Oscar Analysis 2014: Nominated Shorts
We’re still in the thick of awards season, and with all the big dogs fighting over the coveted Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and so forth, it’s easy to overlook three of the most interesting categories in the show: the shorts! The big thing these little delicious nuggets of filmmaking have working against them is that they don’t have anywhere near the theatrical (and subsequently, cultural) permeation of the juggernaut full-length features. Quite simply, not enough people see them.
Luckily, if you’re willing to seek these incredible shorts out (what self-respecting cinephile wouldn’t be?), ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures will meet you halfway, as they’re rolling out the full lineup of the 2014 Oscar-nominated short films in theaters nationwide starting tomorrow, January 31st. There will be three programs of five nominees, with each program representing a different category (documentary, live-action, animated).
Short films force filmmakers to compress ideas down into a pure, crystalized form, a characteristic of the format that at its best yields potent, punchy bites cinema, and at its worst can lead to a shallow, insubstantial film that feels incomplete. Here’s what I thought of this year’s nominees:
Live Action Short Nominees
The Voorman Problem
Just Before Losing Everything
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?
That Wasn’t Me
This category definitely has an odd man out, with the cloying sentimentality of Helium putting it far behind the rest of the pack. It’s about a dying child with a strong imagination being told bedside stories to comfort him, and the schmaltz level here is pretty numbing. Joining it on the lighter side of the category is concise Finnish comedy Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, about a frazzled mom trying to get her family to a wedding they’re late for in a frenzy. It’s charming, clever, and very funny, and at a brisk 6 odd minutes, directors Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari are forced to put their visual storytelling muscles to the test. (They pass with flying colors.)
Things get just a hair more serious in Mark Gill and Baldwin Li’s The Voorman Problem, starring Bilbo Baggins himself, Martin Freeman, as a psychiatrist tasked with examining a patient who claims to be God and–impossibly–backs it up. It’s a fun, mischievous little bit of Twilight Zone eeriness that’s packed with wicked wit. From that alternate reality we go to the sobering, grounded That Wasn’t Me, Esteban Crespo’s short about a pair of Spanish doctors who get kidnapped and brutally abused by mercenaries in Africa. The bleak tone of this one feels overly fatalistic, and the slightly inflated dialog and acting don’t fit the visuals, which are firmly grounded in reality.
The best of the bunch is Xavier Legrand’s Just Before Losing Everything, a powder keg of a drama in which an abused wife has to sneak out (her children in tow) of the department store she works at so that they skip town without her stalking husband catching them. Legrand is able to generate as much, if not more high stakes and high tension than most full-length features of this type.
Documentary Short Nominees
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Karama Has No Walls
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
The clear frontrunner here, as far as I’m concerned, is The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, a touching short about Alice Herz Sommer, a 109-year-old pianist and Holocaust survivor. There are simply too many Oscar-magnet elements to it for the others to compete with. Plus, it’s a legitimately well crafted, moving piece. Prison Terminal is a similarly captivating personality portrait about the last days of Jack Hall as he receives hospice care while serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison. Designed to evoke empathy for the veteran (it succeeds), it abstains from examining the murder that got him incarcerated, which feels strange and could hurt its chances. Directed by Edgar Baren, the short will air on HBO on March 31 in addition to the theatrical program. Rounding out the portraitures is Jeffrey Karoff’s Cave Digger, which has a lighter, more emotionally shallow touch than the other two. Following New Mexico artist Ra Paulette, who by himself digs out beautiful, elaborate caves out of sandstone with the simplest tools for high-paying clients. The labors of Paulette’s masterpieces are intensive and fascinating, as are his relationships with his sometimes demanding clients.
Rounding out the category are two shorts with serious emotional heft. Like a companion piece to Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated feature-length doc The Square, Karama Has No Walls is about the tragic deaths of 53 peaceful protesters (some children) in Change Square in Sanaa, Yemen, who were inspired by the Egyptian’s protests Noujaim captured in her film. On the other side of the world, Los Angeles is the setting for Facing Fear, about a gay man who meets the neo-Nazi that tried to kill him 25 years prior–in a working environment. An objective examination of the nature of forgiveness, the short (by Jason Cohen) presents the subject matter quite objectively, which opens up the floodgates for heated discussions, but will likely hurt its chances of winning due to how cold-to-the-touch it is.
Animated Short Nominees
Get a Horse!
Room on the Broom
What’s great about this category is that each entry has such a unique, inventive visual style that you get incredibly wrapped up in the bite-sized worlds the filmmakers have created (even if they don’t break new ground narratively). The artiest selection of the bunch is Feral, about a wild boy who’s found in the woods among wolves by a hunter and brought back to society to reintegrate. The expressionistic art style is tactile and organic, matching the wordless story well, though it’s a tale we’re all too familiar with. The second of the silent selections is Mr. Hublot, a tale about the strong bond between a man and his (robotic) dog that has a very stylish, steampunk-inspired aesthetic. It’s a feast for the eyes, but like Feral, comes up short in terms of narrative originality (though the story is nevertheless well executed).
Possessions, by Shuhei Morita, has the most stunning visual style of the five nominees, with rich Japanese illustrations that blur the lines between hand-drawn and CGI. The short was no doubt rendered with computers using a cel-shading technique, but if you freeze any frame you’d swear there were paints, pens, and paper involved. Furthermore, the story–about a man repairing armies of household items that have come to life–is more original than the rest. The Simon Pegg-narrated Room on the Broom, a children’s storybook-in-motion about a witch inviting a handful of animals, one by one, onto her increasingly crowded broom (much to the chagrin of her selfish pet cat), is pleasant, but comes up just short of enchanting. Disney’s entry into the foray is the imaginative Get a Horse!, which starts out as a Steamboat Willie-era Mickey Mouse cartoon, but ventures into meta-land when the characters rip through the projection screen and into the theater of a modern-day audience. The animators play with the gag from every angle, mixing the hand-drawn and CGI elements brilliantly.