REVIEW: ‘The Oscar-Nominated Short Films – Documentary’ (2011)

Grade: B+

Over the past week, I have been fortunate enough to review most of the fifteen Short Films nominated for an Oscar this year, thanks to their theatrical release through ShortsHD. While the Live-Action and the Animated Shorts came to my town at the same time, I had to wait an extra week for the Documentary Shorts. That’s something of a shame, seeing how it is normally the nonfiction work that most deeply affects me in these categories. Sure enough, the collective documentaries were the strongest of the three shorts categories this year, with almost all of them bringing me to a point of empathy, gratitude, outrage, or all of the above.

Let’s do a run-down of (with one very unfortunate exception) the Documentary Shorts nominated for an Oscar this year:

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If Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s Incident in New Baghdad (US) has any one thing working against it, it’s that its nomination comes a year after the Academy nominated the gut-wrenching short documentary Poster Girl, which similarly deals with an Iraq War veteran coming to terms with the horrible sights they saw and acts they committed while serving. Even though Incident is centered around a more urgent current event (2010’s Wikileaks scandal), it is less expertly focused on its subject than Poster Girl, an admittedly angrier and more effective film. Overall, I appreciate what Curry and Cullman are aiming for, but too little about their subject seems sufficiently analyzed to warrant giving this one an Oscar.
5-Word Review: Not the best Iraq doc. | Grade: B-

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Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Saving Face (US/Pakistan) – the story of several women who are forced to live with the aftermath of the disfiguring acid attacks they survived at the hands of their husbands – is perhaps better-suited to the short-documentary format than any of its competitors. Its subject matter is so grim that even thinking about a feature-length treatment is almost too much to bear; I know I had a difficult time watching at numerous points. Junge and Obaid Chinoy manage to inject a great deal too say in its short running-time though; they show how this epidemic of violence affects Pakistan both societally and politically, while at the same time never forgetting the deeply personal trauma these women are forced to endure. Seen chiefly through the eyes of a plastic surgeon who hopes to help these victims, Saving Face also injects a terrible story with a modicum of hope. If any one of the fifteen nominated shorts deserves to be sought out and seen, it’s this one.
5-Word Review: Possibly my very favorite short | Grade: A-

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Though the notion of life and death is perhaps the most fundamental concept of our existence, fusing the two into a single creative work is a tougher, more complicated hat-trick than might be expected. That Lucy Walker accomplishes this in a paltry forty minutes with her film The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (US/Japan) is a remarkable achievement and, given both its urgency and effectiveness, it is likely to win. Though the film does not center around a specific individual or their personal losses for particularly long, Walker’s eye still magnificently captures the magnitude of personal loss that so many experienced on March 11. Brilliantly juxtaposed against the destruction is how survivors cling to the seasonal tradition of watching the cherry blossoms bloom; it beautifully exemplifies the feelings of rebirth and hopefulness that many have now chosen to cling to.
5-Word Review: Urgent, and the likely winner. | Grade: B+

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Before he died in 2009 at the age of 85, the unthinkable happened to James Armstrong: he lived to see a black man be elected President of the United States. Mr. Armstrong, an African American man who lived through and demonstrated against the worst of 1950’s and 1960’s-era segregation, is the subject of Gail Dolgin and Robyn Fryday’s The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement. The film chronicles Mr. Armstrong’s feelings of anticipation during the 2008 presidential election and the 2009 inauguration, allowing him the chance to recount his fascinating tales as one of the many people who demonstrated in favor of civil rights for African Americans. While the film chooses not to ruminate on how racism operates today, it remains a loving tribute to the countless individuals – given a face by Mr. Armstrong – who historically fought in favor of justice.
5-Word Review: Important story about important patriots. | Grade: B+

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The fifth film, Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson’s God is the Bigger Elvis (US), unfortunately did not screen alongside its fellow nominees, reportedly due to distribution issues. That’s somewhat dismaying, as this story about a woman who chose a life in a convent over a life in Hollywood sounds like the breeziest, most uplifting of the nominated films. Cammisa and Anderson’s film will be premiering April 5th on HBO.

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Click here for my reviews of this year’s Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts and click here for my reviews of this year’s Oscar-nominated Live-Action Shorts. Check out the ShortsHD Official Site for information on where and when the shorts might be playing near you.

Did you catch the Oscar-Nominated Documentary  Shorts? Which of the five (four?) was your personal favorite? Which one do you expect to win on February 26?

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