This year’s Oscar-nominated shorts carry plenty of emotional weight in their compact running times with stories that span life’s breadth.
The animation category, save the Alison Snowden/David Fine comedy “Animal Behaviour,” a lark in which the talking cure is applied to talking creatures, is dominated by parent/child arcs. The widely seen and beloved Disney-Pixar entry “Bao” from Domee Shi finds bite-sized, bighearted comic poignancy in a Chinese immigrant mom’s empty-nest fears about her (ahem) dough-faced offspring, while Trevor Jimenez’s “Weekends” offers a detail-rich 2-D sketchbook of pleasures, pain and surreality in a child’s toggling between divorced parents. It’s a simpler trajectory that drives the Pixar-influenced Chinese American tale “One Small Step” from Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas, a sentimental father-daughter nugget about her dreams (space), his livelihood (shoes) and the pair’s lasting bond.
Similarly heart-tugging but uniquely graceful in its line-centric ebb and flow is Irish filmmaker Louise Bagnall’s “Late Afternoon,” which treats an elderly woman’s dementia like a tide rushing between powerful memories and a worrisome present. As with “Bao,” its elegance and inventiveness honors the depths coursing through motherhood.
An infirm senior is also at the heart of one of the live-action nominees, Marianne Farley’s “Marguerite,” which deepens the connection between an aging woman (Beatrice Picard) and her nurse (Sandrine Bisson) as a revealed personal detail opens up a trove of regret, and a sudden richness — both tactile and emotional — to the therapy. New information also changes the course of Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “Madre,” a confidently nervy, mostly one-shot exercise in which an initially innocuous phone call from her 7-year-old son gradually sends a young mother (Marta Nieto) into a rising panic.
The other three films in the live-action category are a diversely grim bunch putting kids at the center of shocking events. Jeremy Comte’s evocative, haunting “Fauve” follows two exploring, competitive boys through a countryside of nature and abandoned industry, a vast playground that quickly turns into a horrifically lonely place. Guy Nattiv’s “Skin” starts with the alluring queasiness of a young boy’s adoration of his tattooed white-power dad (Jonathan Tucker), but when it shifts to the aftermath of the father’s assault on a black man, it becomes little more than a simplistic “Twilight Zone” wannabe.
Much more provocatively unsettling is Vincent Lambe’s controversial “Detainment,” which dramatizes the interrogation of two 10-year-old boys suspected of kidnapping and murdering a toddler. Based on a 1993 case in Britain that horrified the world, Lambe’s film, taken from transcripts, troubles through a baked-in futility: adults putting questions to children, desperate for what happened, when answers to this kind of evil are inherently, tragically ungraspable.
Sometimes, though, evil announces itself, such as when 20,000 American Nazi adherents held a rally in 1939 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, a night chillingly revisited with archival footage in Marshall Curry’s documentary nominee “A Night at the Garden.” Racism’s pernicious effects on identity are at the heart of Ed Perkins’ stunning “Black Sheep,” a mix of camera-facing interview and vérité dramatization that details the soul-crushing lengths black British teenager Cornelius Walker went through to acclimate to the ruling racists in the all-white housing estate his family moved to.
Charity in the face of the insurmountable is behind Skye Fitzgerald’s “Lifeboat,” which takes viewers into the rescue efforts of a German nonprofit to save African refugees on sinking rafts from perishing in the Mediterranean. It also is the beating heart inside “End Game” from Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt”), a touching look at end-of-life care practices at two forward-thinking Bay Area facilities.
To see a problem addressed, fixed, and made inspiring, however, there’s “Period. End of Sentence,” Rayka Zehtabchi’s feminine-hygiene-as-feminist-empowerment chronicle of how women in a village outside Delhi transform their lives and others’ by making and selling sanitary pads, destigmatizing a cultural taboo surrounding menstruation that’s routinely held Indian women back from economic and educational opportunities. Part of a project initiated by students at L.A.’s own Oakwood school, it’s eye-opening, gently funny, and jazzily edited, an exhilarating argument for anyone still blinkered enough to doubt how women can change an often seemingly broken world.
2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films
Running times: Live action program, 1 hour, 48 minutes; Animated program, 1 hour, 15 minutes; Documentary program: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: Separate admission, in limited release