From Wes Anderson to John and Yoko: Why the Oscar Shorts Deserve Accolades

Ben Friedman


The 96th Academy Awards are over and Oppenheimer went home with seven awards. In a year that was so Christopher Nolan-centric, it will be easy to look back at this ceremony and remember it as the Oppenheimer year. However, this year also featured famous artists competing in an oft-forgotten category: the shorts. The most extraordinary of those names being famed director Wes Anderson, who won his first Oscar for the Netflix short, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar Overall, I thought the Academy’s lineup featured a number of great singular voices crafting thoughtful work.


Live Action:



The After

Sometimes my taste does not align with the Academy voting at all, but nominating The After was a bridge too far, even for the Academy. In The After, David Oyelowo stars as a man grieving over the loss of his family after a knife-crazed maniac goes on a killing spree. We then spend the rest of the film’s runtime watching Oyelowo grieve. The story has nothing to say about grief, nor the psychological damages of violence. Instead, it exists to elicit tears from viewers. Yet, its intent is so manufactured and the storytelling so manipulative that its intent becomes transparent.



Red, White, and Blue

Brittany Snow of Pitch Perfect fame stars as Rachel who needs an abortion. A single mother of two working as a waitress, Rachel finds herself in need of the operation, but she has issues. One, the cost associated with receiving an abortion, and two, the procedure is illegal in Arkansas, with the closest clinic being in Illinois. To say Red, White, and Blue is emotionally compelling is underselling the storytelling at play. Fair warning: The film is as effective as it is due to a twist revealed in the final few minutes of the story that is admittedly heavy-handed, but gut-wrenching to behold. By its conclusion, there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater.



Knight of Fortune

First, I want to acknowledge that Knight of Fortune had the unfortunate circumstance of being the film that followed up Red, White, and Blue. Thus, for the first few minutes of the runtime, I found myself preoccupied with trying to regain composure, which became even more difficult as I learned that Knight of Fortune was a story about death. Yet, what differentiates this film from the previous two is that it has a dry, dark humor at its core as it follows a husband who forms an unlikely friendship on the day of his wife’s passing. The storyline is amusingly bizarre, uncomfortably funny, with just the right amount of poignancy without taking itself too seriously.



Invincible is the case of a shorthand that is tremendously well directed and wonderfully acted, despite the story falling short. Invincible tells the true life story of the last 48 hours in the life of Marc-Antoine Bernier, a 14-year-old boy in search of freedom. The cinematography is impressive and the performances, especially the boy playing Marc-Antoine, are nothing short of great. Yet this story seems extremely longwinded, while also lacking substance. What’s left is a film that is beautiful to look at, but cold in its storytelling.



The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

Wes Anderson returns to the world of Roald Dahl with his now Oscar-winning short, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. The film tells the story of Henry Sugar, a man who learns to see without his eyes, allowing him to become the richest man in the world.


Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular role and is joined by Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and Ralph Fiennes in supporting roles. The film carries that distinct almost storybook-like aesthetic that brings this short to life, yet when I first watched this movie on Netflix months ago, I found the emotional heartbeat of the story to be lackluster. Seeing it again on the big screen I found my original critique harsh. Oftentimes, I find repeat viewing is so quintessential for Anderson’s filmography, as his style is so upfront that it has the unintentional consequence of making it hard to focus on the story unfolding. A second time around, I found the humor and heart within Anderson’s interpretation of Dahl’s story, showcasing how the two’s silly sensibilities are a match made in heaven.


Animated Shorts:



I have a confession to make. This was my first year watching all the animated short films nominated by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. It is not that I am necessarily averse to stories told through the lens of animation; rather, this category always felt secondary when completing my Oscars ballot. There’s an old joke Oscar pundits make when it comes to animated short films: “If you are unsure of your prediction, select the movie made by someone really famous.” Case in point, this year’s winner, War is Over! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko, is produced by the Lennon estate.


I don’t mean to sound crass in my analysis. Every few years, there are wonderful animated short films made by famous people that truly deserve all the acclaim. One of my favorites was when Kobe Bryant won his Oscar for Dear Basketball, a film that never fails to make me weep. Thus, walking into the theater, I was hopeful and excited to dive deep into the world of animated short films. The results were a mixed bag, yet some highlighted the wonders of visual storytelling only achievable in the medium of animation.


Our Uniform

The first entry shown within the animated shorts screening I attended, I would best describe Our Uniform as sweet, but lacking substance. The film follows an Iranian girl who must wear a hijab every day as part of her school uniform. The design of the animation mimics that of different fabric types, giving the film a unique style that feels personal, and at seven minutes, the story feels breezy, but ultimately shallow in its approach to storytelling. In particular, the film starts by saying that it is not an indictment on those who choose to wear a hijab, but only the telling of a personal point of view, which works to make the film feel personal – but causes it to appear too sanitized for a story supposedly about the rebellious spirit of adolescence.



Letters to a Pig

Sometimes ambition is not always a good thing, especially in the case of Letters to a Pig, which follows a man recounting his experience in World War II hiding from Nazis in a barn. The children with whom he shares this history now imagine a world where they go and slaughter the Nazis who are now depicted as pigs. It’s a metaphor for the inhumanity of the Nazis and how they are the real animals. At least, that was my interpretation. The metaphor is at best half-baked, at worst downright ill-conceived. As is every decision of the film. Its animation style switches art forms. Some minutes, it's surrealist, others it is minimalist, and other times it looks like a sketch. Sometimes the mediums are blended and the effect is a hodgepodge of animation that looks half-finished.



Hailing from France, Pachyderm is the most straightforward film of the bunch. The story follows Louise, a young girl who every summer is forced to visit her grandparents. The experience is something she dreads, as a monster dwells within the grandparents’ house. The monster’s name is Grandpa, and we discover that Louise is a survivor of molestation brought about by her grandfather. Its simplicity is effective as we watch in horror as Louise comes to grips with what has transpired. Admittedly, at times the film loses focus of its narrative and seems more like a therapy session. Yet, at its core, Pachyderm tells the story of resilience and survival.



Ninety-Five Senses

Arguably the most beautifully animated film within the nominees, Ninety-Five Senses follows Coy as he recounts the senses of his life. From the smell of his favorite food to the sights of his favorite colors, it’s clear that Coy values the world and all of its beauty as he rambles on about a world of pre-cell phones. Admittedly, when he uttered the line about technology, I became apprehensive that this short was boomer nostalgia bait. I was wrong, as the film takes an unpredictable dark turn. This twist is so unexpected that I now have an understanding and context of how audiences must have felt watching The Sixth Sense for the first time. While I found the end result to be a uneven narratively speaking, admittedly, the ambition and imagery of the film was remarkable and worthy of celebration.


War Is Over! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko

The most famous short film of the bunch and the winner of this category, War is Over! certainly benefited from having the Lennon family campaigning on its behalf. The film follows an American soldier and a German soldier playing chess via pigeon-carrier, while World War I rages on. The two strike up a friendship of sorts. Admittedly, the animation is pretty to look at and for the most part, I was enjoying this short well enough -- that is, until the most egregious needle-drop of Lennon and Ono’s Christmas classic occurs as a way to drive home the message of the story. In the context of the film, the song is so jarring and lacks any form of subtlety that it brought the theater to tears of laughter. Admittedly, as an advocate of “Wonderful Christmastime” being the superior Christmas song, I felt vindicated.


Author Bio:

Ben Friedman is a contributing writer and film critic at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


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