How did plebes like us ever handicap the Academy Awards before the “Oscar Nominated Short Films” programs started making the rounds of theaters around a decade ago? This year’s lineups, at the Kendall Square and streaming via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room, offer the usual bargain: a chance to look at some of the better short films out there as well as an occasion to wonder what on earth the Academy is thinking.
The live-action category is especially strong this year, full of passion and political anger that has been successfully transmuted into drama. “Two Distant Strangers” melds the Black Lives Matter movement with “Groundhog Day” in a tale of a man (an empathetic Joey Bada$$) who finds himself in a time loop in which he’s killed by the same New York cop (Andrew Howard, equally good) in different ways every day. Directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe balance horror, humanity, exhaustion, and resilience in clever and ultimately moving ways; the movie could win.
So could “The Letter Room,” which stars Oscar Isaac (directed by his wife, Elvira Lind) as a lonely prison guard assigned to vet the mail sent to the inmates. The poetic and erotic letters sent to one death row prisoner by his girlfriend start to obsess the guard, leading to a touching moment of connection. Isaac is terrific in the lead and makes you realize that the best performances in any given year aren’t always in the feature films.
Two shorts set in Israel offer stark and troubling human stories. Springing from a real occurrence in filmmaker Tomer Shushan’s life, the single-take “White Eye” follows a young Israeli (Daniel Gad) trying to retrieve a stolen bicycle and inadvertently setting off a heartbreaking chain of events. “The Present,” from director Farah Nabulsi, follows a Palestinian man (Saleh Bakri) and his young daughter (Mariam Kanj) as they try to bring home a new refrigerator and become ensnared in dehumanizing checkpoint bureaucracy. It’s a telling sign of the times that so many of these shorts bristle with fury at armed figures of authority: policemen here and abroad and soldiers demanding compliance with Byzantine webs of rules.
The animated shorts can be screened in a separate program (as can the nominated documentary shorts, reviewed separately and available only via the Coolidge), and aside from the wrenching “If Anything Happens I Love You” are less concerned with current events. That film, a wordless depiction of parents grieving a child killed in a school shooting, visually explores loss in heartfelt and powerful ways. By contrast, “Burrow,” a bunny tale from Pixar, is cute but awfully slight, and Iceland’s computer-animated slice of life “Yes People” is milder still. (Three non-nominated animated shorts from the Academy’s shortlist have been included to pad out the program; any of them would have filled the fifth slot better.)
Then there are the two most challenging works in the category. In the appealingly hand-made “Genius Loci,” Belgian animator Adrien Mérigeau explores urban spaces through a series of images and visual transformations that are anchored by a sense of melancholy exploration. If that sounds abstract, it is and sometimes overwhelmingly so, yet even at its most impenetrable, the film has a beguiling poetic logic. “Opera,” from ex-Pixar animator Erick Oh, is even harder to explain in words: A dazzling and damning portrait of human society in the shape of a pyramid, inside which tiny figures constantly act and interact, like ants hastening their own end. Oh claims to have been influenced by Renaissance artists like Botticelli, but you can see Hieronymus Bosch here too, as well as modern graphic artists like Chris Ware. More art installation than traditional cartoon, “Opera” may be too out there to win an Oscar, but it’s by far the most visionary piece in a piecemeal package.
OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2021: LIVE ACTION
At Kendall Square and streaming via the Coolidge Corner. 130 minutes. Unrated (violence and tragedy)
OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2021: ANIMATED
At Kendall Square and streaming via the Coolidge Corner. 99 minutes. Unrated.