Peter Howell: Short, sharp and satisfying: Reviewing the Oscar nominated short films now screening in Toronto

Viewing the nominees in the three categories of short films at the Feb. 9 Academy Awards — animated, live action and documentary — is a refreshing pursuit at this time of year.

Running times for this year’s Oscar shorts contenders, which you can see on the big screen starting Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox, range from seven to 39 minutes, a welcome break from prestige pictures in the feature categories that can run three hours or more.

These compact gems, many of them prize winners or nominees at film festivals, play almost as a counterpoint to the big movies that grab the most awards buzz.

Many of the best of these abbreviated contenders tell stories of sisterly bonding (and sibling/parental tensions), exploring challenges and epiphanies on an intimate scale. They’re a bracing departure from the male-dominated narratives of such elongated nominees as war thriller “1917,” Tinseltown reckoning “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” mob saga “The Irishman” and rich vs. poor suspenser “Parasite.”

This year’s Oscar shorts are also more of a mystery than their feature cousins. Most don’t have celebrity stars that telegraph “hero” or “villain,” although several are based on real-life occurrences.

Here’s my take on the shorts at Oscars 2020, ranked in order of personal preference within each category:


“Kitbull” (3.5 stars out of 4)Rosana Sullivan, U.S.: Could there be more natural antagonists than a junkyard dog and a tiny kitten? In this dialogue-free delight from Disney/Pixar, a rebellious stray kitty and an abused and chained pit bull discover that friendship and ingenuity can exceed hostile instincts. Sullivan’s traditional cartoon style is far from the usual photo-realistic polish we often associate with Disney/Pixar, and don’t expect talking animals, but this is by far the most charming of the entries in this category. A shout-out, too, for Andrew Jimenez’s whimsical score.

“Memorable” (3.5 stars)Bruno Collet, France: An ode to Vincent van Gogh in the stop-motion animated story of a painter named Louis, who is losing his mind to dementia but not his sense of wonder. He and his devoted wife Michelle search for signposts as the real morphs into the unreal. Watching this is like stepping inside van Gogh’s legendary post-Impressionist paintings, with all the wild colours and swirling imagery that implies. It may not be a clinically definitive presentation of what it feels like to experience dementia and other brain-robbing infirmities, but it certainly feels like it.

“Daughter” (3 stars)Daria Kashcheeva, Czech Republic: A young woman watching over her gravely ill father in his hospital room recalls a childhood incident with an injured bird that tested father-daughter bonds. Stop-motion animation with papier-mâché characters gives “Daughter” a handmade look. But this adds to the emotional impact of a wordlessly surreal film that gives maximum impact to minimalism.

“Hair Love” (3 stars) — Matthew A. Cherry, U.S.: It’s a hairy situation for a dad when he’s called upon to deal with his daughter’s expressively unruly tresses, in a comic story with a life-affirming twist. Animated in traditional 2D style, the film illustrates the uniqueness of Black hair, a topic already explored by the Chris Rock-produced “Good Hair” and the current Sundance horror offering “Bad Hair.” This one does the strand in a way that’s guaranteed to make you smile, although there’s nothing here to raise an eyebrow over.

“Sister” (3 stars) — Siqi Song, China/U.S.: Many siblings have trouble coping when a new baby arrives in the family, and the protagonist here recalls a giant-sized one growing up in 1990s China. But can he really trust his memory? Filmed in black and white using characters made of felt, this may be the first movie ever to have stop-motion imagery set inside the womb. It will particularly resonate with people familiar with China’s tragic “one child policy” of decades past, which was studied in greater detail in “One Child Nation,” a lauded doc from Sundance 2019.


“Saria” (3.5 stars)— Bryan Buckley, U.S.: Orphaned sisters Saria and Ximena console and protect each other home in Guatemala where beatings, sexual abuse and other degradations are regular occurrences. They also plot escape, in this true story of bravery that takes a dark turn. A model of storytelling economy with sterling performances by its young cast, the film graphically demonstrates the dangers facing children in similar circumstances worldwide.

"The Neighbor's Window" is an Oscar-nominated short film directed by Marshall Curry.

“The Neighbors’ Window” (3.5 stars)— Marshall Curry, U.S.: Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” gets updated as a frisky pair of millennials move into the living-room-window view and obsessive thoughts of two stressed-out Gen X parents in a New York neighbourhood. “They’re like a car crash that you can’t look away from … a beautiful, sexy, young car crash,” says the mom. She’s always tired, he’s worried about being considered an “old geezer” at work. But maybe things aren’t what they seem, even through binoculars? Entertaining and insightful.

“A Sister” (3.5 stars)— Delphine Girard, Belgium: A man and woman drive at night along a highway, lost in their thoughts. But when a cellphone call to her “sister” turns out to be a coded distress signal to a female 911 dispatcher, the story surges — and so do pulses. Highly reminiscent of Gustav Moller’s Sundance 2018 feature hit “The Guilty,” but no less powerful for that.

In the Oscar-nominated short "Nefta Football Club," Tunisian children are playing football and discovera donkey with headphones on his ears and bags full of a white powder on his back.

“Nefta Football Club” (3.5 stars)Yves Piat, Tunisia/France: What’s a donkey doing wearing headphones in the Tunisian desert, near the Algerian border? Therein lies the semi-comic tale of two soccer-mad young brothers who find the beast, and also the bag of cocaine it is carrying that they assume is laundry soap — although the bumbling drug dealers who lost it know better. This is something of a shaggy donkey story, hard to figure out where it’s headed. But the kids are great and Adele’s “Someone Like You” makes for an amusing punch line.

“Brotherhood” (3 stars) — Meryan Joobeur, Tunisia: A prodigal-son tale with a “War on Terror” twist. When estranged elder son Malek returns from fighting in Syria to his rural Tunisia home, he has a teen bride in tow and a feared connection to ISIS. His mother and siblings welcome him back, but his father Mohammed is dangerously conflicted. There’s a lot to unpack in one short film, but the acting is impeccable.


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“In the Absence” (3.5 stars)— Yi Seung-Jun, South Korea: An overturned Korean ferry flounders in coastal waters like a wounded whale. As it begins to slip beneath the waves, the safety of 300 passengers and crew becomes more precarious, yet rescue workers argue about how best to evacuate them “in an orderly fashion.” A horror story in slow motion, this account of the 2014 MV Sewol tragedy unfolds in real time via cellphone videos, dashcam footage and new clips, showing the appalling failure of authorities to do the right thing. This should be required viewing for anyone involved with public safety.

"Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)", a short documentary filmed in Afghanistan by director Carol Desinger.

“Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” (3 stars) Carol Dysinger, U.K.: Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul is described as “one of the worst places in the world to be a girl,” with civil rights and basic schooling denied to many of them. The girls fight back at an inner-city school run by “Skateistan,” an agency that teaches the three “Rs” and also how to use skateboards for fun and confidence-building. It’s peaceful and practical form of rebellion, but not without serious risk as the anti-female Taliban returns as a serious threat. “They say skating is not for girls,” a student declares in this inspiring doc. “They say all kinds of things.”

“St. Louis Superman” (3 stars) Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan, U.S.: Bruce Franks Jr. is a battle rapper by vocation but a politician by circumstance, in this affecting chronicle that shows how to be a street politician in deed as well as word. Franks, 34, grew up in the shadow of violence in his Ferguson, Mo. hometown: his older brother was shot dead while playing baseball at the age of 9. Franks wins election to Missouri’s House of Representatives, seeking a way to end the epidemic of youth violence and also to honour his late bro, but he finds the road to righting wrongs has many speed bumps. Co-director Khan is from Toronto, making this presumably the category’s closest thing to a Canadian entry.

“Life Overtakes Me” (2.5 stars) — John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, Sweden/U.S.: This Netflix entry is like a sci-fi movie: hundreds of refugee children in Sweden, whose families face deportation back to their war-torn homelands, have fallen into a form of coma called Resignation Syndrome, a condition that can last months or years. Is it real or are they desperately faking to save their families? The docmakers avoid the usual talking-heads problem by inserting snow-covered scenery over voiceover commentary by medical and immigration personnel. Several families and their inert children are also visited, but the film is more about seeking sympathy than probing for answers.

“Walk, Run Cha-Cha” (2.5 stars) — Laura Nix, U.S.: Middle-aged couple Paul and Millie Cao, members of Vietnam’s minority Chinese population, first bonded in their home country over ballroom dancing, despite a Communist government edict banning the pastime. They immigrated to America, but had to endure a six-year separation that kept them off the dance floor. Can they regain their footing? Nix’s Op-Docs video for The New York Times beguiles but also tests the patience, even with its relatively brisk 21-minute runtime.

Peter Howell