Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation

by George Wolf

When I was a kid watching the Oscars, I remember always being perplexed by short film categories. How do people manage to see these shorts?

Good news, kids, it’s gotten much easier. In the last several years, all the nominated shorts have been packaged by category for theatrical showings. This year, of course, virtual screenings are available as well, making it more convenient than ever to find great films in smaller packages.

In these 5 nominated (and three bonus) treats, you’ll find charm, humor, fascination, and devastation – all a tribute to the different ways animation can touch our souls.

Burrow 6 mins. Writer/director: Madeline Sharafian

An excited bunny has big plans for a new home underground (maybe a disco?). But the more the bunny burrows, the more times she accidentally invades a neighbor’s place!

What to do?

Originally intended as the short subject intro to theatrical showings of Soul, Burrow is a completely charming reminder of the need for friends you can count on. And the beautiful 2D, hand-drawn animation gives it a picture book feel that’s refreshingly retro.

Genius Loci 16 mins. Writer/director: Adrien Merigeau

From France, Genius Loci is a surrealistic trip through “urban chaos, ” as a young loner named Reine (voiced by Nadia Moussa) takes off on a dreamlike tour through the heartbeat of her city.

Unfolding like a watercolored stream of consciousness, Loci is wonderfully stylistic, bursting with contrasts and ambiguities about Reine’s headspace that keep it constantly intriguing.

If Anything Happens, I Love You 12 mins. Writers/directors: Michael Govier, Will McCormack

Oh my, this one is heartbreaking, tender and devastatingly lovely.

A middle-aged couple is living in a fog of despair, completely unable to comfort each other or find any joy in life. A charcoal-type animation style reveals shadows depicting a former life of happiness, then leading eventually to the tragic event that broke them.

Keep the tissues handy for a soft-spoken gut punch that reframes the stakes we know only too well.

Opera 9 mins. Director: Erick Oh

9 minutes? I could watch this for 9 hours.

Billed as a “massive 8K size animation installation project which portrays our society and history,” Opera is a single frame in constant, intoxicating motion.

The eye level creeps in, then out, up and down and around a pyramid filled with scores of small figures co-existing in a constantly evolving community. Even as you fixate on one fascinating section, you’re drawn to others that are equally rewarding.

Oh has created a true animated marvel, and one that should be hard to beat in this category.

Yes-People 8 mins. Director: Gisli Darri Halldorsson

Welcome to a tenement building in Iceland, where we follow some 3D Wallace and Grommet-looking Icelanders going about their daily trials and snowy tribulations.

Most of the dialog is a well-placed exclamation of “Yow!” which adds to the goofiness and overall fun factor. With glimpses into work, school and mundane chores around the house, Yes-People becomes a light and breezy take on the small moments that make our lives.

The 2021 animated shorts program will also feature three “highly commended” animated short films

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Documentary

by George Wolf

When I was a kid watching the Oscars, I remember always being perplexed by short film categories. How do people manage to see these shorts?

Good news, kids, it’s gotten much easier. In the last several years, all the nominated shorts have been packaged by category for theatrical showings. This year, of course, virtual screenings are available as well, making it more convenient than ever to find great films in smaller packages.

As usual, these nominated documentary shorts are often heart-wrenching, but able to speak necessary truths to power and our collective human experience.

A Concerto Is a Conversation 13 mins. Directors: Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot

Pianist and film composer Kris Bowers explains to his 91 year-old grandfather Horace (and to us) that a concerto is a conversation between a soloist and an ensemble.

But the conversation between the Bowers men is a moving work of art itself, as Horace recalls his life’s journey from a poor kid in the Jim Crow south to a successful business owner in Los Angeles.

And as Kris prepares for the premiere of his first concerto, the film becomes a beautiful expression of heritage, love, talent and courage.

Colette 25 mins. Writer/director: Anthony Giacchino

75 years after her stint as a member of the French Resistance, 90 year-old Colette Catherine is preparing to make her first journey to the concentration camp in Germany where her brother Jean-Pierre died.

She’s accompanied by the young Lucie, a history student and docent at France’s WWII museum, who regards Colette as a “national hero.”

As sobering and horrific as the subject matter suggests, Collette – the film and the hero – finds a redemptive power through defiantly shining a spotlight on an evil that still searches for dark places to take root.

Do Not Split 36 mins. Director: Andreas Hammer

Taking us to the front lines of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests of 2019, Do Not Split becomes a tense, indelible account of resistance against civil rights abuses that will look pretty familiar to U.S. audiences.

Hammer is blessed with a host of intimate footage, often featuring first person commentary from protesters while they are actively pushing back against tear gas and police escalation.

It’s gripping stuff. Without becoming overbearing, the film never lets you forget you are watching important and heroic history unfold.

Hunger Ward 40 mins. Director: Skye Fitzgerald

Part 3 of Fitzgerald’s Refugee Trilogy (along with 50 Feet From Syria and the Oscar-nominated Lifeboat), Hunger Ward‘s focus is the children – specifically those affected by the ongoing civil war in Yemen.

The images of wounded and starving children carry an understandably tragic weight, while real time footage inside a Yemeni memorial service being actively shelled is unforgettable.

And still, those committed to helping the children exhibit an unwavering and miraculous resolve.

The U.N. has labeled Yemen as home to the world’s “greatest humanitarian crisis,” and Fitzgerald’s unflinching call for action and empathy will leave your heart in your throat.

A Love Song For Latasha 19 mins. Director: Sophia Nahli Allison

A touching tribute to one victim of senseless gun violence, A Love Song…turns the focus away from the aftermath and toward the positive effect Latasha Harlins had on those around her.

In 1992, 15-year-old Latasha was killed by a store clerk in South Central Los Angeles. Framed by Allison (and Executive Producer Ava DuVernay) as a VHS tape memoir with sequences of animation, the film lets the narration from Latasha’s best friend Ty and cousin Shinise craft a warmly intimate profile.

A Love Song For Latasha wants us to know that these victims of racial injustice aren’t just statistics to be glossed over. In a short time, Latasha Harlins made a big impact. So it seems only fitting that a short film makes you glad to meet her.

Out of the Darkness

The Power

by Hope Madden

Simultaneously sympathetic and vengeful, Corinna Faith’s ghost story The Power sets an emotional tone that suits its core themes.

Today is Val’s (Rose Williams) first shift at a rundown London hospital. It’s 1974, and a coal miners’ strike means rolling blackouts. Val hadn’t anticipated still being at work when the lights went out, but a power struggle with Matron (Diveen Henry) means putting up or shutting up.

Unfortunately, Val’s not great with darkness.

Williams provides a tender central figure, terrified of everything: her new bosses, the sprawling building itself, the dark, failure. Val doesn’t get a lot of support from the rest of the staff, particularly one creepy janitor, a repugnant handyman and a viciously catty colleague (Emma Rigby, spectacular).

When the abuses turn supernatural, Faith begins to dig into the real terrors that faced women in 1974 (and in 974 and in 2021). But the filmmaker never abandons her ghost story in favor of a podium. The Power is an effective allegorical tale, but before that it’s a spooky horror story set in an old hospital.

Why are those always so scary? Session 9 may be the high-water mark, but Faith taps into our fears of the powerlessness that comes with illness and institutions, and she exploits them.

The director makes good use of familiar elements—the Seventies vibe, the crumbling edifice, the darkness—and not only to create an unease that heightens the scares. She crafts an environment that amplifies and clarifies the theme, whether it’s the strike, the systemic sexism and classism, or just the insidious nature of abusing and silencing those without power.

Wonderful performances throughout elevate story tropes that could get old, and the filmmaker’s instincts for using light, shadow and reflection give the film an eerie quality that’s hard to shake.

What Big Feet You Have

Dawn of the Beast

by Rachel Willis

Seriously, who still thinks camping in the woods is a good idea?

There’s something about the woods that haunts us, so it’s the perfect setting for many a horror movie.

In director Bruce Wemple’s latest film, Dawn of the Beast, it’s the ideal locale for a group of cryptozoology students on the hunt for Sasquatch.

Wemple likes the creature feature – a look at his past work uncovers another film about Bigfoot (Monstrous), as well as one about the mythological Wendigo. Writer Anna Shields must also enjoy the ‘Squatch, as she not only penned Monstrous, but Dawn of the Beast as well. You’d think with two movies about Sasquatch under their belts, these two would have something new to say about Mr. Foot.

And in a way, they do, but unfortunately, what they have to say about their monster is buried beneath a run-of-the-mill ‘cabin in the woods’ horror trope.

There is some fun in Dawn of the Beast. There are a few jokes, characters you root for, as well as one or two you root against, but there’s also a lot of drudge here. You find yourself sitting through too much filler while you wait for the more interesting moments.

Shields also co-stars in the film as Lilly, but her talents seem better suited to writing. There are some genuinely creepy moments – yellow lights (are those eyes?) drawing you into the woods, one or two effective jump scares, and some funny dialogue. And what Lilly and her classmates find in the woods is a lot more terrifying than the legendary Bigfoot.

However, the film’s best aspect is – far and away – the creature effects. They add a degree of tension and fear that would be otherwise absent without such convincingly scary monsters. In some films, the addition of a monster removes the tension; seeing too much destroys the mystery. But in this case, it really works.  

It’s around the film’s third act that Dawn of the Beast begins to hit its stride, embracing the funnier elements and dropping the attempts to inject a seriousness to the film that it largely doesn’t need. A funny horror movie can still be scary, so anything too serious in this movie (a kidnapping, for example) is time wasted for the audience.

Perhaps if Wemple and Shields attempt a third Sasquatch film, it’ll be the charm that lands them a horror film that hits all the right notes.


The Not-So-Friendly Skies


by Brandon Thomas

Good old alien horror doesn’t come around as much as I’d like. Outside of the occasional Alien or Predator sequel, this subgenre is pretty much stagnant or banished to the realm of mico-budget dreck. Embryo might skirt the line of microbudget, but this eerie alien tale is anything but dreck. 

The bulk of Embryo follows campers Kevin (Domingo Guzman) and Evelyn (Romina Perazzo) as they venture into the woods of southern Chile. Their camping getaway turns into a nightmare after Evelyn is abducted by extraterrestrials, leaving her in a state of shock. As the effects of her alien abductors take hold, Evelyn becomes increasingly more bloodthirsty, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.

Director Patricio Valladares approaches alien abduction as a blend between Fire in the Sky’s creeping dread and Cronenberg body horror. Evelyn’s descent into other-worldly terror reveals itself in visceral, extreme violence. We’re talking lots of blood and guts here. However, the explanation of her metamorphosis is kept an enigma. The guessing game surrounding the aliens themselves is left to the deepest levels of the audience’s subconsciousness. It’s an act of omission probably born out of budgetary concerns, yet it ends up aiding the film more than the filmmakers could have foreseen. 

Valladares throws a curveball when constructing the film’s narrative. There’s an occasional break in Kevin and Evelyn’s story where Embryo attempts to open up the world a bit more. This allows the filmmakers to weave together other tales of close encounters in this small Chilean town. Not only are the stories different, but so is the style of filmmaking. By switching to found footage, Valladares is able to emphasize suspense and dread over the fantastical gore that oozes through the main segment.

Despite telling three individual tales, Embryo clocks in at a scant 72 minutes. Even with the different stories, the film threatens to run out of steam on multiple occasions. There’s a repetitiveness to the Kevin and Evelyn segment especially that starts to detract from its overall effectiveness. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there are only so many times Kevin can lose Evelyn only to find her feasting on a biker, doctor, or other camper. 

Embryo doesn’t quite cross the finish line at full speed, but through deft tone management and a willingness to get gross, the film leaves an overall positive impression.

Fright Club: Skeletons in the Closet, 2021

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The Oscars are coming and we get to spend some time celebrating the worst of the horror movies made by nominees. Have they made great horror? Well, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) are nominees, so yes. In fact, there are a whole slew of horror films made by this year’s batch of nominees, most of them far too good to qualify for this list.

No, we want the skeletons. And every single year, nominees have them. Here are this year’s contenders.

5. Daniel Kaluuya: Chatroom (2010) 

What is the matter with this movie? Writer Edna Walsh, who’d go on to pen the excellent films Disco Pigs and Hunger, adapted her own stage play. Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water) directed. The cast is exceptional: Daniel Kaluuya, Imogen Poots, Aaron Taylor-Johnson all play Chelsea teens who hang out in a new chatroom.

How did this to so terribly wrong? As five kids get to know each other online, it turns out that one is a predator looking for a very specific weakness and playing the others against each other. Not a terrible premise, and the overall design is surreal enough to avoid individuals at their laptops. Performances are solid as well.

But, ideas come and go, conflicts arise and disappear, characters appear without warning or introduction and vanish, and storylines fail to make any real sense.

4. Amanda Seyfried & Gary Oldman: Red Riding Hood (2011)

A two-fer! Truth be told, there were plenty of two-fer opportunities with Oldman on this list (he also co-starred with fellow nominee Anthony Hopkins in both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hannibal).

But this is the one, because it lets us talk about another time he co-starred with Amanda Seyfried. Both are nominated for their work together in 2020’s Mank. Neither were nominated for this.

Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke helms this fractured fairy tale, and it looks gorgeous. The story is overly complicated and stupid, but it hits all the important marks: Valerie (Seyfried) is loved by two potentially dangerous boys whose passion might actually kill her. Oh, it’s such an angsty YA dream!

Seyfried is fine. Oldman is a ham, and he’s such a joy when he’s a ham. There’s a fun cameo from Julie Christie as well. But the weak writing and utterly laughable performances by the two suitors (Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez) are enough to sink this one deep.

3. Anthony Hopkins: The Wolfman (2010)

Hopkins has a lot of horror in his closet, much of it bad. The Rite is the least watchable, but this is the one that’s the most fun to lambast. What a ludicrous waste of talent!

Sir Anthony bites through scenery (among other things) as Sir John Talbot, father of Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro). Their background is murky, their property is foggy, their accents are jarringly different.

Director Joe Johnson likes stuff big and hokey. You’ll find that here. The film won an Oscar for its make up, which we cannot get behind. The final battle looks like two rhoided-up Pomeranians duking it out.

Still, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving are good, and even though the great Del Toro sleepwalks through this embarrassment, Hopkins is always a bit of fun when he camps it up in a bad movie.

2. Gary Oldman: The Unborn (2009)

Oh, Gary Oldman, why do you so rarely say no?

He’s just in so, so, so many movies – mathematically speaking, it only makes sense that a lot of them will be terrible. Like this one, a film that feels less like a single cohesive unit and more like a string of individual scenes filmed as examples of cliches and non sequiturs.

Oldman plays a rabbi who works with a Christian minister played by Idris Elba to help an incredibly entitled young woman who looks like a blander version of Megan Fox (Odette Annable) exorcise a Jewish demon who likes twins.

Cam Gigandet, Meagan Good, James Remar and Carla Gugino also co-star for no logical reason. Well, writer/director David S. Goyer is also writer David S. Goyer (Blade trilogy & Nolan’s Batman trilogy). This movie came immediately on the heels of 2008’s The Dark Knight, which explains Oldman as well as some unmet expectations.

1. Youn Yuh-jung: Insect Woman (1972)

Youn Yuh-jung is a treasure. Her fifty years in movies boasts dozens of remarkable performances usually marked by quirky humor that never feels gimmicky. She’s had a hell of a 2020, with pivotal supporting roles in Beasts Clawing at Straws and the Oscar-nominated Minari.

She does what she can in writer/director Kim Ki-young’s inexplicably titled Insect Woman.

Oh my God, what a trainwreck! What is going on here? Youn plays a teen with nowhere to turn once her father returns to his wife. Now her mother, older brother and she must fend for themselves. But how? Well, maybe she can be mistress to an impotent (or is he?!) high school teacher.

The film swings back and forth between highly irrational melodrama to profoundly unsexy eroticism to unconvincing gritty street indie. An hour or more into this, they introduce a vampire baby.

I swear!

Then it’s on. Who knows what the hell is happening or is going to happen or why it’s happening or what the film is trying to say. If it were a better movie I’d think Insect Woman was trying to make a point about misogyny and classism in South Korea.

It’s not a better movie, though. It’s very bad.

It’s People!!!

Roe V Wade

by Christie Robb

Cathy Allyn and Nick Loeb’s film Roe v. Wade is an unnuanced slog through the events leading up to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision.

The directors (who share writing credit with Ken Kushner) frame the court case with the conversion narrative of Dr. Bernard Nathanson (Loeb). According to the film, Nathanson, “the Abortion King” aka “the Scraper,” claims to have been swept up in the wave of 70s women’s liberation and performed seventy thousand abortions until he was confronted with fetal development by way of the advent of ultrasound technology. This results in a breakdown that is unmistakably similar to Charlton Heston’s in Soylent Green—“It’s a person! God forgive me! What have I done?!”

The choice to cast Loeb, whose dialogue delivery bears an eerie similarity to an unsure elementary school student asked to read a passage aloud, in such a pivotal role is but one example of the missteps taken in the film.

The hammy acting is a trait shared among many of the cast members. Jamie Kennedy (Scream), for example, as Larry Lader (co-founder of NARAL Pro-Choice America) all but twirls an imaginary handlebar mustache as he explains how liberals seed the uncritical news media with statistics conjured from thin air. Stacey Dash (Clueless) as Dr. Mildred Jefferson (president of the National Right to Life Committee) fairly vibrates with indignation when her eyes aren’t filled with tears at the equating of abortion to slavery or in polite reference to her own infertility issues.

Even if the acting was better, all the emotion would seem misplaced given how much time is devoted to characters debating constitutional law. There is not enough room in a two hour movie to detail the establishment of the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movements plus the evolution of the Roe court case and still deliver the kind of emotional character development that Allyn and Loeb are shooting for.

The political arguments are underdeveloped, the nuances of the court proceedings are difficult to follow, and there are too many characters to keep track of. Joey Lawrence’s (Blossom) character could have easily been cut as his purpose in the film seems to be delivering supporting quotes by founding fathers.

The film’s stated goal is to tell the true story of Roe vs. Wade. However, this is something it cannot really achieve. Missing is any coverage of the personal, economic, social, or medical reasons why a woman might seek an abortion in the first place. It’s a pro-life persuasive essay masquerading as a soap opera/civics lecture and it’s not particularly good at being any of those things.

Exit Stage Gauche

French Exit

by George Wolf

So, it seems your quick, stealthy exit migrates from Irish to French when excess alcohol is not involved.

Good to know, I had to look it up.

Francis Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) certainly enjoys a good martini, but her exit plan is a bit more serious than just ducking out of the local bar unnoticed.

After years of living high as a Manhattan socialite, Francis’s inheritance is nearly gone. So after selling off what they can, Francis and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) head to Paris to stay in her best friend’s empty apartment. When the last dollar is finally spent, Francis plans to kill herself.

It sounds pretty dramatic, but writer Patrick DeWitt (who also penned the source novel) and director Azazel Jacobs start peppering in the absurdity and black comedy as soon as mother and son are aboard a ship to France.

Malcolm leaves his fiancee Susan (Imogen Poots) behind, and hooks up with Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald) en route. Madeleine is a medium, and she soon becomes Francis’s conduit for summoning the late Mr. Price (Tracy Letts) when his soul returns in a cat.

Pfeiffer is cold, condescending perfection. Francis’s words for nearly everyone she encounters practically drip with contempt, and Pfeiffer is always able to keep the film’s tricky tonal balance from toppling toward either maudlin or silly.

She enjoys a wonderful chemistry with Hedges, who impresses yet again as a young man who is still coming to grips with the lack of affection in his upbringing, his mother’s icy worldview, and how they’ve both affected his ability to relate to other people.

And soon, there are plenty of other people to relate to in the Paris flat. There’s the neighbor who desperately wants to make friends (a scene-stealing Valerie Mahaffey), Madeleine the medium, a detective hunting for the runaway cat (Isaach De Bankole), ex-fiancee Susan and her new man (Daniel di Tomasso), and Joan, who actually owns the apartment (Susan Coyne)!

You’d be quick to label the entire affair a Wes Anderson knockoff if Jacobs (The Lovers, Mozart in the Jungle, Doll & Em) didn’t fill the center with such unabashed heart. The affection between mother and son is never in doubt, and Pfeiffer’s delicious turn makes sure Francis never becomes a villain, just a fascinating and darkly funny mess.

With its self-conscious quirks and surface-level satisfactions, this is a French Exit more obvious than most. But thanks to Pfeiffer and a sharply drawn ensemble, it’s never less than wicked fun.

My Normal Size Jewish Funeral

Shiva Baby

by George Wolf

“You can’t just show up for the after party for a shiva, and like, reap the benefits of the buffet.”

Twentysomething Danielle (Rachel Sennott – irresistible) is definitely guilty of skipping the actual funeral (she doesn’t even know who died!), but if there are benefits to the after party, she isn’t reaping them. It’s awkward enough that her former flame Maya (Molly Gordon) is there, but that’s hardly the worst of it.

To her horror, Danielle sees that Max (Danny Deferarri) is there, too. Max is Danielle’s sugar daddy, and look, he brought his beautiful wife (Dianna Agron) and their cute baby daughter!

With Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman expands her 2018 short film for a feature debut full of observational comedy, mounting anxiety and a strangely appealing sexiness. Imagine the Coen Brothers rebooting Uncut Gems as a coming-of-age sex comedy, and you get an idea of the tonal tightrope Seligman is able to command.

The film’s opening finds Danielle confident and alluring. By the end of the day, she’s an unkempt, sweaty mess of beverages, blood and embarrassment. Almost all of Danielle’s arc takes place inside the home of the bereaved, and Seligman makes sure that is a hilariously uncomfortable place to be.

Danielle’s parents (the ever-reliable Fred Melamed and a scene-stealing Polly Draper) pressure her to work the room for job contacts, family friends inquire about her post-college plans, Molly wonders why Danielle ghosted her, and Max’s wife is getting suspicious.

And through it all, Seligman’s camera draws in closer and closer, making Danielle’s darkly comic claustrophobia almost palpable.

Clearly, much of Seligman’s sharp dialog comes from personal experience, and if it’s one you share this is a film that will feel like part of the family. But you didn’t have to be Greek to get caught up in that Big Fat Wedding, and you don’t have to be Jewish to see the joy in Shiva Baby.

Seligman flashes an insight that disarms you with sex and humor, keeping its hand at a subtle distance. But by the time we’re leaving that buffet, a breakout filmmaker and star have delivered a fresh, funny and intimate take on the indignities of finding yourself.