Reviewed: Oscar-nominated short films 2021

There are eight animated and five live-action shorts vying for an Academy award this year. Which one will win?

Burrow. Photo courtesy Roxie Theater

It feels like a very long time since I wrote about last year’s Oscar-nominated short subjects, and indeed it’s been slightly more than a year — in 2020, the shorts were released theatrically in January, immediately prior to the Academy’s Feb. 9 awards ceremony. This year, the pandemic has pushed the Oscars all the way to April 25, and the shorts are only now being made available via Rialto Cinemas Elmwood and the Virtual Roxie.

There are a whopping eight films in this year’s animation category, and, to be honest, it’s a fairly weak crop. By far the best of the bunch is Erick Oh’s Opera, nine minutes of what can best be described as “what it might look like to play Simcity or Civilization while tripping on psychedelics.” Bearing in mind I’ve never done that myself — and certainly don’t recommend you try it, either — Opera is still likely to blow your mind.

My storied history of picking the losers in this category means, of course, that Opera won’t win — and neither will my second favorite, Iceland’s Já-Fólkið (Yes People). A droll examination of life in a modern apartment building, Yes People breaks new cinematic ground by bringing together flatulence and Marcel Proust in one delightfully original eight-minute package.

Setting aside these two films, it’s time to get down to the serious handicapping. I’m guessing the baffling piece of abstract art that is Genius Loci won’t score many points with the voters — especially as it’s in French — while If Anything Happens I Love You’s tale of parental loss is likely a bit too morose. Kapaemahu offers a rather dry slice of Hawaiian mythology, while The Snail and the Whale — though benefiting from the crisp tones of its narrator, the late Diana Rigg — is both too long (26 minutes!) and too juvenile (told entirely in rhyming couplets).

That leaves Dreamworks’ To: Gerard, the kind of gooey, sentimental schlock that was previously Pixar’s preserve, and Burrow, a delightful but inconsequential tale of a bunny rabbit trying to build a cozy new home (complete with disco) in a crowded underground neighborhood. I’ll eat my hat — the straw one — if neither of these films win.

Live action category is stronger

The Present. Photo: Courtesy Roxie Theater

The Live Action category is, thankfully, stronger. That said, Feeling Through, an uplifting tale of a young man who helps a sightless and speechless traveler catch the uptown bus one night, and White Eye, in which an Israeli man’s selfishness puts an Eritrean immigrant in danger, are probably going to be on the outside looking in come April 25. They’re decent but nothing special.

I won’t be surprised if Two Distant Strangers claims the big prize: writer-director Travon Free displays flair with the camera, while his screenplay is a tight and effective tale of a Big Apple graphic artist (Joey Bada$$) trapped in a Groundhog Day cycle of being shot to death by police officer Merk (Welshman Andrew Howard, affecting a very convincing Noo Yawk accent). This is an impressive directorial debut; Free could probably shoot a full-length feature tomorrow.

Oscar Isaac delivers the category’s best performance as Richard, a corrections officer assigned to censor incoming letters to Death Row inmates, in Elvira Lind’s The Letter Room. Unlike most films set on Death Row, The Letter Room avoids histrionics and doesn’t climax with an execution. A win can’t be ruled out, though some voters may prefer the more overt message of Two Distant Strangers.

Farah Nabulsi’s The Present, however, is my choice for best-in-show. A deeply moving depiction of the routine, soul-breaking humiliation of life in the Occupied Territories, The Present benefits from the stolid presence of Saleh Bakri (The Band’s Visit) as Yusef, a beaten but not quite broken man trying to navigate a checkpoint and bring home a gift for his wife. By film’s end, you’ll feel a little verklempt.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.