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It never fails to impress me how the live-action shorts Oscar nominates each year create palpable tension in such a compact time frame. And yet, clear stakes and high drama are evident in those truncated films year in and year out, with 2023 being no exception. The five nominated entries, now showing in theaters, do the film world proud with involving, moving stories and fascinating characters that any feature would be lucky to have. This year’s finalists all end reasonably more upbeat than most of the entries in years past too making a solid case for hope during our troubled times.

My favorite of the five this year is THE RED SUITCASE, the story of a 16-year-old teenage Iranian girl (Nawelle Ewad) arriving at a Luxembourg airport to marry a man she’s never met. Her father has made the arrangement and the girl is terrified of her future when she spots her husband-to-be (Sarkway Gorany) waiting with flowers, a man well north of 40.

She finds a way to evade her fate, however, through some clever alterations to her appearance, as well as some crafty dodging about throughout the airport’s arrivals gate. In a mere 18 minutes, Luxembourg’s official entry had me wholly on the edge of my seat and even wanting more of this girl’s story. Director Cyrus Neshvad has crafted a superb human drama, crackling and heartfelt, one that’s all but begging to be turned into a full feature.

Another great underdog story is Norway’s fantastic 15-minute NIGHT RIDE, a deft character study of two unique people riding a tram together on a cold December eve. Ebba (Sigrid Kandal Husjord) is shivering in the cold, hoping to board, yet the self-involved tram operator wants to take a break and won’t let her as he runs inside the station. His dismissal of her shivering leads her to sneak onboard and before you know it, she’s accidentally started the tram. Forced to man the controls, Ebba ends up pioneering the tram down the track and even stopping to pick up other waiting passengers. One of them is a fashionable hottie (Ola Hoemsnes Sandum) with whom Ebba starts to engage before a rude male punk interferes. What happens next is a tense battle between entitlement, true identities being discovered, and yes, a runaway train. Writer/director Erik Tveiten has fashioned a taut thriller, both tense and sweet, with a cheeky, perfectly-timed ending to his terrific story.

LE PUPILLE is the longest short this year, clocking in at 37 minutes. This Italian short, presented by Disney, directed by the talented writer/director Alice Rohrwacher and produced by the legendary filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron could have the advantage over the other entries as it’s currently playing on Disney Plus, as well as in theaters. It’s a detailed and clever story concerning a group of young girls at a strict Catholic boarding school rife with conflict, even at Christmas time. In a matter of days, these plucky kids will learn affecting lessons about rules, fables, and sharing holiday cake. Of course, their mother superior is a crank, and one girl in particular, all wide-eyed and cute as a button, ends up being the reluctant agitator. But, despite this story cultivating the classic tropes of youth vs. authority, it feels fresh due to its energy, out-of-left-field fantasy sequences, and detailed production values you’d expect in a feature film.

Denmark’s entry is IVALU, a tense, 16-minute story taken from the award-winning graphic novel of the same name by Morton Durr and Lars Horneman. The story takes place in Greenland amongst the indigenous people who live there in a humble, mountain community. The landscapes are vast and awe-inspiring, a stunning background for such an intimate story about a young girl named Pipaluk (Mila Heilemann Kreutzmann) searching for her missing older sister Ivalu (Nivi Larsen). As Pipaluk searches caverns and caves in the area for any sign of her sibling, the reality of what has happened starts to panic her. This short juxtaposes gorgeous settings against revelations of unspeakable ugliness to great and devastating effect.

Finally, there’s the darkly comic Irish tale appropriately titled AN IRISH GOODBYE. Tom Berkeley and Ross White have written and directed a poignant and hilarious character study concerning two estranged brothers who reunite following the untimely death of their mother. As they gather to deal with the porcelain pottery holding her dusty remains, they argue about how to honor their mother’s memory in their rural community of Northern Ireland. Lorcan (James Martin) is young and stubborn, wanting to take mom’s remains to all the places she didn’t get to see before dying. Turlough (Seamus O’Hara) is the prodigal son returning, having no time for such tomfoolery and itching to sell the farm for profit. Of course the two eventually bond, but how they get there, full of some deft slapstick and a lot of profanity, makes for a rollicking 23 minutes despite its funereal subject matter. If Oscar voters pass over THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN for Best Picture, don’t be surprised if they stop to honor this wry tale instead.

The 95th Oscars will be announced during a ceremony on March 12, so you have a number of weeks to catch these nominated shorts in theaters. Catch the Animated and Documentary Shorts too, all well worth it as well.

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