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Oscars 2020: All live-action shorts are strong, but this one deserves to win

Voyeurs, orphans and a donkey with a payload illuminate stirring global stories of hurt and hope.


Brotherhood, from Tunisia and Canada, is a visual poem. 


We all have our pee-break Oscars categories -- moments we're perfectly fine missing some guy we've never heard of accept a statue for a movie we've never seen, and probably never will. For me, that category has always been live-action shorts, but this year, it's one I'll be watching closely. 

I recently saw all five nominees in one sitting with a filmmaker friend who's a member of the Academy (no, he wouldn't let me buy his vote for my favorite), and there are some true stunners in the bunch, which you can watch now at ShortsTV

I recommend all of them, not only for Oscars literacy, but for a renewed appreciation of just how much terrain a skillful short film can cover. I also suggest watching them all at once if you can: The films, from around the world, only total about an hour and 40 minutes, less than back-to-back episodes of The Crown. Be warned: You're in for some dark viewing. 

Saria (US, 23 minutes) 

For lasting emotional impact, it's hard to beat Saria. It's based on the true story of a group of Guatemalan orphans at a state-run home who boldly attempt to escape a life of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. When the film ended, I could barely form words, and in the many moments I've thought of it since, I've felt despair, helplessness and outrage. The film is made even more powerful by the addendum that the kids who appear in it aren't actors, but residents of another nearby orphanage. 

If this 23-minute film leads to more awareness of abuse and neglect children suffer around the world, it'll be a winner whether or not it takes home an Oscar. By the way, I don't think it will. I predict the winner in this category will (and should) be… 

Brotherhood (Tunisia and Canada, 25 minutes)  

This masterful 25-minute film about three sons of a shepherd in Tunisia explores the complexity of family dynamics amid a hardscrabble rural life. When Mohammed's estranged eldest son, Malek, returns home from fighting in Syria with a mysterious new wife, long-held tensions between father and son rise to the surface. It's easy to dislike the stern Mohammed, but Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon's film is at its heart a meditation on the subtleties of paternal love and discipline. 

This short movie manages to cover past, present and future in 25 minutes. And it's gorgeous to look at. From the sheep that roam through the opening shots in desaturated colors to the close-ups of the sons' expressive, freckled faces, the movie's a visual poem that says so much while leaving so much unsaid. 

Nefta Football Club (France, 17 minutes)  

This little gem of a film by Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi, a second nominee set in Tunisia and another strong contender for the win, brings a touch of levity to this year's somber collection of nominated shorts. When two soccer-loving brothers come across a donkey laden with a dangerous stash on the desert border of Algeria, it's hard to know what sort of turn the story will take. I was expecting the worst, but ultimately, this film's a charming, uplifting reminder of the innocence and whimsy of childhood. 

The Neighbors' Window (US, 20 minutes)  

Anyone who's idealized someone else's life (and who among those addicted to Instagram and Facebook hasn't?) is likely to appreciate Marshall Curry's film, the only American nominee. A married couple exhausted by the daily demands of parenthood and crushed by their ennui can't stop staring through the unshaded window of a neighboring apartment building, where a young couple seem to do little more than throw parties for their twentysomething friends and display wild new sex positions. 

Maria Dizzia's standout performance as the long-suffering middle-aged wife proves a wonderful linchpin for a meditation on grass-is-greener thinking. 

A Sister (Belgium, 16 minutes)  

Almost all the action in Delphine Girard's taut film focuses on two women -- one trapped in a speeding car by her abductor and the other an emergency dispatcher trying to help her. It's the smallest, most economical of the five films, and by far the most suspenseful. 

The Oscars air on Sunday, Feb. 9

Originally published Jan. 28.