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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts 2018 (90th Academy Awards) review

Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2018 green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

My pick: “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” a marvelous portrait of artist Mindy Alper, one that challenges us all to know ourselves as well as she seems to, even when it’s incredibly painful.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Remarkable women who are enduring, pushing for change, and finding themselves are at the heart of the majority of these short documentaries. This is one of the few Oscars categories in which women make good showings behind the camera, too, and that’s true this year as well, with three of the five nominated films the work of female directors.

The deliciously titled “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405” [IMDb|official site], from filmmaker Frank Stiefel, is, I suspect, about to win the Oscar for its marvelously moving portrait of Los Angeles artist Mindy Alper. Her heaven, she explains as the film opens, is being slowed to a crawl on the most notorious freeway in Southern California, which affords her a chance to think or listen to music, a chance to people-watch, and — perhaps most contrary to how many other people react to similar situations — a feeling of safety. It’s a startling introduction to a woman with an extraordinary perspective on the world, one formed by her overcoming of abuse and neglect as a youngster and coping with a panoply of ongoing mental illnesses, including acute depression and anxiety, some of which were surely worsened by her upbringing. Her blunt openness about herself, as she speaks directly to the camera, is a challenge to us all to know ourselves as well as she seems to know herself, even when it’s incredibly painful and difficult to do so. The enormous amount of work she has put into understanding her own brain and coming to terms with her past is inspiring, but also dispiriting in what it says about how little our science knows how to help: she faces a constant battle to find the right balance of therapy and medication to keep her functioning, which she discusses in the same matter-of-fact manner with which she relates horrors from her childhood. This is just her everyday reality. Her art is clearly one of her greatest therapies, from the bold, stark sketches that illustrate her life for us to the giant papier-mâché bust she is working on throughout the film, a tender, warm likeness of the psychiatrist who has helped her so much. Alper’s story is extreme, and her trials greater than those of many, but this is the sort of film that makes you realize that amazing people are all around us, quietly struggling to make their way in the world. [watch free on YouTube (global)]

women’s participation in this film (learn more about this)
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist



“Heroin(e)” [IMDb|official site], from director Elaine McMillion Sheldon (11/8/16), looks at America’s brutal crisis of opioid addiction from several unusual viewpoints. In a small West Virginia town where the overdose rate is 10 times the national average, the problem isn’t being treated as a criminal one but one of health care, social breakdown, and personal desperation… and it’s women who are leading the change in how the problem might be approached. Deputy fire chief Jan Rader is on the front lines, answering calls to revive users, and training the men under her command to treat addicts with empathy and kindness. Judge Patricia Keller dispenses tough love from the bench, doling out jail time only after compassion hasn’t been enough, and encouraging friends and families to support users as they attempt rehab. Minister Necia Freeman tends to women prostituting themselves for fixes: she feeds them, offers hugs and a shoulder, finds them places to stay when they want to get off the streets. “It ain’t just a job to her,” someone says of Rader. “She cares.” And that’s the simple lesson of this doc, which is surprisingly breezy and cheerful given the subject matter: a softer touch and a gentler approach is better in this terrible situation. Optimism is the modus operandi for these women, and it’s working. It may be the first hint of good news regarding America’s latest drug epidemic. [watch on Netflix (global)]

women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist

“Edith + Eddie”

“Edith + Eddie”

Meet “Edith + Eddie” [IMDb|official site], of Alexandria, Virginia, America’s oldest interracial newlyweds (they’re in their mid 90s). Documentarian Laura Checkoway’s sketch of the couple and their life together starts off sweet: they put in their dentures in tandem in the morning; they sit by the lake and contemplate just how long they might have together. And then the film turns heartbreaking and enraging when their time together is threatened by one of Edith’s daughters from a previous marriage, who has designs on her mother’s house and is getting tired of waiting to inherit it. Checkoway’s approach is intimate, giving space for emotions such as rage and grief and loneliness to play out in a way that brings us inside the pain. But her verité style also has room for an unspoken critique of elder care to come through: Edith has a legal advocate, someone is supposed to be on her side and looking out for her needs, but that advocate has never met her and has no idea what she wants. The notion that it’s never too late to fall in love is a hugely appealing one — Edith and Eddie seem genuinely delighted with each other — but the precariousness of their relationship is pitiful, and all because a system designed to help older people seems rather to be taking advantage of their frailty. [watch at iTunes US|iTunes Can|iTunes UK][watch free at Topic (global)]

women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female coprotagonist

“Knife Skills”

“Knife Skills”

“This is gonna be the most anticipated restaurant opening Cleveland has seen.” So says Brandon Chrostowski, founder of Edwins, serving fine French cuisine, on the day it started serving the public. “Knife Skills” [IMDb|official site], directed by Thomas Lennon, shows us why: the restaurant is staffed almost entirely by ex-prisoners. They cook, they recommend and pour wine, they greet, they serve. The film rewinds to introduce us to the first class of former inmates that Chrostowski, who has himself spend time in jail, brought onboard for an intensive course in all things restaurant in preparation for the establishment’s debut. Fairly standard stuff follows: the ups and downs of learning new skills and digesting new knowledge; the minor suspense of wondering who will survive the course and make it to opening day, and who won’t. As a social endeavor, Edwins and Chrostowski are a hugely positive example of how to pay it forward and help make the world a better place one person at a time. As a film, though, it’s far from the most engrossing of the nominees. There’s little unexpected in it, and neither Chrostowski nor his students turned employees are drawn vividly enough to be truly engaging. [watch at Amazon US|Amazon UK|iTunes US|iTunes Can|iTunes UK][watch free at NewYorker.com (US only)]

women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist

“Traffic Stop”

“Traffic Stop”

Finally, there’s “Traffic Stop” [IMDb|official site], an HBO Documentary Film from director Kate Davis. This angry-making film is built around dashcam footage of a violent arrest by a white Austin, Texas, police officer of Breaion King, a young black schoolteacher, after a routine traffic violation. The assault to which King is subjected is shocking, brutal, obviously entirely unjustified, and difficult to watch… and yet watching is essential, especially for white Americans who are unaware of the danger black Americans often face when dealing with the police, even in everyday interactions. Davis also builds up a portrait of the middle-class normality King’s life, and the contrasting infuriating conclusion that it is utterly impossible for even an educated professional like herself to escape automatic suspicion by the police because of the color of her skin, that there is no way for her to be or to live that could counter that. There’s a sense, though, that the film is unfinished, that the ending — which uses more police footage taken from the back of the police car in which King was transported after her arrest — leaves too much hanging. The topic of racism in America is, of course, far too large for one short documentary to fully cover, but this one, ironically, might have felt more complete if it were shorter. [watch on Amazon US|Amazon UK|HBO (US only)]

women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist

See ShortsTV’s official site for the Oscar-nominated shorts to find cinemas showing this program.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

green light 4.5 stars

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Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts 2018 (90th Academy Awards) (2018) | directed by Frank Stiefel, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lennon, Kate Davis
US/Can release: Feb 09 2018
UK/Ire release: direct to VOD

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: not rated

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Rotten Tomatoes

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