If there was any doubt that movies are mirrors, check the pervasive theme that runs through this year's live-action nominees. All are examples of the struggle to retain human dignity, to be seen simply as worthy. And in four of these five films, that struggle directly involves abuses by law enforcement officials.
Feeling Through 18 Mins. Writer/director: Doug Roland
A troubled teen (Steven Prescod) needs a place to stay for the night, but his search is interrupted by a deaf and blind man (Robert Tarango) who needs help crossing the street.
The fact that Tarango is the first deaf and blind actor to be cast in a film is reason enough to seek this out, but Roland has crafted a truly touching ode to the healing power of caring.
Prescod and Tarango are wonderful together, and our short time with both of them is nothing but rewarding.
Two Distant Strangers 32 mins. Writer: Travon Free Directors: Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe
Really? Another Groundhog Day premise? Yes, but get ready, this gripping slice of activism will rock you.
Carter (Joey Bada$$) and Perri (Zaria) are still flirting the morning after their first hookup. Shortly after Carter heads home to check on his dog, an aggressive cop (Andrew Howard) incites a confrontation, and soon Carter is dead on the sidewalk...until he again wakes up in Perri's bed.
The scenario plays over and over, with Carter trying to come up with some way to change his fate.
Free, a former Daily Show writer making his film debut, lulls you with a comfortable device before lowering the boom. It's uncomfortable, as it should be, but you'll want to thank Free for the experience...as soon as you catch your breath.
The Letter Room Writer/director: Elvira Lind
The first thing that catches your eye here is a familiar face. Yes, that is Oscar Isaac, starring as Richard, a corrections officer granted a transfer to the facility's letter room.
Letters from Rosita (Alia Shawkat) to Death Row inmate Cris (Brain Petsos) captivate Richard's interest, until he's tempted to cross some questionable lines.
Lind (Isaac's wife) mines her powerhouse cast for a beautifully subtle layer of humanity. Everyone here is flawed, in different ways and by varying degrees. But Lind lets us see just how far a little empathy can go - even in the darkest places.
The Present 24 mins. Writers: Farah Nabulsi Directors: Farah Nabulsi and Hind Shoufani
On the morning of his wedding anniversary, Palestinian Yusef (Saleh Bakri) and his young daughter (Mariam Kanj) head out to buy a gift for his wife (Mariam Basha).
But the road to celebration is littered with soldiers and segregation, cages and checkpoints. As Yusef endures humiliation in front of his daughter, rising tensions increase the chance of a deadly altercation.
It feels somewhat surprising to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict funneled through a Palestine viewpoint. And though Nabulsi's hand is never overly heavy, a universal power struggle emerges: authority flexes muscle against those trying to remain calm and grasp for options.
The Present offers hope that the children can one day find common ground.
White Eye 20 mins. Writer/director: Tomer Shushan
White Eye's search for humanity begins with a bicycle.
An Israeli man named Omer (Daniel Gad) spots his stolen bike locked up on the street. Immigrant Yunes (Dawit Tekelaeb) says he bought the bike fair and square, but Omer doesn't want to hear it.
Once Omer alerts the police, the situation (you guessed it) escalates, and soon Yunes's co-workers are in hiding and Omer is staring headfirst into consequences he may not have intended.
Gad carves out a 20-minute arc of awakening for Omer that feels achingly real. It's a standout performance, and the driving force that makes White Eye linger with lasting resonance.