Oscar 2024 Documentary Shorts Nominees, Ranked and Where to Watch

The five nominated documentary shorts cover diverse topics that range from social justice issues to family stories to the care that goes into repairing musical instruments. Finding the shorts can be tricky but often where there's a will there's a way. The shorts are one of the categories that film lovers often ignore, but if you are short on time, they are often the easiest to digest during a lunch break or before bed binge. Shorts also are a great place to discover up and coming talent. I highly recommend you ignore them no more. 

Below, find my take on all the 2024 nominated documentary shorts, ranked from my least to most favorite. As part of the entry, I include information on where to watch the film, if it exists as a streaming option. Many theaters across the USA also host showcases of the shorts, so look for such a showing near you. You can find some of them here. Please note, The Oscars will air on Sunday, March 10th. 

Two girls read the picture book Ambitious Girl
Two girls read the picture book Ambitious Girl. A still from THE ABCS OF BOOK BANNING.  

The ABCs of Book Banning by Sheila Nevins and Trish Adlesic

As a librarian, the freedom of read is one of the values I hold most dear, but book bans and challenges continue to grow in the United States. A variety of voices share their views about this topic in this short documentary. 100-year old Grace Lynn speaks passionately at a county school board meeting, children speak up about what books they prefer to read and why, and the books speak for themselves. Various book jacket images pair with a quote from the book to show what types of materials provoke harsh criticism. The material comes off sounding a little dry and preachy, and many of the children talk as if they have been coached. I wanted to like this one more, but unfortunately it came out sounding like a propaganda piece. Such a thing does little to convince anyone except people who already support the position. 

You can watch at this link or on Paramount Plus. 

Two grandmas stand together smiling
Chang Li Hua as Wai Po; Yi Yan Fuei as Nai Nai in NAI NAI & WAI PO

Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó by Sean Wang and Sam Davis

Director Sean Wang has two grandmas who live together, sucking all the marrow out of life. It's like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with two grandmas sharing a bed and a household. Filmed during the pandemic as the country deal with COVID-driven Asian hate, these two widowers seem like sisters, connected by the marriage of their children. During a visit, Sean tries to capture their everyday lives as they dance, stretch, cook, arm wrestle, and fart together. Since Sean is there, the grandmas feel giddy. A brief but enjoyable glimpse at the winter years of life. May we all have the energy and attitude these women have. This is adorable and fluffy, but nothing revolutionary. 

Watch on Disney Plus

A Black man with suspenders talks to a client
Arlo Washington talks to a client in THE BARBER OF LITTLE ROCK

The Barber of Little Rock by John Hoffman and Christine Turner

Arlo Washington works magic and uses his resources to empower the Black community in Little Rock, Arkansas. From his humble roots as a barber, he transitioned to opening a barber school and then started giving personal loans to customers and friends in need out of a shipping container in the shop's parking lot. One wonders when Arlo finds time to sleep, but the story isn't really just about Arlo. Rather it's a story of a community weighed down by decades, maybe centuries, of racial inequity, yet still proud and ready to stand. We get to meet different people coming to Arlo's doors looking for a chance to get back in the game.

The story seems to end on a note of hope, although one of the last scenes shows Arlo proudly visiting the People Trust institution in a redlined neighborhood. His companion warns him that the system isn't going to like People Trust coming in and helping the community to thrive. That such things will be seen as a threat to folks who want to keep the Black community in shambles. This hits me with a sour note since my home city of Durham has just that type of story in our past. May the wolves be kept at bay for Little Rock.

Watch on YouTube at this link.

A photo of Kinmen
An image taken on the island of Kinmen from THE ISLAND IN BETWEEN

Island in Between by S. Leo Chiang and Jean Tsien 

S. Leo Chiang shares his personal history to help illustrate the complicated relationship between China, Taiwan, and Kinmen, the titular island in between. Often people of Taiwanese heritage get lumped in mindlessly with China, but there are deeply sowed distinctions Chiang wants us to understand. The fascinating short manages to be a family memoir, exploration of heritage, and a history lesson all at once. Using personal photos and curated footage from sources both past and present, Chiang takes us along on his journey of trying to understand how people that live so close to one another can appear to have nothing in common 

Watch on YouTube at this link

A little girl holds a violin

The Last Repair Shop by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers

The Last Repair is my pick for documentary short. It engages the mind but also the heart effortlessly. Behind every musical instrument lies a story and maybe more than one. In Los Angeles, dedicated craftsmen nurture damaged and broken musical instruments that are then distributed for free to children in the school system. Four of these artisans (instrument technicians) share how they came to this profession. Along the way, we meet some of the beneficiaries of the horns, strings, brass, and percussion that receive tender loving care. These moving tales, all different, point to how music can offer comfort, joy, warmth, and inspiration to people who need it the most. Astonishing. Also, let's face it, Ben Proudfoot dominates in this category since I have been in a film critic. 

Watch on YouTube at this link