From worst to best:
5) Brotherhood, dir. Meryam Joobeur
One of the great burns on Glee was that time it came out that Santana said Will needed to be in a twelve-step program because he was addicted to vests, and I strongly second that feeling as regards Meryam Joobeur. Many of the worst tendencies in short films are here in Brotherhood, a movie which has its moments only if you can find them buried underneath self-conscious camera work and, you guessed it, a twist that changes everything. The eldest son, Malek, in a Tunisian family returns home from Syria, where he’s been fighting with ISIS. It turns out that he knows that was a terrible mistake, and the pregnant child wife he’s got in tow is in fact a survivor of multiple rapes by multiple ISIS soldiers. There must be some really dark stuff in Malek’s past as regards his father, but Brotherhood is not so forthcoming about those details, saying little more than Malek’s father pushed him too hard when he was young, and that Malek generally fears an ugly reaction from his father to the truth about Reem. Nowhere, though, is it made to seem like his relationship with his mother is so terrible, and yet he does not divulge any of the information that would make his stay at home bearable for himself, his wife, or his parents. There was a moment that Joobeur appears to have had in mind—Mohamed, who has already called the cops on his son, now stands above the beach, shouting Malek’s name—and the story appears to have been made backwards from that moment without serious consideration for whether or not that ending makes any sense. Maybe this is a slightly petty thing to say about movie that’s only twenty-five minutes long, but it would definitely have benefited from less. What does work in the movie is the chemistry between Malek and his brothers, which is actually understated and communicated in close-ups which recognize the brothers’ unusual, striking complexion. Malek gets a promise from the middle brother, Chaker, not to join ISIS, and the long silence which prefaces his response of “Okay” is the best moment of a movie that works best when it’s most interested in this most literal meaning of its title.
4) The Neighbors’ Window, dir. Marshall Curry
At first, it looks like we’re getting horny Rear Window, which I was definitely down for, but The Neighbors’ Window enters Lifetime territory at a rapid pace not long after the premise is given. A middle-aged couple in New York, overwhelmed with the children they have and the one who’s on the way, happens to see the younger and much more virile couple across the way going at it. On the first night, Alli contents herself with turning off the lights; it’s not long before both she and Jacob are pulling out the binoculars to see what they can see. There really is something interesting happening in these early scenes, culminating with a tiff the two of them get into because she’s had a full, hard day with the kids, and he’s been multitasking (Skyping and putting his feet up on the table). It’s a fight that’s brought on primarily through this new discovery of some real-life porn on the other side of the window, the regret they feel that they’ve gotten older, the loneliness that comes from not having sex now that the results of that previous sex are spitting up and crying and peeing outside the toilet. Maybe the world didn’t need another story of well-off white people in the Big Apple trying to work through their marriage, but it’s done with enough humor and sensitivity to make it entertaining. When Alli starts getting really riled up at Jacob, he passes off a bag of chips to his two kids and tells them to go eat it somewhere else, which they do gleefully run off to do. The Neighbors’ Window is maybe the most conventionally shot movie of these five, but it’s done about as well as any of the others, relying on the clean lines of the windows, the table, the stove, the floor as structure for the composition, and then using the inevitable mess of toddlers as a way to chew up the beauty of the apartment a little bit. When the guy across the way gets cancer and pops his clogs, the movie, predictably, loses its steam. When it turns out that the woman from across the gap used to look over at Alli and her kids and be uplifted by that, it’s almost unbearably moralistic. We’re all someone’s neighbor, I guess, and we should be happy for what we have, and I dunno, maybe we should have a Constitutional amendment which bans cancer from short film.
3) A Sister, dir. Delphine Girard
So the gap between A Sister and the two movies above it is much, much smaller than the gap between A Sister and the two movies below it. By far the simplest short nominated at this year’s Oscars, A Sister is, not coincidentally, better for it. A woman, clearly uncomfortable, only really seen from behind (and in a few moments where we might catch her face it is obscured) tells the guy she’s driving with, who doesn’t seem all the way okay, that she needs to call her sister and check on her kid. It’s not her sister. It’s emergency services, and she gets a woman on the line who works with her to fix the problem without alerting the man driving to what’s going on. I don’t know that I’d necessarily describe the movie as taut, but I also don’t know, necessarily, that it’s going for taut. A Sister, as the title proclaims, is primarily about the way women help each other in a society where they desperately need that solidarity as a defensive force against the evils of men. What it is is convincing. Girard likes the camera, free and swaying a little, behind the woman who’s been abducted; with the operator, she likes the camera facing her directly, very still, and from an equivalent distance away. This is the shortest of the nominees, and even then it takes just a smidge too much time to finish itself off. On the whole, though, if I were to pick a director who I’d want to see more from out of these five, it would absolutely be Girard, who has the greatest command over her material.
2) Saria, dir. Bryan Buckley
I would probably have Saria first, but for what is probably an idiosyncratic annoyance: I don’t love that this feels like an audition tape for a feature film. If there were odds as to which of these five movies is most likely to be turned into a two-hour feature, it is absolutely Saria, a movie which very patiently develops its eponymous protagonist. Saria is a little unwise, a dreamer, unfailingly and perhaps foolishly gentle. During a lesson about St. Valentine of Valentine’s Day, Saria says “bullshit” in front of her aggressively Catholic teacher, and challenges the teachings of the church about women soldiers besides. It gets her a mighty slap across the face and a punishment that keeps her from going to a Valentine’s social with her friend, Ximena. (Ximena has her eyes on “Green Shirt,” which is a great nom de guerre and probably preferable to “Appo,” which is his real name.) While she’s scrubbing the bathroom floors, Saria rescues a spider stuck in the soap bubbles; later on, during a revolt against the orphanage and the cops, she refuses to strike down the tyrannical woman who fills their time, dominates them, and pimps them out. All of these shorts reminded me of some other movies, but Saria, happily for the movie and very, very sadly for me, is reminiscent in its own way of Canoa: A Shameful Memory. We can count the bad decisions which are made out of naivete or kindness, decisions which we can smell the tragedy in but the characters cannot. Saria may be a little overwrought—did we really need the Women’s March from 2017 to show up after the kids who rallied against the orphanage and escaped were caught?—but it is, on the whole, balanced by a counterweight of emotional authenticity. The girls are good to each other. Ximena wakes up on Valentine’s with three very obvious sores from a kissing bug; another girl lends her some cream. In the showers together, which is really like being under Chinese water torture via spigot, Ximena washes Saria’s wounds after a mercifully unseen encounter with a man who raped her. This is another movie about solidarity, and about tenderness as well.
1) Nefta Football Club, dir. Yves Piat
This is really an all-timer of a premise. Two brothers, the older of whom looks like he’s not all that far along into puberty, are driving on their moped when the younger one demands to take a leak in Algeria (because it’s where Riyad Mahrez is from, obviously). He comes back with a donkey wearing headphones who is carrying what appears to be a basically infinite supply of cocaine. The older brother is smart enough to know what it is; the younger one is hilarious enough to get it all over his hoodie and mistake it for laundry detergent. What happens next should be something of a nightmare, and amazingly for an Oscar-nominated short there are no nightmares in this movie. There’s just hilarious misunderstanding (as when the younger brother, Abdallah, comes up with an absolutely outstanding plan for all this “laundry detergent) as well as borderline absurd scenarios (the donkey got lost because it wasn’t listening to Adele’s “Someone Like You,” a sentence that I am privileged to type out.) One of the shorter entries from this year, Nefta Football Club gets the jokes in and gets the payoff out without too much fuss and bother. Piat, after Girard, directs this very well. He’s not shy about some of the gorgeous landscape and lighting that he can get out of this milieu—one of the great shots of the shorts this year happens inside a little garage when one of the guys working on a motorcycle closes the doors and lets in a sliver of light—but he is also creative. A camera hitches a ride on the sack of cocaine that Abdallah drags out to the sandy soccer pitch, and we get that scene from, more privilege to write, a coke’s eye view. Almost effortlessly funny and deeply satisfying, Nefta Football Club is the best of the bunch this year, and if you believe the oddsmakers probably the least likely to win. So it goes.