Friday, January 10, 2020

Oscar Predictions: Best Documentary Short

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Monday, January 13th. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories.

Last year’s nominees:: Black Sheep, End Game, Lifeboat, A Night at the Garden, Period. End of Sentence.

I’m excited to have had the opportunity to watch all ten shortlisted films this year. Below, please find a short summary and review of each as I lead into my predictions:

After Maria (B+)
Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is a subject that will certainly be passionate for many liberal Oscar voters, and this spotlight of several families who are nearing the end of their FEMA-supported stay in housing in the Bronx is definitely an affecting tale that shows how inadequate the government response has been to deal with something that devastated an entire island. Watch it on Netflix.

Fire in Paradise (B+)
This is a film that chronicles an unfortunate, devastating event that seemed harmless at the start and turned into something far more serious: the Camp Fire in Northern California in November 2018. Hearing from firefighters and those affected presents a terrifying picture of events made all the more harrowing by footage of the incredible smoke and fire that engulfed the area. Watch it on Netflix.

Ghosts of Sugar Land (B)
The premise behind this project is definitely fascinating: a group of Muslim friends in Texas grappling with the news that a member of their circle has been radicalized and gone abroad to join ISIS. They try hard to come up with reasons that his enthusiasm about their religion turned into something dangerous and hateful, which is intriguing, but the use of superhero masks to shield each interviewee’s faces detracts from its overall effectiveness. Watch it on Netflix.

In the Absence (A-)
This is documentary filmmaking at its most stirring and authentically disturbing, chronicling the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 in South Korea. It’s upsetting and deeply unnerving to see footage of the passenger boat tilting into the ocean as timestamped recordings of conversations between government officials and coast guard personnel reveal their primary concern of a positive photo op over actually saving lives. It’s devastating and utterly captivating. Watch it on YouTube as part of Field of Vision.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) (B+)
Liken this one to the 2010 winner in this category, “Strangers No More,” an unexpectedly positive look at a program called Skateistan that teaches young girls in Afghanistan how to skateboard. Not all is rosy, of course, since the eager athletes explain how they won’t be allowed to leave home once they turn thirteen and bombs land far too close to where they gather for school and practice. This is still a stirring and optimistic look at a forward-thinking initiative that exists within an environment that is rarely encouraging of free thinking. Watch it on A and E.

Life Overtakes Me (B)
Portraits of refugees have been commonplace in past nominees from this category, though this film tackles it from a different vantage point: that of children in Sweden who have become afflicted with resignation syndrome, where they exist in a mostly catatonic state as a result of past sustained trauma. There aren’t many answers in this film and rare opportunities for hope, but it’s definitely an epidemic that is highly peculiar and worthy of being investigated in projects like this one. Watch it on Netflix.

The Nightcrawlers (A-)
If American audiences thinks their president is brash and doesn’t mince words, they have no idea what they’re in for with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pledged to eradicate the drug problem in his country. This portrait of journalists who document the extrajudicial vigilantes who hunt down and kill drug dealers and addicts is brutal but unflinching, a vital look at what happens when law and order extends cover to mass murder under the guise of societal cleansing. Watch it on YouTube thanks to National Geographic.

St. Louis Superman (B+)
This is the entry in this category that deals most with American culture through its affecting portrait of Bruce Franks Jr., a 34-year-old activist in Ferguson, Missouri who used his position as state representative to lobby for gun reform. He’s a formidable hero, and this film focuses in on his tireless efforts to change his community – and the country as a whole – for the better. This one isn’t available to stream, but check out this trailer on Vimeo.

Stay Close (B-)
This story of Olympic fencer Keeth Smart and his unlikely journey from Brooklyn to the 2008 Beijing Olympics is the least stirring of all the contenders, weaving a tale of a family dynamic that propelled him to an incredible opportunity. Sports or Olympics fans may find it more interesting than the average viewer. Watch it on PBS.

Walk Run Cha-Cha (B)
Easily the lightest and happiest of all of these films, this is a picture of late-term love in a very sweet way, spotlighting a couple who fled Vietnam together at a young age and now spend every free moment they have ballroom dancing together. It may not have the dramatic impact of some of the other films in this race, but this one is a sincere crowd-pleaser that feels almost necessary after the depressing nature of the rest of this field. Watch and read about it via the New York Times.

From this list, I think that The Nightcrawlers, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), and In the Absence are likeliest to show up, and it’s a question of which of the United States-centric films will join them. I give the edge to St. Louis Superman and After Maria over Fire in Paradise, Ghosts of Sugar Land, Walk Run Cha-Cha, and Stay Close. I’m not sure whether Life Overtakes Me will merit a place since it does fit with the typically melancholy nature of this category’s lineup.

Forecasted winner: I’ll pick The Nightcrawlers over “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl).”

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