The short film categories at each year’s Academy Awards are consistently home to some of the best filmmaking represented in the entire program. I make it a point to see as many of the nominated shorts as I can each year. My wife and I even make an annual date out of seeing the animated category. Thanks to ShortsTV, the shorts play in actual theaters around the country in the weeks leading up to and immediately after the Oscars. Check their website to see if the films are showcasing near you soon. You can also rent the shorts as packages via Vimeo On Demand, iTunes, Amazon, and other streaming rental providers.
Rather than review every short I saw this year, as I have done in years past, I’m going to focus on my two favorites. The overall slate was admirable this year, though the live-action nominees felt a little more issue-driven than in previous years, and the animated nominees were a little less experimental. The short of it—ha!—is that I don’t think every short warrants individual attention in this review. (I wasn’t able to catch the documentary shorts this year.) So I’m going to hit a couple of the highlights, and they are high.
Dear Basketball brings a dream team of talent to the Animated Shorts category. The short is based on a prose poem written by Kobe Bryant about the place the sport of basketball has had in his life and what it’s been like to move on into something else as he’s gotten older. Ostensibly an offering of thanks, it’s also an expression of grief over a love lost to time and the effects of getting older. The short is directed and animated by the legendary Glen Keane and scored by John Williams. (With a pedigree like that, the golden statuette was basically a given.)
It would be easy to be cynical about the film—here’s Kobe stroking his ego and winning an Oscar because he has the money to hire the best artists in the world to make his ode to himself—but I found the film profoundly moving. The short positions Kobe as an artist whose canvas happened to be the hardwood, and time took away his ability to practice his craft.
Movies are made of metaphors, and the metaphor is rich here. We may not all play under Staples Center lights, but we can all take pride in our crafts, and there will come a day when we can’t do them anymore. We degrade, physically and mentally, and it is appropriate to celebrate the work we were able to do and to mourn its loss. Does Kobe need more applause? Maybe not, but none of us believe we are worthy to be loved, so no amount of applause is ever enough for any of us. At some point, we have to learn to rest in a love beyond human acclaim, to return to a love more akin to the love we took for granted when we were young. Dear Basketball traces that kind of return.
My Nephew Emmett
My Nephew Emmett recreates the events that led to the murder of Emmett Louis Till in Mississippi in August of 1955. Till’s murder and subsequent open-casket funeral—at his mother’s insistence—sparked the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.
My Nephew Emmett isn’t a hagiography of Emmett Louis Till. Rather, it focuses on his uncle, Mose Wright, called ‘Preacher,’ who invited Till down from Chicago, resisted the men who came to abduct Till in the middle of the night, and testified on camera as to what happened that night. The short ends with ‘Preacher’ testifying on camera, the image shifting from the actor playing ‘Preacher,’ L.B. Williams, to the actual video of Wright from 1955. The grainy footage recalls the multitudes of cell phone videos we see so often these days of black men being beaten and killed unjustly. My Nephew Emmett brings the past and the present together and suggests that this current Civil Rights Movement, under the name Black Lives Matter, is the same Civil Rights Movement sparked by Till’s murder. We’ve come a long way as a society, but we have a long way to go, as long as people are being executed without due process in the streets of our towns and cities.
My Nephew Emmett is one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve seen. Cinematographer Laura Valladao captures shadows as deep as the despair that settles on Wright as he realizes his nephew’s fate and contrasts them with many-hued lights that suggest the kind of resilience that carries him on to campaign for justice after his nephew’s murder. She shifts the camera subtly, withholding information suspensefully and then bringing it info frame suddenly. The men who abduct Till are threatening but small, pitiable. Mose is a moral giant. Valladao doesn’t let you feel worthy to be looking at him. It’s incredible work. I could have stayed in her images for hours.
You can, and should, check out Valladao’s website and Vimeo page, where you can see her Spring 2017 Reel which includes shots from My Nephew Emmett. You might also follow her on Instagram. These Oscar nominated shorts are great for discovering artists like Valladao. I’ll be watching her work. Hopefully she’ll keep getting bigger and bigger canvasses to work on.