It’s easy to forget that the Oscars celebrate not only the best feature films of the year, but the best short films, too. To qualify, the nominated shorts must be 40 minutes or less, including credits, and, though the category sees more foreign films competing than in feature categories, films are required to either be predominantly in English or provide English-language subtitles. The winning shorts are generally those that either pull at viewers’ heartstrings most effectively or tackle the heaviest and most political themes.
This year’s live-action shorts stay grounded in reality — there’s no science-fiction or fantasy to be found, here — but still cover a wide range of human experiences. Some are somber from the outset, others seem comical; some are based on real events, others aren’t; but all ultimately emphasize the importance of empathy and kindness.
The five nominees, submitted from all over the world, all demonstrate the power of storytelling, and well deserve a spotlight during movies’ biggest night. It’s not just the longest features (The Irishman and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, I’m looking at you) that deserve recognition.
Theatrical runs of all the Oscar-nominated shorts will begin Jan. 29 and run through Jan. 31.
16 minutes, directed by Delphine Girard
What it’s about: A kidnapped woman attempts to communicate with a 911 call center operator while her kidnapper is still with her — by pretending she’s calling her sister.
Why it might win the Oscar: Girard is a deft storyteller, first letting us see the call play out solely from the perspective of the kidnapped woman — and inviting her audience to simply feel out the fact that something is wrong — before doubling back and adding the call center operator’s dialogue. The tension only rises as the call center tries to locate the woman without putting her in further danger.
Why it might not: This is a film focused on the craft of storytelling. That it doesn’t have a moral or point isn’t a bad thing, but not the kind of thing that Oscar voters normally go for.
The Neighbors’ Window
20 minutes, directed by Marshall Curry
What it’s about: A middle-aged married couple have a clear line of sight into the apartment across from them, and become obsessed with its hip and young new tenants.
Why it might win the Oscar: Curry resists going straight down the jealousy path as the main couple start feeling inadequate and instead turns into a tale about our misconceptions about the lives and wants of others. The message — that the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence — is an obvious one. But lead actress Maria Dizzia helps take The Neighbors’ Window beyond a farce about voyeurism and into genuinely striking territory, as her character comes to appreciate what she has.
Why it might not: Curry has crafted a good story, but the point behind it may be a bit trite. And while the film’s more comic leanings make it fun to watch, Oscar voter logic tends to lean in the opposite direction.
NEFTA Football Club
17 minutes, directed by Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi
What it’s about: A pair of young brothers come across bags full of drugs in the middle of the Tunisian desert.
Why it might win the Oscar: Of its fellow nominees, NEFTA Football Club weaves the most elements together, and does it the most successfully. The bags of drugs, for instance, are carried by a donkey who listens to Adele on a pair of headphones. The brothers, meanwhile, share a love of soccer (football) but have completely different understandings of what they’ve found, leading to a hilarious conclusion.
Why it might not: The number of stories that NEFTA Football Club is juggling can feel disorienting, and not all of them are resolved.
23 minutes, directed by Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebvre
What it’s about: Two sisters attempt to escape their abusive orphanage, and experience a horrible tragedy.
Why it might win the Oscar: The story that Buckley and Lefebvre are telling is based on real events. In 2017, following a breakout at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala, 41 young women died in a fire after the police guarding the room refused to let them out. The filmmakers’ focus on the relationship between the two sisters is sweet — they talk about love (romantic and platonic) and their loyalty to each other — and add another layer of emotion to the story.
Why it might not: While the film is a powerful indictment of a corrupt and broken system, the real-life tragedy is perhaps one that deserves a more thorough exploration.
25 minutes, directed by Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon
What it’s about: A Tunisian family is turned upside-down when their eldest son returns home after fighting in Syria, and brings his new, pregnant wife along with him.
Why it might win the Oscar: Of the five nominees, Brotherhood is the most beautifully shot, and is explicitly political in nature: the returning son has been recruited by ISIS. As the family’s story unfolds, the reason he’s back — and exactly who he’s brought with him — slowly comes to light. The father, who is unwilling to welcome his son back, is forced to reckon with the actions his assumptions set into motion, and his love, despite everything, for his children.
Why it might not: Brotherhood is the longest live-action nominee, and feels it. The family drama is wrenching, but also feels like the beginning of a longer movie rather than a contained piece.