Kris Bowers is a rising Hollywood film composer and now he can add director of an Oscar-nominated documentary short to his impressive resume as well.
Having just premiered a new violin concerto, “For a Younger Self,” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles last year, Bowers felt himself compelled to take a look back at this own lineage and trace the path of his success. Relying on his 91 year old grandfather, Horace Bowers, recently diagnosed with cancer, Kris can follow his road all the way back to Jim Crow Florida, which his grandfather left with only a few dollars in his pocket. Facing racism and discrimination, Horace soldiered on, determined to provide a better life for his family, and if grandson Kris is any indication, he’s obviously done an excellent job. Kris Bowers knows that, as a Black composer, his success has come from the sacrifices of generations before him, and to be able to share his gratitude with his grandfather in such a tangible way is a very moving experience for the documentary’s subjects as well as its audience.
Two years after we first met her, little Angela, an Irish lass living in the very early 20th century, is still known in her little town for having stolen the baby Jesus from the church’s nativity scene. It was pretty innocent, as far as thefts go; she only thought he looked cold lying there in his manger, and took him home to make him warm and cozy.
Nowadays the baby Jesus has a very nice knit sweater to keep him warm, but Angela still visits him in the church to pray and ask for help. With Christmas fast approaching, Angela has her eye on a fancy dolly in the storefront window, but her family is still largely impoverished despite her father having left for work in Australia over two years ago. Setting aside their own interests, Angela and brother Pat decide to use their Christmas wish to bring their father home – or rather, to go and get him. When digging to Australia doesn’t work, they start busking for a train ticket. Their plan is not the most efficient, but their hearts are in the right place.
Is there any chance that Angela’s family will find happiness this holiday? You’ll have to watch to find out. The characters are based on the writing of Frank McCourt. The animation is as sweet as it sounds. And at just 47 minutes, it’s a great little watch for a special pre-bedtime treat with the kids.
Holly (voiced by Kaliayh Rhambo) and her parents are elves in the North Pole. In fact, Holly and her mom are – brace yourselves for this – puppy elves! As far as I knew, elves just hammered wood into bulky toys on an assembly line. Manual labour? No thanks. But puppy elves! It makes sense: plenty of people get new pups for Christmas, and Holly and her mom make sure their fur is all fluffy and cute, and they’ve got bows around their necks, doggie essentials for the holidays. I’m making way too big a deal out of this considering it’s a throwaway detail in the movie, but I can’t believe I’d never thought of it, and that I’ve been wasting my life this whole time.
Anyway, Holly’s dad is an inventor elf and he’s been working overtime on a new sleigh that would cut Christmas Eve delivery time by 90%. Except it is Christmas Eve, or pretty near, and his prototype’s still not working. He can’t be with his family, so to appease his daughter he hands her what he thinks is a doll.
In fact, the doll is actually an alien named X. X comes from a race of dull, kleptomaniac aliens who steal everything – and he’s the first wave in attempt to steal earth’s gravity.
It’s a stop-motion sci-fi holiday offering from the Chiodo brothers and executive producer Jon Favreau. Many of us grew up watching iconic TV movies like Rudolph and Frosty, and this is Netflix’s attempt to bring that kind of nostalgic Christmas viewing into our living rooms once again, with a 21st century twist.
The Klepts are aliens who have no longer have any concept of joy, but they take inspiration from humans – humans on Black Friday, specifically, who rush into stores frantically at 4am to buy cheap TVs they don’t need.
The Chiodos worked on the stop-motion portion of Favreau’s Elf back in 2003 (in fact, you might recognize a couple of “cameos”) and they were eager to collaborate on this tribute to beloved family holiday viewing. Like those golden age episodes, Alien Xmas is a tight 40 minutes, but a fun watch that’ll put you in the giving spirit.
Hair Love: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr. & Bruce Smith
A father does his daughter’s hair. Normally I’d be extremely dismissive – these types of videos go viral all the time, the world falls over itself to applaud dads for attempting the things mothers are expected to do on a daily basis. HOWEVER. Hair Love is not really about a father patting himself on the back, it’s about a little black girl named Zuri who wakes up wanting to look extra nice on this special day. She follows an online tutorial from her absent mother’s hair blog, but wrangling her hair is challenging and things don’t go well for Zuri or her dad. A black woman’s hair is a special thing indeed, tied up in her identity and her culture, a symbol of her status, perhaps fraught with difficulty. But Zuri just wants to honour her mother; she already knows that hair does not make the woman. Inspirational and sweetly animated.
Kitbull: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Rosana Sullivan
A scrappy young street cat (well, kitten) and a pit bull trained to be vicious form an unlikely bond and experience friendship together for the first time. It brought a tear to my eye. Though it’s by Pixar (SparkShorts), the 8 minute film is 2D, every frame hand-drawn and hand-painted. Available now on Disney+.
Brotherhood: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Meryam Joobeur
Mohamed, a shepherd, is deeply shaken and a little suspicious when his estranged eldest son Malek returns home from Syria to rural Tunisia with a mysterious young wife in tow. The black sheep of the family returns on the same day as an actual sheep is found slaughtered. Families are tough things to navigate and Mohamed’s is no different. He is mistrustful of this new woman, covered head to toe in a niqab, and even of his son, one of 3 red-headed brothers played by real-life red-headed brothers, a jarring sight out in this hard-scrabbled land. He doesn’t approve of Malek’s decision to fight in Syria but it’s clear their relationship has always been fraught. Brotherhood has stunning cinematography and a meaty script but neither will soften the blow when Mohamed learns how costly assumptions can be.
Walk Run Cha-Cha: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by Laura Nix
Paul and Millie recall their youth in Vietnam, where ‘foreign music’ was so romantic and sexy, and dance parties at home were illegal. They fell in love but were separated when Paul’s family fled the communists. They lost their youth and their young love to the aftermath of the Vietnam war, but 40 years later they have reunited in California and are rekindling their romance on the dance floor. Through one couple’s love story, Laura Nix teaches us about the immigration process and what it takes to relearn the language of love and make up for lost time. In their golden years, Paul and Millie finally have the time, energy, safety and security to learn what it means to enjoy life.
Nefta Football Club: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Yves Piat
In the south of Tunisia (again with Tunisia!), two young brothers and ardent football fan brothers bump into a donkey just chilling out in the middle of the desert on the border of Algeria. Oddly, the donkey is wearing red headphones (and yes, listening to music). The donkey is carrying bags of white powder (flour, they wonder? laundry detergent?) – they ditch the donkey and bring the powder back to their village, where their friends are playing football.
The Neighbors’ Window: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Marshall Curry
Exhausted, frazzled, middle-aged parents Alli and Jacob are mesmerized by their curtainless neighbours in the next building. While they breastfeed and wipe up poop and serve up meals that don’t get eaten, the two pine for their youth by spying on their young, horny neighbours across the street. This film is about envy more than voyeurism, well-acted and slick as hell, two people who are so busy that they’ve forgotten the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. This is Curry’s third nomination so it seems unwise to discount him.
Life Overtakes Me: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
Over the last 15 years, hundreds of traumatized refugee children in Sweden have become afflicted with Resignation Syndrome. Life is so hard they withdraw into a coma-like state, unresponsive, sometimes for years. It’s like their little bodies can only take so much. Children need security, not uncertainty, to recover after a trauma, but for refugees, security is a long time coming. Watching these kids waste away is tragic. What is happening here? And the scariest part is that their families are still facing deportation. Imagine caring for a comatose child as a refugee? Those kids are frankly not likely to survive. But with anti-immigration sentiment growing in Sweden, and asylum laws getting stricter, the outlook isn’t positive. This documentary had me asking questions I’d never even thought of before, and combing the internet for answers. Stirring and urgent, Life Overtakes Me is available on Netflix.
Some of these are available to watch on Youtube, legally and for free – check out my Oscar-nominated films playlist.
Director Carol Nguyen interviews her own Vietnamese-Canadian family, mining them for secrets.
Mostly they share their losses, their grief. The short film explores the cultural and generational differences in how her father, mother, and sister have experienced loss, from physical expressions of sympathy to regret and shame and forgiveness. It’s incredibly personal and soberly realized. What Nguyen accomplished in just 16 minutes is a veritable portrait of grief, and a moving, and living, family history. Her precisely-composed shots reflect the range of emotions, from raw to repressed, and her unobtrusive camera allows us a spot at the dinner table, preferably close to the tissues.
I love how we get to experience the difference between old country new country for this immigrant family, but the truth is, all families are different. Nguyen’s mother shares that she only kissed her own mother once, when she was very ill. Just once. She’s fairly matter of fact in the recounting, but her eyes betray some anguish.
I come from a very physically affectionate family, though I wouldn’t have described us as such until I met Sean’s family. We don’t necessary feel the urge to hug and kiss all the time, but I think our casual touches are actually a testament to our closeness. We might stroke each other in jest, or pinch each other with affection. Rarely does a family gathering go by without someone’s hair getting brushed, or braided. Or perhaps feet rubbed or nails painted. And we might sit very close together, even touching, even lying on top of each other if someone needs the cuddle, or sitting atop each other, if someone’s being a pain. Sean is not naturally a physically affectionate person. I call him a robot all the time, and he assures me that he has feelings, and I pretend to believe him. We just didn’t grow up the same way. It’s fine. We’ve just had to get used to each other. But now he’s the one always reaching for my hand, and he gives me a backrub almost every night before bed (of course, he mislabels this as foreplay, but that’s another story for another short film whose review I’ve highjacked). With coaching, I’ve even gotten him to admit to his mother that he loves her right before hanging up the phone. That’s huge for him. And occasionally he and his father have exchanged a hug rather than a handshake.
And that’s kind of another great revelation hidden inside this film’s 16 minutes. People do change, even just one generation to the next. We learn. We do better. Trauma changes us, but life goes on, and maybe next time, we do it differently. That’s a beautiful thing.
I’ll be honest. Until I watched All Cats Are Grey in the Dark, I did not know the first thing about breeding cats. Now, having seen it, I have a much better idea of what is involved. It is safe to say I will not be getting into the business anytime soon, but it’s good to know it could be my life if I’m looking for a career change.
Christian, on the other hand, has clearly decided that cat breeding is for him. And he is all in. His cats go everywhere with him, whether on a ferry to another country, to a ski resort, or to what I can only assume is a European Costco. I realize that is not an extremely long list but All Cats Are Grey in the Dark is not an extremely long film, so there were probably more destinations that didn’t make the cut.
I would have been interested to see more of the world surrounding Christian and his cats, because the few shots outside Christian’s home are my favourite parts of the movie. Those scenes really capture the separation between Christian (and his cats) and literally everyone else. Christian may or may not be aware of the distance his cats create between him and others, and he may or may not care, but it’s obvious and striking how much of a barrier is put up by a person having two cats on his shoulder as he goes about his day. He sits alone at the slope-side bar, there is no one else in sight at the pet store, and his veterinarian is the only person Christian talks to directly during the 18 minute runtime of All Cats Are Grey in the Dark.
[Editor’s note: Although Sean has just told you the film is only 18 minutes long, I feel the need to tell you that he paused it somewhere in the middle because he was “so hungry I could eat a cat.” He had cereal. – J ]
Which is not to say that there is no other dialogue. Christian is very chatty with his cats, Marmelade and Katjuscha, and the three of them seem quite happy to do their own thing, especially when that thing involves staring hungrily at mice at the aforementioned EuroCostco (it’s exactly as pictured in Tom and Jerry). More accurately, Christian seems happy, because cats always seem angry no matter what they are doing.
Still, despite the happy facade, I can’t help but feel sad for Christian as he lives in self-imposed exile. Most of all, I can’t help but wonder how much different his life would be if he had just gotten a couple of dogs and, through them, brought the rest of world closer instead of pushing it away as the guy with two cats on his shoulder.
[Editor’s note: Sean makes this sound like a pretty gloomy movie, and I suppose maybe it is, but he watched all the way through the credits “In case there’s a post-credit scene!” so I guess there was something special about it after all. – J ]
David Harbour had a career before Stranger Things: The Equalizer, Black Mass, Suicide Squad, and various TV roles. But Stranger Things is the thing that made him a household name, playing the gruff police chief who adopts science experiment Eleven. It’s what allowed him to secure the lead role in the Hellboy remake. But despite his various roles, I didn’t know him for what is clearly a deep and quirky sense of humour.
In this Netflix short film, he plays “himself”, David Harbour III, plus his father, Harbour Jr., and his grandfather Harbour Sr., as well as Frankenstein. David Harbour (the third) is ostensibly looking into his family’s rich acting legacy, and particularly at a made-for-TV play he starred in called Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein. It’s a mockumentary, in case you’ve failed to glean that.
In the needlessly complicated play, the monster is posing as the doctor Frankenstein, and the good doctor is posing as the monster, in an effort to get funding from a lovely young woman (Kate Berlant), who for some reason falls madly for the monster, who is actually not the monster, though she doesn’t know that. At first.
David Harbour (the third) screens footage from this weird TV movie for us, and not just the movie, but the commercials that ran between episodes, giving us a glimpse of vintage product placements that will make you appreciate the content all the more. In fact, it seems this play as being broadcast live on television, and was subject to the whims of its blowhard, egotistical star.
The more Harbour (the third) looks into it, the more his idea of his father, the acting legend, unravels. Turns out, he as a real piece of shit.
It’s a crazy, wacky project that’s not for everyone, but I love seeing this kind of stuff from Netflix. It’s deliciously indulgent, and it takes a sudden turn that you wouldn’t buy from more traditional material. It breaks all the rules. This truly is a new era for television, if Netflix can even be classed as such – not quite TV, but not quite the movies, it’s clearly a lawless, magical place where classic lines can be redrawn and anything goes.
Harbour fully commits to the weirdness, even if I’m still not sure what to call it. Is this sketch comedy? Just an odd idea he had one night, in a fever dream? A side project devoted to pushing boundaries? In the end, at only 30 minutes, it’s an easily digested bit of fun, which actually demands to be rewatched immediately, to pick up the little Easter eggs you didn’t know where planted. I’ve never seen this side of David Harbour before, and it’s not so much a new side as like half a dozen new sides, all at once. Enjoy.
A man (Thom Yorke, of Radiohead) is one of many people riding the subway in a dazed state, nodding off, sleep walking through life. Only his sighting of a beautiful woman (Dajana Roncione) sets him on a divergent path, going against the usual drudgery to return a forgotten lunch box to her.
Paul Thomas Anderson directs Thom Yorke in a 15 minute musical short, though Yorke isn’t exactly breaking into song, it’s more like an extended music video, a visual piece accompanied by hypnotic music that to be honest is really working for me.
The choppy, physical choreography has Yorke literally going against the grain, and it’s only when he finally reunites with the woman from the subway that the dance, choreographed by Damien Jalet, becomes playful, fluid, more intimate. The two carve out a private space in a world that is monotonous and homogenous. It’s hard to say if this world is dystopian, or if it’s meant to be interpreted on a more metaphorical basis, but images of competition and subjugation abound.
The piece ends with the two boarding a streetcar. Yorke again nods off, and it’s unclear if the whole that came before it was meant to be a dream, but even if it is, it’s taken him from the underground darkness (or artificially lit at best) of a subway and left him above ground, seated in a beam of sunlight.
You’re darn right it’s weird, unlike anything else you’ll find on Netflix. But that’s what I can easily love about it, and about Netflix. Netflix is a lot of things, and not all of them good, but it’s creating space for experimentation. With the sheer volume of output, it can afford to take risks, and it does, something that is increasingly rare if not already obsolete for movie studios. Not very long ago it would be nearly impossible for most of us to catch a short film, other than the ones that routinely screened before Pixar films (although I can’t be the only one to notice this absence before Toy Story 4). But Netflix now hosts, and in fact is creating, a whole host of out of the box content. How wonderful to let PTA do his thing. And no, Thom Yorke is no actor, but I can’t help but admire someone who will go out on a limb for art. It gets all of our creative juices flowing to see new and boundary-pushing things, which is what Anima is. At worst, all it costs you is 15 minutes, but it’s a literal tunnel out of oppression, an exploration of conformity, and ultimately, an expression and rejoicing of freedom.
The Lonely Island is a comedy trio consisting of childhood friends Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer. They became known for their popular digital shorts on SNL, many of which, like Lazy Sunday, went viral, for comedic songs like Jack Sparrow, featuring THE Michael Bolton, and for movies like Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. If you like them, you probably love them, and if you love them, you’re in for a treat. Especially if you also have a soft spot for late-1980s-era major league baseball.
The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is a 30 minute short streaming now on Netflix that’s the supposed never before seen\heard rap collaboration between steroid bash brothers Jose Canseco (Samberg) and Mark McGwire (Schaffer) of the Oakland Athletics. I don’t give two shits about baseball (especially not historical baseball from another century), but Sean did and does and had an especially appreciative chuckle for all the references they got right.
The rap album consists of many memorable musical numbers, literally something for everyone, between such hits as Bikini Babe Workout, IHOP Parking Lot (featuring Maya Rudolph), Oakland Nights (featuring Sia, who looks an awful lot like Sterling K. Brown in a a wig unworthy of the real Sia), and my favourite, Daddy, which explores the mountainous daddy issues behind the Canseco-McGwire shenanigans.
Sean wondered how – not if, but how – high they were when they wrote this stuff. And the answer can only be: extremely. So high. And yet I was sober when I watched it and I still dissolved into fits of giggles (a credit cameo featuring “Joe Montana” had me gasping for breath). It’s light-hearted and doesn’t dare take itself serious for a single split second. The narrow theme of the “visual poem” (a la Beyonce’s Lemonade?) ensures that the songs are punchy and topical, if not always sensical. But you didn’t come for the sense. You came for the nonsense, and they’re flooding the diamond with it.
Samberg and Schaffer are both hilarious in their terrible mullet wigs, but it seems like everyone who pops up in these videos are having a riotously good time. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience offers locker room injections of satire and parody, and they will PUMP YOU UP.
Lance is bringing his cat to be put down. It’s time. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Whether he’s emotional or nervous or lonely, he’s ready to pour his heart out, and an unsuspecting old lady on the bus doesn’t have much choice but to listen. In just under 10 minutes, we get to know Lance quite well – and even better in the film’s last 5 seconds or so.
It’s a bittersweet little film that reminds us how important pets are in our lives, and how bereft we are when we lose them. Putting down my childhood mutt Patches was seriously one of the most wrenching things I’ve ever done in my life and I’ve only been able to let doggos back into my life after extracting from them solemn vows to never, ever die. We brought Patches to the vet at the end of his life, perhaps not quite his natural end, but an end that we chose in the hopes that it was best for him. The first shot was to settle him. His little legs gave out and he collapsed on the cold metal table. He was wrapped up in a Star Wars blanket and placed in my arms. The second shot stopped his heart. He looked like he was sleeping, but for once not chasing cars in his dreams. We left him there, my mother and I. I left him there, and we cried hot tears in a mini van. My friends offered hugs, and even a greeting card, the ‘blank inside’ kind with a generic flower on the front. Today condolence cards for pets exist, a testament to the place they’ve taken up in our hearts and homes. But for many of us, cats and dogs are more than just pets, they’re family. I suspect for Lance, Galen (the cat) was his only friend, hence the great unburdening on the bus.
Do domesticated animals really think the thoughts and feel the emotions we ascribe them – or are we merely deluding ourselves by anthropomorphizing them? As our social circles grow narrower, and our ability to truly connect with other people seems to dim, perhaps pets are our last secret keepers. With seemingly unconditional positive regard for us, a dog is loyal and steadfast in a way that few if any people in our lives will be. When Lance brings his only friend in to the vet, which of them is truly “ready to go” – the cat who doesn’t know what’s coming, or the human who doesn’t know how to say goodbye?