Short-form Academy Award nominees hit theaters this week.
Among the thousands of documentary shorts released and screened at festivals last year, only five could be nominated for an Academy Award. Fortunately for nonfiction fans, four of them are actually available to stream somewhere already, either for free or via iTunes or Netflix. But if you want to catch them on the big screen, ShortsTV is putting the contenders in select theaters this weekend in two separate programs. “Program A” includes Traffic Stop, Edith + Eddie, and Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, and “Program B” includes Heroin(e) and Knife Skills. These programs will also be available On Demand starting February 27th.
Whether you go see them in the theater or watch them together On Demand or separately at their various outlets (this is the only way to see Traffic Stop until mid March, by the way) or just want to know more about the films ahead of the Oscars, I’ve seen them all and reviewed and ranked them in order of preference below. I’ve also tried to weigh in on what I think the Academy voters will choose, though it’s not easy because this year’s bunch are all pretty good and, more importantly for the Oscars, pretty important.
5. Knife Tools
Filmmaker Thomas Lennon is the only Oscar veteran in the mix this year (a winner for the short The Blood of Yingzhou District and nominee for the short The Warriors of Qiugang and feature The Battle Over Citizen Kane), so I don’t mind calling his latest the least great among the five great nominees. The 40-minute doc is about Edwins, a restaurant in Cleveland serving up fine French cuisine that’s partly cooked and served by formerly incarcerated men and women. Not just an employer but also a learning institution, Edwins gives people a second chance by training them for culinary and hospitality jobs during a six month program.
Lennon’s film showcases the honorable establishment, but it’s not just an advertisement for Edwins or even a simple pat on the back for its do-gooder objective. The characters in focus who are trying to change their lives around are also admirable, and the ones with certain dramatic obstacles in their way are endearing. Then there’s Edwins’ boss, founder, president and CEO Brandon Chrostowski, who isn’t your typical charity worker portrayed as a saint. He’s a hard-ass, because he’s been on the verge of ruining his life, too, and while he’s no Gordon Ramsay, he’s still properly demanding and disciplinary when need be. It’s a fascinating environment to encounter through the film as a result of all that.
Could it win the Oscar? I hope that Academy voters will give someone new a shot, but on cause alone this one is something light yet substantial for them to get behind.
Where to watch it: Download from iTunes.
4. Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Another artist with a history of mental illness gets a documentary with this film from director Frank Stiefel. We meet the subject, Mindy Alper, as she’s nervously about to open a gallery showing of her work. Again, it sounds like pretty familiar stuff. Much of the film is close up on Alper, though, as she tells her story and talks about herself and her art during a number of centerpiece interviews. And she’s compelling, both for her eccentricities and her genius, as well as tragically for her story of abuse and terrible treatments and continued medical problems.
Pushed to the limit of short subject length with a runtime of 40 minutes, Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 can feel a bit long after a while. Especially as the last quarter is mostly the gallery opening and a spotlight on some of the actual work, which includes some amazing pieces (including one major sculpture with a heartwarming significance) but isn’t the most interesting part of the film story. I’m glad that the film isn’t a feature, though, because character portraits like this, where the person is more appealing just sitting and talking than would be any current narrative arc or observations we could witness, are best when brief and concise.
Could it win the Oscar? Sometimes the Academy surprises by giving the Oscar to the one about an artist or musician — I wonder if these are instances where the causes cancel each other out. But those winners also usually have some sort of more pertinent issue drive than this one does.
Where to watch it: Streaming on YouTube via IndieWire.
3. Traffic Stop
This topical film from Kate Davis (Southern Comfort) takes a unique approach to the issue of police brutality against African Americans, so much that I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. I wasn’t sure where it was going for the first third of its 30-minute runtime. But it all comes together really well as a human interest profile that, while centered on a cause, is more character-driven than it is a work of documentary activism. That’s not to say it’s not also in support of subject Breaion King in her case against Austin police officers who were clearly — seen with dashboard cam footage — over the line in their physically abusive and admittedly racially biased handling of a simple traffic violation. But it’s more than that.
Intercut throughout the film’s presentation of the police incident footage, we see King’s day to day life. There are scenes of her as an elementary school teacher and scenes of her as a dancer, and the contrast between these normal, positive portraits against the rest is very effective. Her real-life moments show her humanity opposite the cops treating her like she has none. Their conduct comes across even more as if they think of her as an animal (and then one of them pretty much states that they think black people are different). Traffic Stop works as a contained, individual story, though the case has also been in the news lately reminding us that it’s not just a film either.
Could it win the Oscar? I think it will win, for its subject matter alone but also with merit given its original structure.
Where to watch it: Streaming free via HBO (even for non-subscribers).
2. Edith + Eddie
One of two Oscar-nominated documentaries from Kartemquin Films this year (the other being Steve James’s Abacus: Small Enough to Jail — and James is also an executive producer here), this 29-minute work brings out so many emotions in such a short time. The doc, directed by Laura Checkoway (Lucky), begins as a sweet look at the titular nonagenarian newlyweds, a mixed-race couple whose true love so late in life is inspiring to even the most hopeless romantic or relationship cynic. Then it goes from heartwarming to heartbreaking quickly as Edith becomes subject of a custody battle and, more broadly, an example for consideration of elder rights issues.
By focusing on the two main subjects, or characters, Edith + Eddie is another strong short that lets its issue-film side permeate from the background of the story, not overstated but not buried. The couple isn’t used to illustrate a problem, but rather the problem is something seen as part of the couple’s life as they just try to be happy in love for the remainder of their days. The film leaves us wanting more, particularly from a certain side of the issue and what’s going on with one of the characters in the end, but it’s apparent that sometimes documentaries simply can’t gain access to all desirable pieces of a story. It’s frustrating but also very telling.
Could it win the Oscar? Maybe, since there’s a likelihood that a lot of the Academy voters who participate in judging the shorts are older and might relate to the characters. But I doubt this will be the winner on account of other films seeming more of the moment.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Topic.com
Netflix once again has the very best of the Oscar-nominated shorts (and it’s not just bias or a company-wide level of quality given how weak their other major short of 2017 is). Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s cleverly titled Heroin(e) has a premise that reminds me of typical HBO shorts that contend and often win the Academy Award (such as 2014’s Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1), yet it’s a much better, more human effort that’s also just smoother in the way it plays out. Despite also being about the maximum length for a qualified short, this one never feels so long, never dragging nor stuffed with filler. Its portrait of three women in Huntington, WV, the “overdose capital of the United States,” as they try to change their city’s reputation — but mostly turn its citizens — around and save lives is superb in its interwoven storytelling.
Certainly editor Kristen Nutil deserves a lot of credit for the crafting of the film, and hopefully she’s given a huge thank you if (when) Heroin(e) wins the Oscar. This isn’t just a well-cut documentary, though. It’s one of the most all-around successful and satisfying films of its kind that I’ve seen in a while, from its cinematography (by Elaine’s filmmaking partner husband, Kerrin James Sheldon) to even its poster design. And even though we don’t get a full look at the lives of its characters and there are no negatives or flaws slipped into their profiles, the film is never too hagiographic. The women are shown doing their jobs, and they come across as heroines on their own, not merely as a result of how they’re depicted.
Could it win the Oscar? Definitely, though voters could choose to overlook Netflix after giving them the Oscar last year. Plus, even with its empowering portrait of women, Heroin(e) doesn’t seem quite as timely and essentially spotlighted as Traffic Stop does.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Netflix.