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Misunderstood Blog-a-thon 1: Road to Perdition

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Misunderstood Blog-a-thon 1: Road to Perdition

Various obligations have made it impossible to write an original piece for CultureSnob’s “Misunderstood Blog-a-thon,” which concludes today. But since I hate to be left out, here’s a stopgap contribution: a July, 2002 New York Press review of Road to Perdition, a movie I thought at the time was flawed but brilliant; many viewings later, I think even more highly of it. For another defense of a Mendes movie, Jarhead, click here.

Road to Perdition, a sprawling drama about a glum hit man going on the road with his young son to escape the crime family that sold him out, can be described in many different ways: as a gangster picture, a drama, a period piece, a comic book adaptation, a fantastic meditation on violence and its representation. But above all else, it’s a movie. From first frame to last, it’s defiantly a work of cinema, composed, lit, edited and shot with maximum attention to rhythm and detail; it’s always in the moment, and it builds a mood of dreamy dread and sustains it for about two hours, reeling off so many defiantly showy grace notes, and staging so many clever sequences, that after a while I stopped writing them down because my notepad was running out of paper.

Director Sam Mendes, a theater ace who won an Oscar for his first film, the cliched but masterfully done American Beauty, is a magnet for player haters. Like Hitchcock, he knows how to plant information at the beginning of a sequence and make it pay off at the end, sometimes in dizzying, delightful ways, and like Hitchcock, he understands how to move the camera in ways that conceal and then reveal things, creating both suspense and surprise. Every move Mendes makes has a showman’s conviction, and while that kind of confidence never bugs fans of De Palma, Spielberg or Walter Hill—three persistent darlings of the Paulettes whose fondness for hackneyed genres is rarely treated as a downside—it seems to drive Mendes’ legion of detractors into a frothing rage. Leaving a screening last week, I listened to the audience, and they seemed dramatically divided on the picture’s merits; some complained that it was too dark, too violent, too simplistic and too sentimental–adjectives that rarely coexist–while the film’s defenders liked it for reasons they seemed incapable of rationally explaining. I fall into the latter camp; Mendes and his collaborators have made the kind of film that I’ve always wanted to see: a fever dream about the gangster-infested 30s that has the moody texture of the Godfather pictures, the studied elegance of mid-period Hitchcock, the melodramatic twists of a Saturday morning serial, the pulp brutality of a Sam Fuller film and the childlike naïveté of an early Disney cartoon like Bambi. It’s an unwieldy, even bizarre mix that alternates failure with dazzling success; depending on your temperament, it will strike you as piercingly true or utterly false (rather like American Beauty). But in an age where the basic values of composition, lighting, pacing and tone have been degraded by megacorporate Hollywood—which thinks Ridley and Tony Scott’s tv-commercial flashiness is artful—Road to Perdition struck me as an old-school blast: technique plus feeling. It was clearly made by people who know what they’re doing, and their vigor gives what might have been merely an overblown genre piece a certain resonance. After Minority Report and A Song for Martin, no film in theaters right now is more grand, direct or pure.

As hero Michael Sullivan, Hanks at first seems miscast; his pistol-wielding suburban dad suggests a 1930s version of a Godfather or Sopranos character, torn between domestic affection and the bloody demands of his job, and compelled to compartmentalize his morality so that he can do his bosses’ bidding. It seems a role tailor-made for a hardcase like Bruce Willis—or, in the 1960s, someone like Lee Marvin or Steve McQueen. But Hanks submerges his warmth during the film’s first two acts, keeping Michael’s fatherly affection period-accurate (no hugging here). His relationship with his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a small, rather under-written supporting turn) feels hard, no-nonsense, real; his two boys, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken), see their pop as a distant, slightly intimidating figure.

The first time we see him, we’re in Michael Jr.’s shoes, looking at the man in the distance, through an open doorway that half-hides him, revealing his shoulder holster in nearly subliminal glimpses. Michael Jr. isn’t quite sure what his dad does for a living, so he decides to find out, and hides out in the old man’s car as he goes to confront a “family” member who’s started mouthing off about how the patriarch, John Rooney (Paul Newman), is running things. In a brilliant stroke, the whole inevitably horrific sequence is played out from Michael Jr.’s point of view as he stares through a crack in the baseboard of a warehouse wall; the jagged edges of the crack form a frame-within-a-frame, and we watch through the child’s eyes as John Rooney’s son, the remorseless thug Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), intimidates and then shoots the wayward, terrified underling at close range. Throughout the sequence, Michael Sr. is reduced to a pair of shoes bracketing the blurry foreground–an objective correlative for the son’s distance from, and confusion about, his father’s true nature. There are many scenes in Perdition that deserve such close scrutiny. Drawing on the comic and adding flourishes of his own, Mendes tells the story in almost purely visual (and aural) terms, withholding and then offering information in ways that reinforce the plot and themes. An early sequence in the film has John Rooney and his spiritual son, the fatherless, unofficially adopted Michael Sr., bonding at a wake for a slain family member. Mendes eschews expositional dialogue, letting them communicate the depth of their understanding by noodling out a melody together on a piano.

Mendes’ background in theater is often rapped by his detractors, but it almost certainly helped him to conceive actorly moments in visual terms. A nighttime conversation between the boys in their bedroom is lit by Michael Jr.’s flashlight; he uses the beam as a weapon to silence the younger boy, who’s asking questions about the old man that his brother would rather not contemplate. After the first execution sequence, as father and son sit in their car, they don’t cry, but the streetlamps shine through the windshield, coating them with the shadow of rain, as if the world is weeping on their behalf. (Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall pulled the same trick in In Cold Blood, only in black and white.) When Michael Sr. pays a visit to a nightclub owner who’s late with loan payments to Da Family, the owner, who’s seated behind a desk, places a gun atop the desk and hides it beneath a sheet of paper, then invites Michael to enter his office. As a tense confrontation unfolds, the thumping bassline from elsewhere in the nightclub gradually shifts the paper so that Michael can see the pistol; simultaneously, the nightclub owner reads a note delivered by Michael on behalf of his boss, and we don’t find out what it says until the very last shot in the sequence.

Except for Leigh, whose presence in the film amounts to an overqualified bit of stunt casting, the performances are uniformly excellent. Newman lets his age show, surveying the wake—and his crumbling empire—with a rueful wisdom. Jude Law has a small role as a rotten-toothed, thin-haired crime photographer who doubles as a freelance hit man; the role is amusingly nasty on its own terms, and it also allows Mendes and Hall to draw useful comparisons between photography and violence–the idea that a picture, like a bullet, can steal a soul. (“I shoot the dead,” he explains.) Hall and production designer Dennis Gassner (who did similar work for the Coen brothers in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink) seem mesmerized by the visual possibilities of this subject matter, delivering one indelible image after another, luxuriating in a widescreen, emotionally transparent version of film noir–Model T headlights cutting through gloom; blood spattering on bathroom tile; flat raindrops, lit by streetlamps, spattering off the brim of shiny black hats. Perdition is a stream of images, burned together by editor Jill Bilcock with such offhand precision that it feels as though you’re remembering the movie even as it unfolds. You could say that Mendes’ film is too abstract, too self-consciously beautiful, that it’s all about sensation–that it subordinates plot to theme, perhaps to mere effect. I’d answer that the best movies feel like dreams, that they affect us in ways that defy logic, and that if any recent Hollywood blockbuster could claim to merge entertainment with art, it’s Perdition.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Edouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Edouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30

To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1x2z_rY1Fjk

Pepsi Commercial

Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79fzeNUqQbQ

Music Video

Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xvjnay4kS8

Blond Ambition Tour

Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4vSbVWm6F8

Mad’House Cover

Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)


MTV On Stage & On the Record

Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.


Sticky & Sweet Tour

After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.


Super Bowl XLVI

Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.


Met Gala 2018

Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Complete Winners List

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS. Which isn’t to say that the ceremony wasn’t without its surprises. For one, whoever decided to capture Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in one single take that would end with the pair sitting side by side, rapt in each other and framed in Bergman-esque repose, should hereby be responsible for every Oscar ceremony moving forward.

For some, though not us, Green Book’s victory for best picture came as surprise. As our own Eric Henderson put it in his prediction: “Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.”

In the end, the awards went down more or less as expected, with the only real shock of the evening being Oliva Colman’s stunning upset over Glenn Close in the best actress race. (Glenn, we hope you are on the phone right now trying to get that Sunset Boulevard remake to finally happen.) Black Panther proved more indomitable than expected, winning in three categories (none of which we predicted), and Free Solo pulling a victory over RBG that was the first big sign of the evening that, then and now, AMPAS members vote above all else with their guts.

See below for the full list of winners from the 2019 Oscars.

Picture
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book (WINNER)
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Director
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice

Actor
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Actress
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite (WINNER)
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book (WINNER)
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (WINNER)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly (WINNER)
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

Foreign Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Documentary Feature
Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (WINNER)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, RaMell Ross
Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki
RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen

Animated Feature
Incredibles 2, Brad Bird
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson
Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda
Ralph Breaks the Internet, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (WINNER)

Cinematography
Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin

Production Design
Black Panther, Hannah Beachler (WINNER)
First Man, Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre and Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enrı́quez

Original Score
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Original Song
All The Stars from Black Panther by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
I’ll Fight from RBG by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
The Place Where Lost Things Go from Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Shallow from A Star Is Born by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice (WINNER)
When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Costume Design
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter (WINNER)
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War, Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl, and Daniel Sudick
Christopher Robin, Chris Lawrence, Mike Eames, Theo Jones, and Chris Corbould
First Man, Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, and J.D. Schwalm (WINNER)
Ready Player One, Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler, and David Shirk
Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Dominic Tuohy

Sound Mixing
Black Panther, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter Devlin
Bohemian Rhapsody, Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali (WINNER)
First Man, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Roma, Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio García
A Star Is Born, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow

Sound Editing
Black Panther, Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst (WINNER)
First Man, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
A Quiet Place, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
Roma, Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay

Makeup and Hairstyling
Border, Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney (WINNER)

Live Action Short Film
Detainment, Vincent Lambe
Fauve, Jeremy Comte
Marguerite, Marianne Farley
Mother, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Skin, Guy Nattiv (WINNER)

Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep, Ed Perkins
End Game, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Lifeboat, Skye Fitzgerald
A Night at the Garden, Marshall Curry
Period. End of Sentence., Rayka Zehtabchi (WINNER)

Animated Short
Animal Behaviour, Alison Snowden and David Fine
Bao, Domee Shi (WINNER)
Late Afternoon, Louise Bagnall
One Small Step, Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas
Weekends, Trevor Jimenez

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