Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars Predictions 2015: Best Documentary Short Film

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.



Gabriel Serra Arguello

Ellen Goosenberg Kent & Dana Perry

Aneta Kopacz

Tomasz Śliwiński & Maciej Ślesicki

J. Christian Jensen

This is one depressing group of documentaries. Clearly the Academy was having a downer of a day when it came to the selection process this year. But there are two more striking notes about this group. The first is that it includes three women (hurrah!), and the second, that only one seems to exist in order to call vital attention to its subject.

White Earth, about the inhabitants of a rural North Dakota town transformed by oil drilling, could’ve been a call to action to stop the drilling, but director J. Christian Jensen doesn’t seem all that interested in the environmental implications. He doesn’t seem all that interested in his effected subjects either – mostly children, and one immigrant mother. While the artful cinematography is evocative, the detached filmmaking is strange, and unlikely to move many voters in its favor.

The HBO documentary Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, comes off as an unnerving, patriotic procedural. Like the live-action short Phone Call, crisis center employees work to prevent harm from coming to – or from – callers. Only here the callers are real, and they’re U.S. veterans. We never hear the vets speak, but the one-sided conversations are heart-pounding nail-biters. The disturbing relevancy of the subject – U.S. vets commit suicide at a rate of nearly one per hour, and more have killed themselves since 2001 than have died on the battlefield – compounded by the popularity of this year’s American Sniper (which, to a degree, deals with such vets) puts Crisis Hotline in the perfect position to spoil.

The portrait of a man in charge of delivering the kill shots to cattle at a Mexican slaughterhouse, The Reaper has no chance in hell of winning, but it’s pure, fucked-up, poetry in motion. Haunting and expressionistic, the short glides fluidly from one stunning shot to the next, evoking graphic violence without actually showing it – a velvety-red pool of blood here, a close-up of a cow’s frantic eyeball there – and the anticipation that it might, eventually, do so is absolutely nerve-wracking. Gabriel Serra Arguello’s ability to capture so much with silence – a scene in which The Reaper gazes silently on his children as they gnaw on chicken wings for dinner is eye-opening – is astonishing, as is his subject’s own darkly poetic take on his job.

Our Curse doesn’t aim for awareness of Ondin’s Curse, a rare and potentially fatal respiratory disorder that makes it impossible for one to breathe on his own during sleep, but rather advocates intimacy. The straightforward film exists in a series of confessionals of the couple – one-half of which is the director – as they relay the constant fears and sadness for their child and their situation. This is a highly empathetic family experiencing a horrific reality, and it’ll be difficult for voters to turn away from them in favor of another film.

But if anyone could do it, it’d be Joanna, who refuses to cry for herself, or let us cry over her (though of course we do). A Polish wife and mother who learns she has only three months to live, Joanna celebrates the time its titular subject has left, documenting her beautifully mundane day-to-day life in an almost ethereal glow. Joanna’s strongly bonded relationship with her curious, philosophical son is one to aspire to – and when Joanna tells him what’s happening to her, director Aneta Kopacz gives her the appropriate space. Shooting through a window, we see the young boy digest the news, refuse its truth, and finally hold his head in his hands and cry. It’s a sorrowful, deeply felt moment in an otherwise graceful and ultimately uplifting life.


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