2020 vintage: Strong Oscar-nominated short films

Picture of Julian Liurette

Julian Liurette

The Oscar-nominated live-action short films are always surprising, inspiring and this year’s five nominees did not disappoint. From the instagram-filtered to the politically charged, the films offered a glimpse into some of the issues facing our contemporary world. The films take place in the late 2010s in northern Africa, in Europe, North America and Central America.

As a side note, many of these films are available to watch online for free. I’ve included the links when available.

Une Soeur (A Sister) is a Belgian short film directed by a Delphine Girard. A woman in her late twenties is being driven by a man into the night. We are not sure where and why. The woman calls her sister but in reality she is calling the police. She wants them to help her escape this man. The film is suspenseful and tense. We wonder if the police will manage to help. It’s well played, filmed and we feel the intensity rising with every new conversation between the two “sisters.” It’s clever and reminiscent of The Guilty, the Danish film that took place from the point of view of a police officer on the phone trying to help someone being kidnapped. Unlike The Guilty, A Sister didn’t drag on and was intense till the end. It could have been even more intense and that would be my main comment about the film. 7.5/10

Brotherhood is a Syrian, Canadian, Tunisian, Qatari and Swedish co-production. The oldest son in a Tunisian family returns home after spending time with ISIS. He brings back a wife who wears a full niqab and who is pregnant. The two younger brothers and the mother are delighted for his return but his father has many qualms with him and his new wife. He is totally opposed to ISIS and their way of life.

This movie is visually the most beautiful of all five films. It’s presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio. It has a retro look reminiscent of the glory days of 1930/ black and white films but in colour. It has a very saturated colourful image, many extreme close-ups and many beautiful sceneries. It often felt like an Instagram filtered film but in a good way. At one point, the camera focuses on the mother and shifts to the background to reveal the windy trees behind her while she becomes blurry. It’s atypical but reveals so much about the mood. The topic was tackled in a subtle way, emotions were contained but rose at the end. It touches on a story that isn’t told much. How do you reconcile yourself with different beliefs within the same family? I wished the film had been more touching and clearer at the end. It’s nonetheless the least conventional film of the five. 7.5/10

The neighbor’s window is an American film set in New York City. A couple in their early thirties sit down one day in front of their window only to see their neighbour across the street engage in sexual intercourse in plain view in their own apartment. They are turned on by this especially since the woman watching is pregnant and they haven’t had sex in a while.

The film has a lighter comedic tone but juggles it with observations about the difficulty of raising kids while others can just have fun and enjoy their lives. It’s the only film in English of the five nominees and it’s the more conventional one of the five. It’s nonetheless told efficiently. It’s reminiscent of Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock minus the murder aspect. The film loses its rhythm in the second half only to be touching by the end. The action as well as the acting in the end felt forced but it worked. It’s ultimately a film about how the grass is always greener on the other side of the field until you realize that what you have is not so bad. 7.5/10

Saria is an American production but you wouldn’t know since the film takes place in Guatemala and all the characters speak Spanish. In 2017, lost in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle, Saria, a 14 year-old teenager rebels against the brutal authority in the orphanage where she’s living. We follow how she plans and where the rebellion takes her and others. They dream about escaping to the United States and Saria, in particular, hopes to thrive there with the other teenager she seems to be in love with.

This story is based on true tragic events which I had never heard of. The film opens with a bug walking on the floor next to human feet. It’s a metaphor for the entire story: the bug represents the trapped orphans and the large feet the authority that oppresses them. It’s a brutal story. It’s reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket. The orphan girls get woken up by the female guard every morning. She bangs her stick on every bed and says: “Despiertensen perras” (Get up bitches). It’s violent and we really feel for these characters. My only small criticism was the revolt: when it happened, it looked underwhelming. Close-ups rather than wide shots would have been more powerful as the wide shots seemed a little empty. However, that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise powerful film. The end credits are particularly touching. This could be the film that wins the Oscar. 8.5/10

Nefta Footbal Club is a French production but just like Saria, you wouldn’t know that since the film takes place in Tunisia. Two brothers find a mule roaming with headphones on the border between Tunisia and Algeria. The older brother discovers the mule is carrying large quantities of cocaine and decides to take them home to sell them to locals. In the process, he tells his little brother that it’s laundry detergent.

This was my favourite film of the five as Nefta Football Club has an unpredictable storyline. We are constantly wondering if something terrible is going to happen but something comical happens. It’s heavy and light, terrifying and uplifting. 9/10

It’s hard to predict which film will win the Oscar as they are all strong films. I think Saria will win but if the Oscars don’t want to get political, they might vote for the more “artsy” and powerful Brotherhood. However, if they want a feel good movie, they will vote for Nefta Football Club. If they want to go with a more conventional but nonetheless good film, they will choose My Neighbour’s window. Again, so hard to choose!

Seen with Douglas, Steve, Mika and Charles at Tiff Lightbox on Feb 1, 2020.

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