Academy Awards 2023: Best Short Documentary Nominees, Ranked
From baby elephants to bellowing walruses, this year’s documentary contenders are making a big impact.
In the abyss of short film distribution, documentaries were the easiest to translate to streaming and the Internet. Often overlapping with hard-hitting video journalism, there is an obvious affinity for official news outlets like The New Yorker and The New York Times, and both channels have funded a number of short documentaries over the past decade.
In an effort to gain industry clout by eliminating Oscar nominations, Netflix has joined the fray, and this year’s two nominations for Best Documentary Short are by far the most attainable.
This year’s nominees are much weaker than most years, which is a bit surprising, seeing as the terrible news just keeps piling up. Maybe the voters needed a little levity this year, or maybe the filmmakers themselves are looking for more uplifting stories.
From the rescue of a baby elephant in India to the shocking story of a changed perspective, the films in this category offer humanity more than a glimmer of hope. Although it is intentionally naive, it certainly makes it more enjoyable to watch.
Most of the movies are currently available online and all of them are worth watching. Here are the rankings of all five competitors.
5. “The Martha Mitchell Effect”
The most notorious outspoken lady of the 1970s, Martha Mitchell, made being a political spouse a blood sport — and paid the price. Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon himself accused him of Watergate. With his sharp wit and loose tongue, he sensed the power of the press long before it became a political necessity, moving the microphone to change public opinion.
His rise and eventual decline is comprehensively covered in Anne Albergue’s “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” though it doesn’t reveal more than the excellent podcast “Slow Burn: Watergate.” Mitchell himself is a pretty compelling subject, and it’s nice to see Mitchell’s style and charisma in archival footage. The filmmaking itself is quite simple, and the rather dramatic story of Mitchell’s forced silence somehow gets resolved.
4. The Elephant Whisperers
For those skeptical of the short’s appeal, there’s no easier sell than a feel-good story about a couple who fall in love while raising orphaned baby elephants. Set in Mudumalai National Park in southern India, first-time filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves spent five years following indigenous couple Bomman and Belli rehabilitating two orphaned baby elephants.
Using lots of drone footage to capture the large-scale and lush vegetation, the film looks as slick as any big-budget nature documentary. The subjects are likable and honest as they talk openly about how they see the elephants as their children. Fortunately, nothing terrible happens, so it’s a safe hour for kids and a welcome time for adults interested in the news.
3. “Stranger at the Gate”
The New Yorker
Some documentaries, like the 2007 bombshell “Crazy Love,” are best viewed without prior knowledge. Joshua Seftel’s powerful portrait of an ex-Marine bound and radicalized by untreated PTSD uses a similar technique, setting up one story and delivering a very different one. Seftel shoots the film’s muscular subject, Mac McKinney, in a sleeveless gray beater in a sterile location that could end up in prison, and turns the viewer for the worst.
McKinney is chillingly honest about how he was taught to dehumanize his targets during the war and the hatred he harbored when he returned home. Although visually unremarkable, “Stranger at the Gate” is a startling first-hand account of violence turning into hatred and the power of a little humanity to transform it. It seems a little too optimistic for the present moment, but it serves as vital evidence that change is possible.
2. “How do you measure a year?”
Returning to the category for a second year, scrappy micro-budget filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt impresses with yet another personal and experimental charm. Taking a page from Michael Apted’s “Up” series, Rosenblatt interviewed his daughter Ella every year on her birthday, from ages 2 to 18. It’s a satisfying trick that pays off, though the filmmaker remains mostly opaque, safely behind the camera. His goal is to ask her the same questions every year, which can produce predictably funny results, such as three-year-old Ella’s answer about the meaning of power.
Rosenblatt’s artistic purpose seems somewhat vague: Is it an observation of one’s identity, the relationship between a father and daughter, or the importance of creativity and ritual? Rosenblatt doesn’t seem to know himself, as Ella’s years of questions about why they’re doing this go mostly unanswered, but his leap into the artistic unknown is certainly admirable. The result is a little confusing, though it’s undeniably fascinating to watch Ella transform from an adorable baby to a grumpy teenager to a mature teenager. “I’m so thankful we’re doing this,” says the elder Ella, with her own conclusion. “I love rituals, I love traditions, and this is very beautiful.”
The New Yorker
The most impressive film of the bunch, it’s as impressive in its filming as it is in its commitment to subject matter. Filmed in a remote region of eastern Russia by siblings Maxim and Yevgenia Arbugaeva, “Haulout” follows the cold and lonely efforts of Russian marine biologist Maxim Chakilev. The filmmakers spent three months near Chakilev, in a tiny beach hut on a gray stretch of beach popular with migrating walruses.
As temperatures rise and ice melts, more than 90,000 walruses crowd the shore, where they are vulnerable to disease and trampling. The gorgeous cinematography captures the terrifying scale of the dilemma, and Csakilev’s windproof face reflects the anxiety and worry he feels for the huge bellowing creatures. With very few words, the film conveys a monumentally moving picture of the effects of climate change.
The short films nominated for the 2023 Academy Awards will be available in select theaters on Friday, February 17. Find a participating cinema here.
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