If you've ever participated in your office's Oscar pool, you'll know that there's one wild card that could eke you ahead in your guesses: the short film categories. But few Oscar prognosticators actually take the time to watch those shorts, which means filling out your fake ballot is often a mere guessing game.
Good news: We did the hard work for you. We watched all 15 of the competing shorts in the live-action, animated and documentary categories, and we've got a pretty good idea of the frontrunners. The Academy is famously unpredictable when it comes to these particular awards, but we're factoring in past wins and the actual quality of the films in question.
The live-action and animated shorts packages open at the River Park Square AMC this weekend, and while they're not easy sits, they're powerful, diverse and enlightening pieces of filmmaking. (Note: The live-action lineup is decidedly not kid-friendly, but the animated package would likely earn a mild PG-13 rating.)
Daughter (Czech Republic) — While her father is on his deathbed, a woman reflects on the emotional distance that defined their relationship.
Hair Love (U.S.) — A black father tries to do his daughter's hair for the first time, following the instructions of a beauty vlogger. What begins as a cute family comedy soon takes a turn toward waterworks.
Kitbull (U.S.) — A stray kitten and a pitbull that is used in dogfighting share the same junkyard, and an unexpected friendship develops.
Memorable (France) — Through shifting impressionistic painting styles, this film explores the deteriorating mental state of an artist slipping into dementia as his wife looks on.
Sister (China/U.S.) — A man reflects on his childhood in early 1990s China, when his younger sister came into his life and changed everything.
What will win: Don't be fooled by the "animated" part of the equation: All of these films are different degrees of heartbreaking. Hair Love and Kitbull are easily the sweetest of the bunch, and they have the added benefit of having been distributed by major studios (Sony for the former, Disney the latter). I'll go with Hair Love here: It has a bright, crisp animation style, it stealthily navigates tones and it's a lovely celebration of African-American culture.
Brotherhood (Tunisia) — Tensions flare within a rural family when one of the sons returns from a long absence with his pregnant wife, and it stirs his father's suspicions that he's with ISIS.
Nefta Football Club (Tunisia/France) — Two brothers wandering the Tunisian desert discover a literal drug mule, and bring a haul of cocaine back to their village with the rightful owners on their trail.
The Neighbors' Window (U.S.) — A married couple with kids can't tear their eyes away from the open windows of the beautiful young people in the apartment across the way. But looks can be deceiving.
Saria (U.S.) — Inspired by true events, this is a harrowing drama about the young women who were victims of abuse and sex trafficking inside a Guatemalan orphanage, and who planned a daring escape.
A Sister (Belgium) — An emergency telephone operator must use her instincts when her latest caller is trapped in a car with her assailant, trying to communicate her whereabouts without detection.
What will win: The Academy often goes for a short with a clever final twist or a big emotional payoff, so it seems like the two frontrunners here might be film festival favorite Nefta Football Club (which has the former) and The Neighbors' Window (which has the latter). Both films are pretty strong and are driven by involving short-form plots that build to an unexpected final reveal, but my gut tells me The Neighbors' Window could take the Oscar. It's a compact domestic drama, compellingly told, and its final shot is a haunting one.
In the Absence (South Korea) — In 2014, a ferry heading toward South Korea sank, and government neglect caused the deaths of most of its passengers, including hundreds of high school students. Years later, the surviving relatives demand an answer.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) (U.K.) — Amidst the war-torn landscape of Kabul, a school is teaching young girls to read and write and take on the world. Oh, and there's a class where they learn to shred a halfpipe.
Life Overtakes Me (Sweden/U.S.) — An examination of a medical mystery inflicting traumatized refugee children in Sweden, who are falling into a catatonic state known as Resignation Syndrome.
St. Louis Superman (U.S.) — Bruce Franks Jr. went from an activist in Ferguson, Missouri, to a government representative, and his legislative focus takes on the gun violence that has affected his own life.
Walk Run Cha-Cha (U.S.) — A Vietnamese couple who escaped their home country during the tumult of the late 1970s find a second life in the States, and a love for competitive ballroom dancing.
What will win: This category is always reliably heavy, and this year is no exception. Although a few of these end with a glimmer of hope, they are primarily dark stories meant to reflect the challenges of life on our planet. Every one of these films lands like a punch to the gut, but I'm leaning toward Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone as this year's inspirational winner. Don't be surprised if it inspires an acclaimed narrative feature somewhere down the line. ♦