If, as a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch joked, white male rage is the common denominator in many of this year’s feature nominees, then family — the kind you’re born into and the kind you make — is the hallmark of the shorts.
As they do every year, area theaters will present three separate programs of the Oscar-nominated shorts: animated, live action and documentary. In addition to Landmark’s commercial run, the National Archives will also offer its annual free screenings of all nominated shorts in its William C. McGowan Theater (use the special events entrance on Constitution Avenue at Seventh Street NW). Doors for the Archives’ ever-popular presentations open 45 minutes before start time. Reservations can be made by calling 202-357-6814 or visiting archivesfoundation.org/events. The schedule is as follows:
Live action: Feb. 8 at noon.
Animated: Feb. 8 at 3:30 p.m.
Documentary: Feb. 9 at 11 a.m.
Here are this year’s nominees, with our prediction about which film will win.
Two of the live-action shorts share a weird synergy: “Brotherhood” and “Nefta Football Club” center on brothers in Tunisia. In the first film, the eldest of several Tunisian brothers returns home from Syria, where his family suspects he had run off to join ISIS (the film’s title is also a play on the Muslim Brotherhood.) The tension with the young man’s father, who looks especially askance at his son’s teenage, niqab-wearing bride, is palpable, leading to a shocking choice. “Nefta” has a much lighter twist, and concerns two boys who face a hard decision after they come across a headphone-wearing donkey carrying several bags filled with white powder. Don’t worry: It’s a comedy.
Inspired by the true story of a Guatemalan orphanage, where, in 2017, 41 children perished in a fire, “Saria” focuses on the friendship between two of those girls. “The Neighbor’s Window” is more fanciful, and concerns the connections between the residents of two apartments with facing windows. Although it involves voyeurism of a sort, it’s no “Rear Window.” Rather, it’s a story of a touchingly unexpected commonality that can be discovered by complete strangers.
Our pick: Commonality also the theme of the Belgian thriller “A Sister,” in which two women — one in jeopardy and the other working in an emergency-services call center — are, for the film’s taut, 16 minutes, tethered by a nerve-racking phone connection.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material, drugs, nudity, sex, mistreatment of children and coarse language. 104 minutes.
Stop-motion puppetry is in full effect this year, with three of the five nominees — “Sister,” “Daughter” and “Memorable” — utilizing the labor-intensive animation technique. It’s put into especially effective service in poignant stories about, respectively, China’s one-child policy, the legacy of an emotionally distant parent and an elderly married couple struggling with the dementia of the husband, a painter.
As for the other two candidates: “Hair Love” is a bittersweet charmer about an African American father struggling to tame his little girl’s unruly locks; and “Kitbull” — from SparkShorts, a low-budget incubator under the Pixar umbrella — tells the story of a tentative relationship between a feral kitten and a pit bull who can’t hack the dogfighting ring.
“Kitbull” has a hand-drawn look that belies the slick style more commonly associated with its parent studio, not to mention a fairly sobering subject. But despite the mainstream appeal of its central story — one of interspecies animal friendship — it doesn’t pack quite the emotional, visual or storytelling wallop of the stop-motion offerings. (In addition to the five nominees, Landmark’s animation showcase will, as always, mix in a few films that weren’t nominated to pad out the program. One of them, “Henrietta Bulkowski,” a stop-motion tale of a hunchbacked woman who dreams of becoming a pilot, features the voices of Chris Cooper and Ann Dowd. It’s not up for an Oscar, but it’s a delight.)
Our pick: “Sister,” from Chinese-born, Los Angeles-based Siqi Song, who tells a story of phantom longing, using felted wool dolls and a de-saturated, almost black-and-white color palette.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains some mature thematic material and brief strong language. 85 minutes.
This year’s nonfiction shorts run the gamut from the feel-good “Walk Run Cha-Cha,” a lovely story of a Vietnamese immigrant couple for whom dancing is more than exercise or entertainment (made under the auspices of the New York Times’s acclaimed Op-Docs program), to the feel-very-very-bad. “In the Absence” tells the story, in excruciating, ticktock fashion, of a 2014 ferry accident off the coast of South Korea that killed more than 300 passengers because of a chain of official incompetence.
Two of the nominees fall somewhere between those extremes: “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl)” profiles the Kabul outpost of Skateistan, an international nonprofit that offers formal schooling and skateboarding lessons in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa. “St. Louis Superman” is a portrait of Bruce Franks Jr., a Missouri battle rapper who ran for the state legislature — and won — after being spurred to activism by the epidemic of gun violence in his titular hometown, one instance of which hit, sadly, very close to home. Both films balance inspirational messages with gritty realism about life and death.
Our pick: Ever heard of resignation syndrome? Neither had I, before “Life Overtakes Me.” This utterly fascinating Netflix film looks at several immigrant families seeking asylum in Sweden, where the condition — a medical mystery also known as traumatic withdrawal syndrome — has affected hundreds of children, putting them into a sleeplike, catatonic state for months, most likely because of the stress and uncertainty of being in migrant limbo. It’s a mesmerizing, deeply unsettling and ultimately hopeful gem of nonfiction storytelling.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material and some coarse language. 160 minutes.