Review: Compassion, imagination and defying expectations highlight Oscar-nominated shorts

"Haulout" follows a lone scientist on an Arctic beach, studying thousands of walruses stressed by climate change.
The Oscar-nominated documentary short “Haulout,” directed by Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev.

All hail the short film, where the tools, canvas, themes and artistry can be no different as for a feature, but the only restriction is time. Short films may be less widely seen than the longer kind, but the three Oscar categories devoted to the form provide a welcome spotlight on what makes them special.

The documentary nominees this year are a compassionate bunch marked by the effect of time and change on lives, literally so in Jay Rosenblatt’s “How Do You Measure a Year?” in which 17 years of birthday interviews with his daughter Ella — from 2 to 18 — are condensed into a father’s loving document of a young woman’s maturing consciousness. A different archive — of news and interview footage — and female viewpoint distinguishes “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” from Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy, a gripping portrait of political sexism as the whistleblowing Nixon-era cabinet wife goes from beloved truth-teller to conspiracy scapegoat.

For your safety

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 CDC and local health officials.

The journey from hate to forgiveness is given the shocking-twist treatment in Joshua Seftel’s carefully laid out “Stranger at the Gate,” in which a scarred Marine’s thirst for bloodshed is transformed by radical kindness. The Indigenous couple of Kartiki Gonsalves’ India-set “The Elephant Whisperers” were already generous souls when cameras arrived to capture their work restoring orphaned Asian elephants to full health. Though overedited and overscored, in its depiction of interspecies coexistence it’s a heartfelt, if simpler, companion piece to the feature documentary nominee “All That Breathes.”


In the gut punch “Haulout,” meanwhile, vanishing sea ice creates an overwhelming new reality for a yearly migration on the Siberian Arctic coast, as witnessed by a solitary man with a grim task, and followed by filmmakers Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev. In the apocalyptic awe of this stark film’s dominant, unforgettable visual — a true shock to the eyeballs, its aftermath heartbreaking — is, one fears, a somber harbinger for us all.

A teen girl doing a skateboard trick on a highway leading to a city in the animated short film "My Year of Dicks."
The Oscar-nominated animated short “My Year of Dicks,” directed by Sara Gunnarsdóttir.

In animation, where imagination can rule, a creature with a warning may get to literally voice its concern. Set in an office — and, cheekily, an office set — the stop-motion “An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It” is Lachlan Pendragon’s charming take on his art as a potentially “Matrix”-like experience for his creations. But in the case of “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse,” Charlie Mackesy’s handsomely hand-drawn adaptation (with Peter Baynton) of his own snowy children’s tome, the animal talk — with voices including Tom Hollander, Gabriel Byrne and Idris Elba — is a cloying litany of lessons (“Doing nothing with a friend is never doing nothing”). It’s admirably delicate, but more like a storybook comprised solely of last pages.

Silent figures in catastrophic scenarios make up two other animation nominees: João Gonzalez’s “Ice Merchants” and “The Flying Sailor” from Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby. The former — mysterious and melancholy, cautiously colored — imagines a widower and his son living in constant chill on a precarious cliff-face dwelling from which they parachute into a village to sell ice. The latter, extracting avant-garde whimsy from believe-it-or-not history, considers the miraculous sky-arcing trip of the most memorable survivor of a real-life 1917 harbor explosion in Halifax, Canada.

This category’s standout, however, is the deliciously heart/mind/libido-driven “My Year of Dicks,” a witty, style-shifting scrapbook of lust, love and loserdom adapted from Pamela Ribon’s memoir about trying to lose her virginity in the wanting teenage-boy landscape of early ’90s Houston. Sara Gunnarsdóttir, who memorably created the animated sequences for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” pins genuine feeling to Ribon’s sardonic angst with a fantasy-fringed realism, and the result is as memorable as any spiky, feature-length adolescent rom-com.

Alba Rohrwacher in the Oscar-nominated animated short "Le Pupille," directed by Alice Rohrwacher.
Alba Rohrwacher in the Oscar-nominated animated short “Le Pupille,” directed by Alice Rohrwacher.

The pull of freedom, and defying what’s expected, marks this year’s live-action shorts. The agreeably eccentric if emotionally schematic “An Irish Goodbye” from Tom Berkeley and Ross White concerns a tension-filled reunion between two surly brothers — one with Down syndrome, the other his keeper — who must reconcile each other’s notions of independence in the wake of their mother’s death. The sibling divide is grimmer in “Ivalu,” from previous category-winner Anders Walter, about a young Greenlandic Inuit girl on a quest to find her missing sister, an enthralling poignant voyage of landscape and memory until it segues bumpily into hidden trauma.

Two other shorts address societal suffering with varying results. Give Eirik Tveiten’s “Night Ride” props for a punchy setup — an impatient commuter in the freezing cold commandeering a driverless tram — and a head shake for how it hijacks a serious issue to become moralistic oatmeal. Empathetic, visually acute storytelling distinguishes Cyrus Neshvad’s timely thriller “The Red Suitcase,” in which an anxious Iranian girl at Luxembourg’s airport chooses to remove her hijab, generating one of the more heart-rending, stomach-clenching scenarios I’ve seen in years.

And then there’s the short with everything: style and atmosphere, mirth and sadness, angelic faces and wicked thoughts, nuns and a countess, Alfonso Cuarón as producer and the moment of truth only a red, cream-filled, 70-egg cake can spur in a strict Catholic boarding school during a wartime Christmas. The beguiling “Le Pupille” from gifted Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher (“Happy as Lazzaro”) is an all-girl shoutout (and at times, whimsically scored sing-out) to Jean Vigo’s child-anarchy classic “Zéro de Conduite” by way of this sublime artist’s own appealing affinity for youthful frolic and fate. Given grainy, old-world Super 16-millimeter authenticity by masterful cinematographer Hélène Louvart and featuring Rohrwacher’s talented sister Alba as the vigilant mother superior, this is a confection to savor — equal parts innocence, rebellion and spongy goodness.

2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films

Not rated

Documentary program: 2 hours, 46 minutes

Animation program: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Live Action program: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 17 in general release