Grade: B

Want to impress your friends at an Oscar party? The ten short films nominated for the 2020 Oscars, five each in the live-action and animated categories, are currently being shown in theatres—a rare opportunity to see films of this length on the big screen; and if you can comment on them knowledgeably, your fellow viewers will be astonished. 

With a few exceptions, they are a very serious bunch, and as a group they have a real international flavor and are well worth taking notice of.

If one is looking for laughs, there are three choices, one among the live-action entries and two among the animated.  On the live-action side, that would be “NEFTA Football Club,” by Yves Piat.  The stars are two Tunisian brothers (Eltayef Dahoui and Mohammed Ali Avari), both soccer fans, who happen upon a donkey in the desert bearing a load of drugs.  They abscond with it, though what happens to the drugs provides a humorous punch-line.  Meanwhile the donkey’s sad-sack owners search for it; in the process they’ll explain why the animal was, incongruously, wearing headphones.

Of the two animated crowd-pleasers “Hair Love,” from Sony Animation, is a fast-paced, genial piece by former NFL player Matthew A. Cherry about a doting father’s efforts to help his daughter deal with her unruly hair and ensure that she manages to get the style she wants; it too has a twist at the close.  Rosana Sullivan’s “Kitbull”  is a sweet, sentimental fable about a tiny alley cat that helps a newly-arrived pit bull escape from its abusive owner.  It’s from Pixar, which won the award last year with “Bao,” and could do so again.  If “Hair Love” were to win this year, on the other hand, it would represent another victory for a sports figure—the late Kobe Bryant, of course, took home the award for “Dear Basketball” two years ago. 

The remaining seven entries are more intense fare.  Among the animated nominees, Daria Kashcheeva’s “Daughter” features stop-motion puppets representing a hospitalized man and the daughter from whom he’s been estranged as a result of an incident shown in flashback.  Bruno Collet’s “Memorable,” also using stop-motion puppetry, is about an artist suffering from dementia and his supportive wife.  Both are technically extraordinary, and deal with the subject of loss with artistry and, especially in the case of “Memorable,” some sharp shafts of humor.

The final animation entry is Siqi Song’s “Sister,” about a young boy talking in a meandering fashion about his family, especially his often troublesome little sibling.  It’s a semi-hallucinatory piece with a twist ending that has special relevance to the country of origin—China—but has universal pertinence as well. 

The four remaining live-action entries are somber, often harrowing.  The lightest of the bunch is Marshall Curry’s “The Neighbor’s Window,” about a couple (Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller) with three kids living in a high rise and observing a younger couple across the street enjoying what appears to be an uninhibited life that makes them jealous; but in the end they find that appearances can be deceiving. Delphine Girard’s “A Sister” (note the article!) is about a woman (Selma Alaoui) who’s been assaulted and kidnapped by a man, but persuades him to let her call her “sister”—actually a woman on a 911-line (Veerle Baetens)—trying to get help through a conversation that’s necessarily oblique.

Then there’s Bryan Buckley’s “Saria,” a grim, gritty tale of two sisters (Estefania Tellez and Gabriela Ramirez) in an orphanage where brutality is rampant.  It’s fictional, but based on speculation about what might have preceded a 2017 fire in a Guatemalan children’s institution that claimed more than forty lives.  Finally, Meryam Joobeur’s “Brotherhood,” set, like “NEFTA Football Club,” in Tunisia, is about a rugged shepherd (Mohamed Grayaa) who reacts angrily when his eldest son returns home after abandoning the family to fight with ISIS, bringing with him a pregnant Syrian bride apparently committed to the radical version of Islam he deplores.  Acrimonious misunderstandings will lead to decisions with painful consequences. 

In all, another intriguing lineup of short films in a series that’s become a worthwhile annual event.  And, of course, it will give you a leg up in those prediction contests at Oscar parties.

By the way, the animated package includes a few non-nominated shorts to bring the group up to feature length.