Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Always a great presentation and fantastic trip to the movies, you have to look fast because the short films are only in theaters for a few weeks, prior to the Oscars.
Oscar pools and Oscar party contests can be won and lost with the Short Film categories. Experiencing these nominees achieves both a better chance at victory and the opportunity to see some terrific and original films.
Casual movie watchers tend to watch high profile, big name star movies and convincing people to watch short films is a challenge. No matter how good these films are, a large number of people are not going to care much.
You are not a fan of a wide range of genres and themes. You never know what you are going to get with these short film presentations and that mix of styles can throw people off.
Every year, the ballot busters for Oscar pools and Oscar parties are the short film categories. Some advocate for their removal from the televised ceremony. Others seek them out e very February and celebrate the creativity that lies within each slate of nominees. I, for one, love uncovering these each year, as well as other short films which gain traction within the industry and hope to make it to the highest stage possible – the Academy Awards.
Each year, ShortsTV and Shorts International secure the rights to the 15 short film nominees in the Animation, Live Action, and Documentary Short Subject categories and release them as individual screening packages in theaters. The week before the Oscars, they shift them to digital platforms for people to buy and watch at home.
The Short Film packages have proven wildly popular. Each year, the box office numbers have grown and the mini-film festival idea has really caught hold with Oscarwatchers, and those genuinely curious about the potential next wave of storytellers and filmmakers out in the world.
Before these nominees received theatrical distribution in 2005, the short film nominees were nearly impossible to find. Now, we cannot envision an Oscar season without them playing at a theater near us.
And so, without any further ado, let's dive into this year’s nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject.
Edith+Eddie | 29 Minutes
Directed by Laura Checkoway
Initially, Edith+Eddie was designed to spotlight the oldest interracial newlyweds, Edith, aged 96, and new husband, Eddie, at a sprightly 95 years young. We see them living their lives together, learn of their past and improbable connection around a lottery ticket. Instantly we find them, well, adorable.
However, soon after the film's prologue comes to an end, Laura Checkoway's documentary takes a different turn. We learn that one of Edith's daughters, who lives in Florida (the couple reside in Virginia) has a guardianship over Edith's estate. There are allegations of dementia and a social worker has been assigned to work with the estranged daughter in managing her mother's affairs. From far away, the daughter claims Edith and Eddie's marriage is invalid, that a sister helping look after their mother is not taking care of her, and she demands Edith be relocated to Florida.
To reveal more would do the film a disservice, but Edith and Eddie's late-in-life happiness becomes disrupted and the movie becomes something completely different by the end.
A sobering essay on elder care, senior citizen's rights, and the power, or lack thereof, elderly people over their treatment and care, Edith+Eddie becomes a maddening, upsetting story that likely plays out far too often in this country, with Checkoway happening onto one devastating story worth telling.
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 | 40 Minutes
Directed by Frank Stiefel
Mindy Alper is a tremendous subject for a documentary, or really a film of any kind. After battling debilitating anxiety and depression for most of her life, she uses her remarkable gifts as a visual artist to connect with the world that has often treated her poorly and misunderstood her.
Director Frank Stiefel empowers Alper to tell her story and devotes all 40 minutes of the film to her, angling around her work on an upcoming art installation where she uses Papier-mâché and wire configurations to make astonishing larger-than-life human sculptures.
The film gives voice to the type of person who is largely voiceless in our media. Alper went a decade or so without talking and when she speaks, she speaks with a unique diction and offers a truly fascinating view of the world. Stiefel's film seems to run out of things to say, however, and at 40 minutes could benefit from being a little bit more succinct and efficient.
However, Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is largely a delight to watch, offering us the chance to get to know a remarkable person who simply has only wanted to co-exist in a world that has largely shunned, ignored, and misunderstood her.
Heroin(e) | 39 Minutes
Directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon
From this category's reigning champion, Netflix (The White Helmets won this category last year), Heroin(e) is a powerful look at the opioid crisis in America, fixing its gaze upon Huntington, West Virginia, the place with the most opioid-related overdoses and deaths in the country.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon's film looks at three women who are in the trenches everyday: Jan Rader, a fire chief, Necia Freeman, a missionary, and Judge Patricia Keller, who hears numerous drug court cases every week. Sheldon allows us the time to get to know each woman, see them in their day-to-day work, and watch their persistence and perseverance never waver when faced with another overdose, another drug charge, or another women turning to the streets to make a living.
Heroin(e) resonates so strongly because the women at the front lines of this fight are people we relate to. These three women are heroes. And even if the job never seems to offer much in the way of hope and resolution, they work each and every day to try and save people's lives, be it through education, repairing lives, or enforcing restrictions that ultimately serve a greater good than a life without any boundaries at all.
Heroin(e) doesn't pander to its audience, there is no message of "all is going to be fine." Instead, Sheldon shows us that this problem is immense, under-reported, but those in the fight are not stopping anytime soon.
Knife Skills | 40 Minutes
Directed by Thomas Lennon
Oscar winner Thomas Lennon (The Blood of Yingzhou District) returns to the nomination slate with Knife Skills, a fascinating look inside the world of a French, fine dining restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. This is not like every other restaurant however, as Edwins is owned by a formerly incarcerated man who attempts to create the best of both worlds - a place where customers can experience terrific cuisine, but also create a staff composed of formerly incarcerated individuals.
The owner and founder, Brandon Chrostowski, runs a tight ship, but as Lennon shows us, he wants the best for all involved. We join Brandon prior to the grand opening, where he brings in more than 80 people to train and work through the first class of attendees to the Edwins Institute. Some thrive, some falter, but all are bonded by getting a second chance to reinvent themselves in an environment that pushes them to work hard and succeed.
Knife Skills is an honest depiction, showing us characters who make mistakes, flourish and flounder, and Brandon, who is tough but fair and supportive. The creation of Edwins is a terrific story and the fact that they are thriving in 2018, offering more and more courses for formerly incarcerated individuals is a testament to Brandon truly giving back and practicing what he preaches.
Traffic Stop | 30 Minutes
Directed by Kate Davis
A movie that presents as another look at racially-motivated police aggression takes a different turn, in the terrific and memorable Traffic Stop. The subject of the film is 26-year-old elementary school teacher Breaion King, an African-American woman who was pulled over and violently arrested in an Austin, Texas parking lot when she simply was confused as to why she was stopped in the first place.
Director Kate Davis shows us the dash cam footage of the arrest, but we also get to see King's life, day-in, day-out, in the classroom, at her home, contrasted with the footage from the morning of her arrest. Going further, we see footage within a second police car, where King interacts with a different police officer and they discuss race relations between the African-American community and police department.
Traffic Stop has layers of complexity. In addition to the all-too familiar video footage of an overly aggressive and unnecessary arrest of an African-American individual, we also juxtapose King's life with the comments made by law enforcement, illustrating a perpetuation of misunderstandings and problematic perceptions that seem impossible to overcome.
King's story is different than we are accustomed to, but also, another example of fear and misconceptions being the default position people ascribe to nowadays.
Fantastic, from top to bottom, the Academy slate of nominees is among the best it has seen in this category in years. A case can be made for all of these films to win an Oscar, but, for me, Heroin(e) and Traffic Stop are at the top of the stack. They are current, timely, and immediate, tackling societal issues which impact us now. Each also takes a bleak topic and offers some glimmer of hope, which speaks volumes with Academy voters.
Knife Skills is a crowd pleaser, unflinchingly honest in showing people's imperfections, even when tackling a project to serve the greater good. Edith+Eddie is a powerful, emotional story with an ending you don't see coming, while Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 gives us a terrific individual to spend time with, even if the movie overstays its welcome a bit.
If I'm betting on the Oscar, Heroin(e) likely gives Netflix a second consecutive win in this category, but Traffic Stop and perhaps Edith+Eddie could take a golden statue home on March 4.
CAST & CREW
In theaters, this Documentary slate is shown in two parts, with an intermission between the first three films and the remaining two nominees.
Directors: Laura Checkoway (Edith+Eddie), Frank Stiefel (Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405), Elaine McMillion Sheldon (Heroin(e)), Thomas Lennon (Knife Skills), Kate Davis (Traffic Stop)
Release Date: February 9, 2018, with VOD availability on February 27, 2018