Ranking The Short Films Oscar Winners of the 2010s-Best Documentary Short Subject
Streaming viewership is up in the United State of America and across the world. There’s a larger interest in video content than ever before in history. But the hardest question remains – what to watch? There’s literally dozens of amazing short films, music videos, video essays and more that you could start watching with the simple click of a remote control or the opening up of a phone app.
One of the ways that you can help determine the right short films to watch is through well-curated content. If it’s not a particular site then it’s through a particular list or a ranking. Another way to tell the best from the rest is what films and filmmakers walk away with the major awards this year. With COVID-19 cancelling or sideling many of the major cinema events of 2020, this is harder to do.
So we decided to go back to the biggest short content awards of them all – the Oscars! Next up is documentary short subject, where we will rank the Academy Award winning shorts in this category over the last ten years. Short documentary Oscar winners range from the humorous and mundane to the deep and intense. Every year had a strong list, so we can’t wait to get into it.
So here are the winners of Best Documentary Short Subject of the 2010s, ranked!
10. The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life, dir. Malcolm Clarke
The Holocaust is never an easy subject to tackle in any medium, but the 2013 short film winner does just that. At the time of filming Aliza Sommer-Herz was the oldest Holocaust survivor at age 109. This film covers her story in the concentration camps and after, from her own words.
It’s a deeply moving life, told with such surprising vitality by Aliza herself. Most remarkable about the subject matter is how it so wonderfully balances the atrocities alluded to with the grace and beauty of music, which was Aliza’s escape and love.
Despite the film’s incredible historical importance, the film itself leaves much to be desired. The camera shots are uninspired, the voiceover too reminiscent of a nightly news special. Despite this being a film about music, its own music is rather cliche and ineffective.
The inspirational tale must not be minimized, but one does wonder if the story could have been told a little better with a more ambitious vision.
9. Strangers No More, dir. Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon
“Strangers No More” heralded the start of the decade with a glorious celebration of real life diversity. Young students from 48 countries and several different faiths and belief systems came together in a unique school program. What’s most remarkable about this film is the life and personality found in each child subject. Often the stories being told are harrowing ones, but the humanity always shines through.
Both Goodman and Simon bring a very naturalistic directing style which fits this short very well. There are no stylistic elements needed – the story truly works on its own. Some may find this documentary’s mode outdated or not cinematic enough, but we think its realism stays honest to the people on screen.
8. Saving Face, dir. Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
2011 was an intense year for documentaries. Each one of the nominees dealt with extremely serious issues, whether it was war, social injustice or natural disasters. Yet the winner, “Saving Face” was a 40-minute exploration of a person who gave many people hope. The film shows us a plastic surgeon, Dr. Mohammad Jawad, who chooses to return to native Pakistan and use his abilities to help heal those who have been left scarred or disfigured by local violence.
Directors June and Obaid-Chinoy work in two different levels with this film. The first is the incredible subject itself, Dr. Jawad. “Saving Face” is very much about the painstaking process, using slow, steady progress to make us understand that reconstruction doesn’t happen overnight.
At a deeper level though, this film is also working as a social examination of a culture that regularly involves such extreme domestic abuse as acid attacks. This sort of violence, as we are shown, happens primarily to women, revealing yet another aspect of the films as a commentary on gender politics.
It’s a multi-faceted work but also maybe one of the least accessible on this list. It’s a tough seat and doesn’t let its viewers off the hook. But for the right type of person, this will be a rewarding watch.
7. A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness, dir. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
This was a very unique win in that it was the director’s second Oscar. Sharmeen was also co-director of “Saving Faces”. Both films work as companion pieces, exploring the ways in which Pakistani society often explicitly and implicitly confines women to roles of suffering and servitude. Of the two films, “A Girl In The River” is the more confident and assured film. It easily moves between characters, locales and situations. At its heart is a story about a Pakistan woman sentenced to death.
In many ways a court drama, “A Girl In The River” shows the girl’s long and hard fight through the judicial system and working so hard for her freedom. This short is great at showing all the different ways in which injustice infects a society. But the film never gets too despairing, also revealing those who are willing to work by the girl’s side and find justice.
In the end, “A Girl In The River” is a powerful understated film.
6. Period. End Of Sentence., dir. Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton
You may remember the moving Oscar acceptance speech from this film’s crew but “Period. End Of Sentence” is more than its awards accomplishments. First of all, the film is extraordinarily unique for covering a very taboo subject – menstruation. But to add to that, the film also takes this discussion to rural India, where women are at a disadvantage due to misunderstandings and ineffective resources around this process.
To add to this though, Zehtabchi and Berton find a nice even flow, going between talking head moments and sequences that open us up to their daily life. We both see for ourselves and hear from their mouths the direct experience of these women. Their stories are powerful, and so are the ways in which their stories get told. We could definitely appreciate a feature-length version of this if the directors were ever interested.
5. Learning To Skateboard In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl), dir. Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva
You can read our extended interview with Carol Dysinger to learn about the making and the meaning of “Learning To Skateboard” but to shortly summarize, this is a magical experience. Dysinger has been covering Afghanistan for years now, but this was the first time she was able to finally address the topic of children’s education.
The film’s main hook is in the all-girls skateboarding school, where along with learning to read, write and critically think, they are also doing half-pipes and learning to move on four wheels. The film elegantly reveals over its running time that skateboarding is a metaphor for life, and that by making these girls face fears in a safe setting, they will be better able to handle the harsher realities of the outside world.
The interviews are spontaneous, humorous and life-giving. You can feel each child opening themselves up to the world through the eye of the camera. Truly a deserved winner of the year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.
4. Inocente, dir. Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
While many of the winning documentaries in the 2010s tackled big stories and major themes, some decided to hone in on a specific story and use that to speak to larger issues. “Inocente” is one of them, exploring the life of a young, homeless undocumented immigrant who wants to use art to transcend her position in life.
The film is colorful, imaginative and spontaneous in its design, matching the ambition and frankness of its subject. Inocente wears her heart on her sleeve, speaking eloquently and passionately about her life and circumstances.
Compared to many others on this list though, the film is an impassioned and entertaining watch too. Both directors know how to inject a real sense of pacing and life to the project. The film’s conclusions are never necessarily easy to swallow, but the documentary is always gripping.
3. Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405, dir. Frank Stiefel
Here’s a film that really lives up to its subject matter. Fran Stiefel’s exciting and avant garde approach to the short documentary goes deep into the inner life of Mindy Alper, a highly respected LA artist who yet has years of trauma and mental conditions roaring underneath.
Rather than just telling us how Mindy is feeling or what she goes through mentally on a day to day basis, Stiefel creates the atmosphere with inventive camerawork and effective montage sequences. The adage “show rather than tell” really applies to this film’s unfolding of the artist’s background and reasons for how she became who she is. The film also manages to include pieces of Alper’s art keeping us constantly in the state of mind and references that connect us to her artistic output.
“Heaven Is A Traffic Jam” may be the most well-made film on the list – a superb effort that anyone can enjoy and learn from.
2. Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, dir. Ellen Goosenberg Kent
2014 was a great year for nominees. Each film chosen was unique in subject matter and narrative approach. But this HBO-programmed short was certainly a worthy winner. For an unflinching 40 minutes, “Crisis Hotline” literally takes you into the rooms where emergency responders are there to listen to veterans dealing with severe PTSD and financial despondency.
Goosenberg Kent is incredible in her way of letting the scenes play out, never giving more commentary than is necessary. We quickly learn the names and attitudes behind each person at their desk. We see the true bravery and consistency it takes to lead a life this hard. The documentary in this way becomes a poignant office work drama, with the stakes always being life and death.
An excellent production and a standout documentary short.
1.The White Helmets, dir. Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
While most people think that Roma was the start of Netflix’s entrance into the world of the Oscars, it was actually 2016’s “The White Helmets” that introduced them to awards conversations. This pulse-pounding short takes us into the daily life of Syrian first responders. What sets this short documentary apart from so many of the other Oscar winners this decade is its dynamic camerawork and editing. You truly feel as if you are in the middle of the harrowing action.
This intense POV footage combines with striking and beautiful portraits of the White Helmets themselves. If you can handle the very intense subject matter, this is definitely the one to watch – a top-caliber documentary for any length or format.
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