In recent years, short films have gone from a moviegoer’s fringe benefit and/or a novice moviemaker’s calling card to the lingua franca of online entertainment. Short-form movies are everywhere — in dedicated film festivals, on popular indie streaming sites like Vimeo, MUBI, and Film Struck, all over YouTube and Instagram, on your laptop, television, and phone. You yourself make short films once a week or five times a day, and you probably don’t even realize it.
In this exploded new universe, the Academy Award for short subject — animated, live-action, and documentary — are more important than ever and a misleading tip of the iceberg. This year’s animated and live-action nominees are being presented at the Kendall starting Friday, in separate packages, and while the entries are strong, they’re far from definitive. As for whether they’re “the best” — well, the Oscars always have many overlapping and contradictory agendas, only one of which is quality.
Still, the bar remains high, especially among the stronger (and longer) live-action program. Written and directed by Reed Van Dyk, “Dekalb Elementary” may be the best of the bunch: a tense stalemate between a hulking school shooter (Bo Mitchell) and a front-office administrator (Cassandra Rice) who’s some kind of angel. The film squeezes the maximum of tension from a minimum of setup and ends up going surprising and moving places.
Just as powerful is Kevin Wilson Jr.’s “My Nephew Emmett,” about the final day and night of 14-year-old Emmett Till (Joshua Wright), lynched in Mississippi in 1955, as seen through the eyes of his weary Mississippi uncle, Mose Wright (L.B. Williams). Spare, hard, and focused, the film features Jasmine Guy as the doomed boy’s aunt.
“The Silent Child,” from Britain’s Chris Overton, is a heartbreaker about a deaf 4-year-old girl (Maisie Sly) and her caregiver (Rachel Shenton) that ends up being a plea for a broader inclusion of sign language in schools. Katje Benrath’s “Watu Wote — All of Us” dramatizes a true story in which Somali Muslims defended Christians during a bus attack by al-Shabaab terrorists; it’s very good while bearing an uncanny similarity to “Na Wewe,” a 2010 nominee for live-action short.
“The Eleven O’Clock,” directed by Derin Seale, is a welcome blat of humor in which a punctilious psychiatrist (screenwriter Josh Lawson) meets a new patient (Damon Herriman) who’s convinced he’s a psychiatrist; factor in an office temp (Jessica Wren) who has seen neither man before, and you have the makings of a nearly perfect who’s-on-first routine, Sigmund Freud edition.
The animated shorts are, um, shorter; most come in around the 5-minute mark and the program is filled out with three films that aren’t in this year’s Academy running (and weren’t available for preview): “Lost Property Office,” “Weeds,” and “Achoo.” The 2018 nominees themselves are a mixed bag. There’s the annual Disney/Pixar entry, which this year is “Lou,” a slight, charming, and rather bizarre tale in which the contents of a schoolyard lost-and-found bin animate into a creature bent on teaching life lessons to a bully.
The slickest and most sentimental animated short is “Dear Basketball,” a heartfelt mash note/farewell to the game written and narrated by retired Laker Kobe Bryant. Quite brilliantly animated in charcoal-drawing style by Disney’s equally legendary Glen Keane, it’s saddled with an overbearing John Williams score and seems here more for its bold-faced names than anything else.
The funniest animated short may be “Garden Party,” a gorgeously rendered digital tale of backyard amphibians taking over the aftermath of what looks like the pool party to end all pool parties; a ghoulish final twist only moderately spoils the fun. The most touching short is “Negative Space,” a handmade stop-motion adaptation of a poem by Ron Koertge about a son and father bonding through a perfectly packed suitcase.
The longest, at 20 minutes, is “Revolting Rhymes,” a British-German adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1982 book of fractured — and, as expected, grim — fairy tales. Using computer animation that, intentionally or not, looks crude next to a short like “Garden Party,” the film remixes “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White” with a tart sense of humor and a great deal of sympathy for the devil, in this case the Big Bad Wolf. The film is one of two made for the BBC, and it’s not clear why this one was chosen over the other. Perhaps it’s just the better animated object.
★ ★ ★ ½
The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2018: Live Action
★ ★ ★
The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated
At Kendall Square. 99 minutes (live action), 83 minutes (animated)