Numlock Awards: The Return of the Doc Shorts
They're ready for primetime (again).
Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter. Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Michael.
Thanks for the feedback the other week when we dove into Best Original Song! As Walt and I have said, we love hearing from you all on where you agree or disagree or what your own analysis is.
This week, I wanted to take a look at the Best Documentary Shorts. At the Oscars last year, the producers shuffled this category to the pre-telecast, which was an annoying idea to make the ceremony less short that ultimately didn’t even work. Here at Numlock Awards we are firmly in the camp of Televise The Awards You Bozos, so it’s exciting to hear they’re going to air each category this year on the main broadcast.
Without further ado, here are my Documentary Shorts, ranked by preference:
A super minimalist documentary about how climate change is affecting walruses? Count me in. There’s not as clear of a narrative in Haulout compared to some of the other contenders, but I think that’s what made it stand out. It’s 25 minutes and available on YouTube vis-à-vis The New Yorker, and it’s basically just a slice of life of a marine biologist in a remote part of Russia who, from his comically tiny hut, monitors the walruses as they make their way through Cape Serdtse-Kamen. There’s almost no dialogue, and it’s very stripped of the standard trappings of documentary filmmaking. Given that, it might not be the favored winner since this category can lean a bit more traditional.
Still, if you watch it it’s hard not to be enthralled. Co-director Maxim Arbugaev explained the moment the walruses arrived like so: “At around 4 am, we were sleeping in the hut. That night I struggled with nightmares and kept turning in my bunk bed. I was woken up by the weird and increasingly loud sounds outside. I quickly put on a jacket and walked out to the cold part of the hut. When I opened the door, I saw tens of thousands of walruses in front of me. There was a feeling of panic in the air. Walruses were coming out in thousands from the sea. The steam from their bodies created fog. It all felt like a continuation of my dreams.”
To me? That’s an Oscar.
The Elephant Whisperers
Keeping up the theme of charismatic megafauna is The Elephant Whisperers, available on Netflix and telling the story of an elephant refuge in India. I’d say this is the actual favorite in the group — not only is it affecting and moving, but it has a much more traditional documentary format, similar to last year’s winner The Queen of Basketball. While I didn’t always love the film — ordinary people saying deeply profound things about their circumstances sometimes rings a little bit too filmic and staged — it is an undeniably powerful movie with gorgeous cinematography. If you drop any average viewer in front of this movie, it’s hard for them not to feel the emotional impact of people taking care of orphaned elephants.
The doc also has an impressive pedigree: Guneet Monga is one of the nominees here, one of the first Indian producers inducted into the Academy as it’s grown ever-more international and the producer behind 2018’s winning docs short, Period. End of Sentence. The other nominee, first-time filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves, grew up in the area and had been visiting the sanctuary since she was a toddler, and the two caretakers depicted in the doc have become stars in India.
The Martha Mitchell Effect
Martha Mitchell is having a bit of a moment in our Watergate-obsessed culture. First, there was the podcast Slow Burn, which re-examined her position, as the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, in the scandal. Then, there was a Julia Roberts-starring miniseries called Gaslit that focused on Martha’s role in Watergate. And now there’s the Netflix doc The Martha Mitchell Effect which — as you probably guessed — looks at Martha’s centrality to the fall of Nixon.
If you’ve never once heard the name Martha Mitchell, this might be an informative documentary. She really was an outspoken character who loved to talk to the press and say things that infuriated the Nixon administration. It is one of those documentaries that goes a little bit too far in making its central character seem like the only cause of a massive historical event, but it’s serviceable if you somehow still don’t have your fill of Watergate content. And directors Debra McClutchy and Anne Alvergue did unearth some wonderful footage from the Nixon Library, the Library of Congress, and even from a journalist’s attic.
Stranger at the Gate
The New Yorker strikes again with another doc short nominee, and boy it’s a doozy. There is an interesting movie here — about an ex-military man whose bigotry toward Muslims leads him to almost committing a horrible violent crime against a local Islamic Center, only to be brought in by that exact community and eventually convert to Islam — but this is not that movie.
Instead, what we get is a lot of surface and no depth. Mac, the main focus, was trained by the military to be a killing machine and then eventually discharged following an injury, with seemingly no support to readjust to civilian society. Do we plumb the depths there about a broken system? Not really. Instead, we dive into his Islamophobia, and the Muslim folks depicted in the movie basically become these tools in a story to help convince a guy that they’re worthy of not being killed not because they’re people but because they’re particularly nice. It’s not great!
How Do You Measure a Year? (Unranked)
How Do You Measure a Year? is not currently streaming, so I’m not ranking it here as I haven’t been able to track it down. The background — it’s directed by Jay Rosenblatt, who last year received his first nomination for When We Were Bullies. He is back to mining his own life — which if I’m being honest doesn’t seem that interesting — and this time it’s a short film comprised of home movies where he asked his daughter every year on her birthday the same questions. So like Boyhood but real. There’s something a little bit weird to me about using your kids for content, though that public debate has probably long passed given where we are culturally. But similar to last year, my analysis is pretty similar — these types of hyper-personal movies don’t tend to win in this category, so Rosenblatt is not a likely frontrunner.
And here are the Documentary Shorts, ranked by how likely I think they are to win:
The Elephant Whisperers
The Martha Mitchell Effect
Stranger at the Gate
How Do You Measure a Year?
The Elephant Whisperers has the pedigree behind it, a moving subject, and a classic doc feel. The Martha Mitchell Effect is a relatively fun re-examination of a historical subject. Stranger at the Gate tackles a serious social issue (albeit clumsily). Haulout is really stripped-down so I think viewers’ mileage will vary here. How Do You Measure a Year? seems too small, but could be a spoiler since Jay Rosenblatt is fresh off another nomination, so there could be some groundswell support there.
What are your thoughts on this category? Shoot us an email!
Every Oscar season I get frustrated that some of the short subject nominations aren't available to stream. Do the film makers not care about the exposure? I'm sure there are reasons to this but what a missed opportunity for millions of people to see your work.
Two Jay Rosenblatt’s in a row make me wonder if he has a Diane Warren-like cadre of people who are really committed to getting him an Oscar, regardless of the actual quality of his films. But I also really disliked his movie last year so maybe I’m being uncharitable.