‘2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action’ Review: Brevity Proves a Blessing in a Year of Overlong Oscar Nominees

Of the 10 films up for best picture, no fewer than six run 139 minutes or more. On one extreme, James Cameron’s punishing “Avatar” sequel is long enough to require bathroom breaks. At the other, Daniels’ ADHD-styled “Everything Everywhere All at Once” proves equally exhausting, dedicating every hyperkinetic second to stimulating easily distracted audiences. It’s enough to make folks grateful for the lower-profile but still engaging live-action shorts category, where nominees are bound by a strict 40-minute time limit. This year’s crop — the so-so “2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action” program — clocks in at under two hours. Available in theaters and on myriad streaming platforms, the international assembly may be a hit-and-miss affair, but never outstays its welcome.

Set in a rarely seen corner of Greenland, “Ivalu” follows a Native girl as she tries to make sense of her sister’s disappearance. It’s a visually striking 16 minutes, full of drone shots over frozen Arctic scenery as young Pipaluk (Mila Heilmann Kreutzmann) follows a raven through the ice-covered landscape to the place where her sister, the title character (played by Nivi Larsen), took her own life. “Ivalu” presents one of those mysteries that’s constructed mostly for the audience’s benefit, as flashbacks reveal that Pipaluk was well aware of what Ivalu suffered, having been forced out of the bedroom the two girls shared by their father (Angunnguaq Larsen) on dark, drunken nights. Dramatically speaking, it’s powerful to withhold this information at first, relying on us to put the pieces together. Confronting sexual abuse in such communities makes for a worthy subject, which co-directors Anders Walter and Pipaluk K. Jørgensen handle with care.

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The next entry, the darkly comic “Night Ride,” also hails from Scandinavia, as Norwegian helmer Eirik Tveiten tries to cram a handful of social issues into 15 minutes — catnip for Oscar voters, apparently, considering that they’ve passed over countless well-made shorts in favor of this relatively preachy lot. Here, little person Ebba (Sigrid Kandal Husjord) waits in the cold for a late-night tram. When the conductor disembarks to use the loo, she climbs aboard and starts fussing with the controls, and before she knows it, the train is running all by itself. At the next stop, she picks up a handful of loudmouth passengers, who tease her about her stature before turning their attention to a young trans woman (Ola Hoemsnes Sandum) traveling alone. Ebba is reluctant to get involved at first, which is uncomfortable to watch but more realistic than the well-meaning short’s feel-good ending, which finds the two outsiders becoming new best friends.

The strongest of the five, Iranian director Cyrus Neshvad’s “The Red Suitcase” packs a political punch as well, although real-world resonances aside, this one also stands alone as a tight, well-told thriller. Sixteen-year-old Ariane (Nawelle Ewad) arrives in Luxembourg by herself, the last passenger to collect her baggage on a flight in from Iran. At first, we can only imagine why she’s so reluctant to leave the airport, sharing her discomfort as she’s stopped by customs officers at the exit. Is she smuggling something? Are her immigration papers in order? And then Neshvad reveals the source of her anxiety: She’s supposed to meet the much older man (Sarkaw Gorany) whom her father has arranged for her to marry. Meek and inexperienced, Ariane makes a series of decisions — from removing her headscarf to sneaking aboard a city bus — that ratchet up the tension. Shrewd direction and convincing performances compel us to the nail-biting conclusion, at which point we realize this artistic and resourceful girl’s struggle for independence is just beginning.

Only in the Oscar shorts category could the front-runner be an Italian-language period piece from a festival-celebrated woman director. In “Le Pupille,” Alice Rohrwacher brings a lighter touch to subjects addressed in her 2011 debut, “Corpo Celeste.” Once again, we see a religious institution through the eyes of a child — in this case, a Catholic orphanage run by nuns. From Charles Dickens (“Oliver Twist”) to Roald Dahl (“Matilda”), many an author has spun gold from the misfortune of kids bullied by unreasonably severe grown-ups. The formula is so dependable that Disney scooped up the 37-minute short (which was produced by Alfonso Cuarón) for U.S. distribution.

In “Le Pupille,” the story centers on an unexpected showdown between the mother superior (a miscast Alba Rohrwacher, who comes across as more the “Singing Nun” type) and her most obedient resident, Serafina (Melissa Falasconi), who makes her bed and does her chores, only to be unfairly reprimanded on Christmas Eve — a scolding that backfires when a decadent cake arrives, leaving the good girl-gone-“bad” to enjoy it alone. It’s a cute if somewhat uneven story that ought to have the long-run advantage of raising awareness in the States for Rohrwacher’s work.

Last (and most certainly least) of the nominees, Tom Berkeley and Ross White’s “An Irish Goodbye” reunites estranged brothers Turlough (Seamus O’Hara) and Lorcan (James Martin) after the death of their mother. Ireland’s long been a reliable source for borderline-inappropriate black humor — as finger-endangerment dramedy “The Banshees of Inisherin” proved this year — but these filmmakers hardly feel like the Martin and John Michael McDonagh of tomorrow. Ma’s remains sit in a porcelain urn, which differently-abled Lorcan clutches to his chest. Before scattering the ashes, he insists on fulfilling her bucket list. Cue an “Amélie”-esque montage that would be better suited to a MasterCard commercial, as the brothers bond over a series of silly activities. A cloying mix of sentimentality and misfire humor (which include a gaffe-prone priest and fart jokes), “Goodbye” is the only English-language nominee of the lot; it’s also lighter than the others, so don’t count it out.

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