“A Sister” (16 minutes)
The story: A young woman trapped in a car with a dangerous man pretends to call her sister but is, in fact, on the phone with emergency services.
In short: Belgian director Delphine Girard packs a decent amount of tension into this thriller that, unfortunately — in brief spurts — borders on exploitive. These momentary lapses sour an otherwise compelling story of women instinctively knowing when another is in trouble and doing all they can to help without question. The trap “A Sister” nearly falls into is relying on glimpses of violence to help viewers understand the gravity of the situation when the dialogue and acting are doing just fine on their own. But, after last year’s total downers in this category, it’s nice to finally see an ending with some justice handed out. 3 stars
“The Neighbor’s Window” (20 minutes)
The story: A husband and wife become obsessed with a young couple whose apartment they can see into from across the street.
In short: What I was certain would be an annoying tale of an affluent white couple struggling with jealousy and obsession turned out to be a surprisingly touching story about greener grass. Director Marshall Curry (who made my favorite documentary short from last year, “A Night at the Garden”), tips the Rear Window-ish story on its head, offering a glimpse into the things humans take for granted. Sure, it’s contrived and melodramatic, but the humanity behind it resonates plenty. 3.5 stars
“Nefta Football Club” (17 minutes)
The story: Two Tunisian boys stumble across a literal drug mule while riding a motorbike through the desert.
In short: The bulk of “Nefta Football Club” is the setup for a joke that falls flat. It’s an amusing enough story, but even at a brief 17 minutes, there are too many superfluous elements that don’t pan out. Oddly enough, the concept has the potential for a Guy Ritchie-styled feature-length crime comedy full of bumbling crooks, cartel bosses and lovable bottom-rung ne’er-do-wells (which I suspect is the reason it was made). But as is, its one-liner nature is mostly a bust. 2.5 stars
“Saria” (23 minutes)
The story: Sisters in a Guatemalan orphanage orchestrate a daring escape.
In short: Based on real events, “Saria” has the potential for a stirring exploration of human rights violations and a triumph of the human spirit, but misses the mark on the outrage it tries to stir up. Like “Nefta Football Club,” it feels like a proof-of-concept film instead of a self-contained and fully formed narrative. It meticulously hits all the beats for an Oscar-bait “ripped from the headlines” feature, giving viewers just enough to make them want a more fleshed-out presentation — but it isn’t much more than a trailer. 2 stars
“Brotherhood” (25 minutes)
The story: A young man returns to his family home in Tunisia with his Syrian wife in tow.
In short: More than any of this year’s nominees, “Brotherhood” embodies the short film form. It’s a tightly packed, self-contained narrative that tells a compelling, emotional and relatable story. At its core, “Brotherhood” is about the complexities of family dynamics and the ideological disconnect between generations, but with some unexpected twists. It’s my clear pick to win the Oscar, but its raw honesty and messy emotions may prove too much for an Academy that likes things in neat little packages. 4 stars