You are currently viewing 2023 Oscar-nominated short films reviewed

2023 Oscar-nominated short films reviewed

Whatever your takeaways from the live action section of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films, a good laugh is unlikely to be among them. Suicide, abortion, bereavement, discoloring corpses — they’re all here, in a deluge of downers that only the Danes (and, depending on your tolerance for extreme preciousness, Wes Anderson) can be trusted to alleviate.

Those Danes, though! In Lasse Lyskjer Noer’s magnificently morbid comedy, “Knight of Fortune,” two grieving widowers bond over toilet paper and the trauma of viewing a loved one whose flesh — as warned by a pair of ghoulish mortuary attendants — might be the color of a banana. Although, bathed in the sickly spill of the morgue’s fluorescents, no one’s complexion here is exactly glowing.

If “Knight of Fortune” is a gentle nudge to the ribs, Misan Harriman’s “The After” is a two-by-four to the gut — and not in a good way. Trafficking in the kind of forced sentiment that can break you out in hives, this handsomely shot movie, featuring a garment-rending David Oyelowo, follows a London ride-share driver in the wake of a shocking personal tragedy. A trite, bullying soundtrack herds us toward the histrionic climax of a film that doesn’t trust us to get there on our own.

More restrained, and infinitely more resonant, “Invincible” observes the final 48 hours in the life of a 14-year-old boy (Léokim Beaumier-Lépine) as he struggles to corral his emotions and earn release from a center for troubled youth. The acting is impressive and the direction (by Vincent René-Lortie, drawing from a painful real-life memory) is bold and intuitive. Subtly intimate photography by Alexandre Nour Desjardins does much to enhance a movie that understands when it comes to emotions, less is often more.

For Wes Anderson, less is rarely an option. As “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” flits through a forest of intricate sets, a flurry of famous faces (Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley) and multiple story lines, its 37 minutes of virtually nonstop narration can feel like as many hours. Changing character onscreen and speaking directly to the camera, the actors navigate an ever-shifting story (adapted from Roald Dahl’s original) and constantly shuffling surroundings. A gorgeous, ingenious and finally exhausting exercise in puzzle box moviemaking.

Even allowing for Anderson’s flash and fame, Nazrin Choudhury’s “Red, White And Blue” — the only one of this year’s entries that’s overtly political — is the program’s clear standout. Wrapping the cold steel of its message in velvet-soft packaging, this beautifully acted, warmly photographed observation of financial precarity follows a desperate single mother (Brittany Snow) who must cross state lines to terminate a pregnancy. Painstakingly constructed from small, telling details, the movie ends with the kind of sting that lingers longer than any news report.

This year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts — sobering tales of war, assault, trauma, identity and regret — ask the question, what tools can filmmakers use to tell a poignant, but not exploitative or gratuitous, story about trauma?

The novel technique the directors Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess use in “Ninety-Five Senses” is the story structure: An inmate (voiced by Tim Blake Nelson) eating his last meal anecdotally reflects on each of his senses, telling tidbits of the life he had (and the life that could have been). Each sense is illustrated by different artists, in a different style, creating a kind of 13-minute anthology of a life — but that makes this understated film also feel a bit incoherent, with the vignettes lacking the build to bring the film to a satisfying emotional conclusion.

“Our Uniform,” a 7-minute selection from the Iranian director Yegane Moghaddam, packs a lot into a succinct reflection on her school uniform and the ways her culture’s restrictive fashion rules shaped her understanding of her gender and autonomy. Like “Ninety-Five Senses,” the narrative of “Our Uniform” is plain and direct, but the latter shows the most creative animation concept of the group; illustrations move against a backdrop of various fabrics, with characters running around buttons and along seams.

In the quiet but harrowing French short “Pachyderme,” from the director Stéphanie Clément, a young girl tells of her summers with her grandparents in the country. The robust art style — each shot is as beautifully shaded as a painting — and sedated narration create the sense of a Grimm fairy tale, showing how seemingly innocuous details can hide something menacing beneath.

The unspoken monster in “Pachyderme” mirrors the ever-morphing monster in the breathtaking “Letter to a Pig,” directed by Tal Kantor. In the film, a Holocaust survivor tells a classroom of young students about the pig who saved his life. Though the movie never details the atrocities of the war, it paints just as chilling a picture through incisive visual metaphors. The animation, which morphs from bare-bones line drawings in black and white to fleshy watercolor pinks to 3-D realism, creates a sophisticated, heart-wrenching account of a tragedy.

Juxtaposed with such a remarkable war story, Dave Mullins’s “War Is Over! Inspired by the Music of John and Yoko” feels pat. In an alternate World War I, soldiers on both sides find a way to connect. A telegraphed death and the idealistic crooning of John Lennon and Yoko Ono make this the least impressive of an otherwise strong category of films about the darker parts of humanity.

Only one documentary short nominee this year has the full balance of human interest, social relevance and aesthetic appeal that tends to make a winner.

It’s “The Last Repair Shop,” directed by Ben Proudfoot, who won two years ago, for “The Queen of Basketball,” a New York Times Opinion production, and the composer Kris Bowers, who was nominated with Proudfoot for “A Concerto Is a Conversation,” another Times Opinion documentary. This time, both have made their documentary with The Los Angeles Times. But it’s a better movie, and it happens to have a Los Angeles subject.

The repair shop of the title fixes instruments for the city’s school district; according to the opening text, that service has been offered to students for decades. The movie presents the recollections of four specialists (in strings, brass, woodwinds and piano), who share their experiences of immigration, of coming to terms with being gay and even of opening for Elvis in a bluegrass band, a long-term payoff of buying a $20 fiddle at a swap meet. Schoolchildren further testify to how music affects their lives. The generational contrast gives “The Last Repair Shop” a pleasing shape and helps it make an uninflected case for the importance of financing music education.

Sentimentality in “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” is a given. Directed by Sean Wang, who received his Oscar nomination just as his debut feature, “Dìdi,” was becoming a Sundance darling, the short profiles Wang’s two grandmothers, who are so close they even sleep in the same bed. Wang depicts them as cut-ups (he films them arm-wrestling, watching “Superbad” and generally being goofballs), which is sweet, but the subject is a bit too easy. The doc never transcends being a professional-grade home movie.

It is also no trick to wring pathos from a centenarian World War II widow speaking out against a censorious Florida school board — something that happens in “The ABCs of Book Banning,” directed by the longtime HBO documentary chief, Sheila Nevins, now at MTV. The heart of the film is children talking about books that authorities have removed or considered removing from schools. While using kids might seem cheap, they are unfailingly thoughtful. “It’s like you’re trying to slow down children’s reading,” says a fourth-grader named Ruth Anne of those who would remove books from shelves.

John Hoffman and Christine Turner’s “The Barber of Little Rock” centers on Arlo Washington, who started a barbers’ college and then a nonprofit fund with the specific goal of helping underserved Black residents of Little Rock, Ark. The short splits the difference between observing Washington and his fund at work and presenting polished interviews with him and others. The first approach is more effective than the second.

Finally, “Island in Between,” a Times Opinion documentary by the Taiwan-born director S. Leo Chiang, explores questions of national identity through the lens of Kinmen, islands that are governed by Taiwan but geographically closer to mainland China. It’s the least pushy, least resolved title in the lineup, which means it barely stands a chance.