Assessing the three hardest Oscar categories – the short film races (Hint: It helps to see them)

For most people, the news that the Oscar-nominated short films will soon (Feb. 8) be coming to a theater near you may not be the hallelujah moment it is for lovers of the short form and for those nerds among us trying to get a leg up in our office Oscar pool.

The three short film categories – documentary, live-action and animated – at the Oscars are invariably the hardest ones to handicap, especially if you haven’t seen them and when meeny, miney, mowing them only gives you a 20% chance of picking the winners. Yet, there they are, three mysteries that can ruin your ballot or put you on top.

I’ve just finished watching all 15 nominees and know which ones I like best. But picking the eventual winners at the Academy Awards is still a chore. Based on our predictions Pixar’s “Bao” is a huge favorite to win animated short. “Black Sheep” is likewise favored for documentary short. And “Marguerite” tops the list for live-action short.

I would have thought different in each case, so I guess I’m rooting for longshots. Here’s how they look to me (minor spoilers ahead):

Best Animated Short
By the odds: “Bao,” “Weekends,” “Animal Behavior,” “One Small Step,” “Late Afternoon.”

By my account:

“Weekends” is a beautifully hand-drawn story about a young boy being shuffled between the countryside home of his depressed mother and the Toronto apartment of his distracted father. It packs the context and wallop of a solid feature film into its 15-minute running time.

“Bao” (8 min.) is gorgeous to look at, as is the case with every Pixar film, and it’s unwise to vote against them. But this story about a Chinese woman who spits out a dumpling after it cries out in pain and raises the little dough-something as the son she’s lost, was a little off-putting for me. She spit out a dumpling?

“Animal Behavior” is the comic relief on the ballot, a 14-minute cartoon about a group therapy session led by a becalmed, bespectacled pitbull that is disrupted by a gorilla who shows up with bullying and anger management problems.

“Late Afternoon” (8 min.) is a bittersweet, mostly sweet, Irish short about an elderly woman who thinks her caregiving daughter is just a helpful friend until she floats through the memories of her life and realizes the truth.

“One Small Step” (7 min.). A Chinese-American girl dreams of becoming an astronaut but lacks the discipline to become one while disrespecting her doting father until after he’s gone. The sequel could be titled “Brat in Space.”

PREDICT the Oscar winners now; change them until February 24

Best Live-Action Short
By the odds: “Marguerite,” “Skin,” “Detainment,” “Fauve,” “Mother.”

By my account:

“Fauve” (17 min.) won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and it’s easy to see why. The French-language Canadian film follows two rambunctious  boys as they try to out-prank each other around an abandoned surface mine in Quebec and end up in a gut-wrenching world of trouble.

“Marguerite” (19 min.) is another moving French-Canadian short but with a different kind of punch, as it tells the story of an elderly woman looking back on an unrequited love following a revelation by her caregiver.

“Skin” (20 min.). Like those “Death Wish” movies, this one – about skinheads and retribution – leaves you wondering whether to feel good or bad about what you’ve just seen.

“Detainment” (30 min.) is an unnecessary and morbidly troubling dramatic account of two 10-year-old boys who became England’s youngest convicted murderers for their torture-killing of a toddler they led away from a shopping center.

“Mother” is a maddening 19-minute first act of a story about a Spanish woman who gets a telephone call from her six-year-old son who has been abandoned on an isolated beach by his father. No second act? No third act? No good.

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Best Documentary Short
By the odds: “Black Sheep,” “End Game,” “Lifeboat,” “A Night at the Garden,” “Period. End of Sentence.”

By my account:

“End Game”: Thanks to the willing patients, their families and caregivers, this 40-minute film about palliative care for the terminally ill is a tribute to those whose humanity is their calling.

“Lifeboat” (34 min.): In the middle of the night, ships manned by German volunteers ply the waters off the Libyan coast rescuing migrants in overcrowded rubber dinghies and wooden boats. Interviews with survivors puts a face on the evils they risk their lives to leave behind.

“Black Sheep” (26 min.): Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like re-enactment documentaries. I don’t like Civil War re-enactments, either. That said, the narrator of this film, a black man looking back on the extremes he went to in order to fit in with racist teens in his London neighborhood, has a powerful, heart-breaking story. I’d rather read it than see it.

“Period. End of Sentence.”: A shocking statistic given early in this 26-min story about one man’s effort to manufacture sanitary pads for Indian women is that 90% of the girls and ladies there use non-absorbent cloth. Industrialization is a wonderful thing.

“A Night at the Garden”: Seven minutes is not enough time to give this horrific event, a night in 1939 when 20,000 American Nazis gathered at Madison Square Garden to sieg hiel and praise anti-Semitism, its due. The footage is revolting, but just a glimpse of the story.

Be sure to check out how our experts rank this year’s Oscar contenders. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your own 2019 Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on February 24.


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