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‘2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action’ Review

March 4, 20245 Mins Read

Wes Anderson’s exquisite Roald Dahl adaptation helps lighten a lineup marked by serious treatments of grief, mental health and reproductive rights.

If the Academy judged features by the same standards that they do live action shorts, the best picture ballot would be full of starry, quasi-political issue movies: well-meaning but manipulative films like “Father Stu” and “The Janes.” In this category, it’s the message that matters to Oscar voters, which makes this year’s “2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action” program (available exclusively in theaters from ShortsTV) one of the most frustrating lineups in recent memory. Or it would, if not for the presence of one genuinely brilliant, liberatingly unserious nominee among them. That would be “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” the best of several delightful Roald Dahl adaptations director Wes Anderson cooked up for Netflix … but we’ll come to that in due time.

The slate opens with a far inferior Netflix short, “The After,” a risibly manipulative portrait of grief and finding the strength to move on in which every note feels contrived. “Selma” star David Oyelowo plays a businessman with his priorities in the wrong place. He’s distracted by work calls when a senseless tragedy befalls his wife and daughter in the background (such incidents do happen, but not in the hokey way photographer-turned-helmer Misan Harriman stages it). “The After” then skips forward a year to find the white-collar success story now working as a ride-share driver, wincing at every reminder of the life he took for granted. Oyelowo is a gifted actor, but it’s unfair asking him to radiate so much pain within such a condensed running time — and downright unreasonable expecting us to share his catharsis when it comes so easily just a few minutes later.

In “Red, White & Blue,” Nazrin Choudhury offers a forcefully indignant response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Lit like a Nicholas Sparks movie, the heartland-set heart-wrencher opens on a diner waitress (Brittany Snow) during a work break, looking devastated by the results of a pregnancy test. She already has two kids she can barely support. How will she possibly afford an abortion? Choudhury shows this desperate single mother raiding her daughter’s piggy bank for the funds, then bringing the 11-year-old along for the trip from Arkansas (where they live) to Mississippi (where the procedure is still legal). This bonding moment proves memorable, thanks to a fraudulent twist. Turns out, Choudhury misdirected us from the outset, hiding information the characters know in order to make her point. Still, the focus on women sticking up for women is powerful stuff.

Guys have one another’s backs in “Knight of Fortune,” which is named for a Danish pop song. One needn’t be a tarot card reader to predict audiences will hear the tune performed before the 25-minute short is done — how and by whom become the film’s surprises. Karl (Leif Andrée) has been called to the mortuary to pay his respects to his late wife. “In this room, everything is allowed,” the oddly permissive attendant tells him. But Karl is stuck, unable to say his goodbyes, until meeting Torben (Jens Jørn Spottag), a fellow mourner with a similar blockage. Director Lasse Lyskjær Noer has more style than the two previous nominees, to the point voters may be reminded of last year’s comparably cutesy winner, “An Irish Goodbye,” although both movies suffer from a similar problem: Approaching morbid subjects with humor, they aim to be edgy but are in fact quite tame.

An hour into the program, we finally get a nominee that feels “Oscar worthy”: Canadian director Vincent René-Lortie’s enigmatic “Invincible,” which attempts to understand the death of Marc-Antoine Bernier, a childhood friend whose tragic fate is revealed in the opening moments. At age 14, the troubled kid drove a car into a river and drowned. The camera plunges in with him, pulling back to observe the boy underwater — except now, it’s two days earlier, and he’s home with family during a leave from the juvenile detention facility. An experienced music video and short film director, René-Lortie has a strong visual sense, but also the wisdom not to impose a personal interpretation on the teen’s rebellious actions. The mystery of this wild, restless soul has clearly haunted the helmer for years, and yet he allows the portrait to remain ambiguous, thanks to an outstanding lead performance from Léokim Beaumier-Lépine. Without the right actor, “Invincible” surely would have imploded.

The best of the bunch is the Wes Anderson short, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” which I’ve already reviewed at great length. One of four Roald Dahl doodles the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” director adapted for Netflix this year, the dense and delightfully intricate 40-minute tale received a glitzy big-screen premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year. (It appears sharper on the Netflix service than it does in ShortsTV’s unevenly assembled Oscar shorts program, which is always limited by the quality of files that filmmakers and studios provide.) Constructed as a winkingly self-aware story-within-a-story, the project boasts a starry ensemble playing multiple roles, including Ralph Fiennes as Dahl — not to mention an amusing montage in which Benedict Cumberbatch (as the title character) cycles through a number of ridiculous disguises.

The Academy has a dismaying record of snubbing the best film in this category, which could happen again if voters decide that Anderson is too established for the prize (at times, they seem to view this as a charity category in which to encourage new talents). Then again, with eight nominations to his name, Anderson is undoubtedly overdue, and anyone can tell he’s made a short for the ages: a clever fable that applies the director’s signature style to Dahl’s distinctive voice to unforgettable effect.

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