worrisome.

For a dose of long life and beautiful legacy, this category’s balm is Kris Bowers’ and Ben Proudfoot’s “A Concerto Is a Conversation,” an effortlessly heart-tugging ode to Bowers’ then-91-year-old grandfather Horace, whose journey from Jim Crow escapee to L.A. entrepreneur is a melody of sacrifice and joy echoed in the grandson’s story as a Black composer navigating classical, and classically white, spaces. As they talk, and Bowers’ music plays, we’re left marveling what a powerful instrument a sense of belonging is.

2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live Action

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Playing: Starts April 2 in general release where theaters are open; also in virtual cinemas, including Landmark Theaters; Art Theatre, Long Beach; the Frida Cinema, Santa Ana


2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Animation

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes (includes three additional shorts that were shortlisted)

Playing: Starts April 2 in general release where theaters are open; also in virtual cinemas, including Landmark Theaters; Art Theatre, Long Beach; the Frida Cinema, Santa Ana

2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes

Playing: Starts April 2 in virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Virtual Cinema; Landmark Theaters; Art Theatre, Long Beach; the Frida Cinema, Santa Ana; starts April 9 in limited release where theaters are open