The Oscar-nominated shorts are here, giving film obsessives their seasonal fix of internecine conflict. The last thing movie nerds need is an occasion to divide house against house and declaim one another’s inferior taste, but as long as they keep nominating short films for Oscars, arthouses will continue airing them in feature-length blocks of uncertain quality and we’ll continue arguing about their worth both individually and as a whole.
The Academy may do several things well, but picking final heats of short film that make for satisfying en masse viewing isn’t necessarily on that list. To help you sort the wheaty film morsels from the couldn’t-hack-it-in-features chaff, we have composed this guide to all three categories of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films — most of which are in theaters now — including our picks of the ones we think should win when the show airs in early March. I’ll be covering the Live Action category, TMT colleague Susanna Locascio will take on Documentary, and we’ll both cover Animation.
CATEGORY: LIVE ACTION
That Wasn’t Me (Dir. Esteban Crespo)
Reading A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah’s memoir of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, would take a lot more time than the 25-minute That Wasn’t Me, the adaptation of Beah’s story by Spanish filmmaker Esteban Crespo. Beyond brevity, however, That Wasn’t Me enjoys no advantage in the comparison. Crespo’s shots, angles, editing, and lighting are so conventional as to feel bored. His screenplay freeze-dries human beings into dramatically-convenient breathing props, which converts the whole affair into a trite morality play. Where A Long Way Gone is disquieting because of Beah’s efficient way of showing the humanity and psychological process underlying the appalling reality of child soldier recruitment, training, and combat, That Wasn’t Me is disquieting for reducing that reality to one-dimensional characters who speak in expository clichés, and wrapping that artistic failure in white-savior nonsense. Beah’s survival complicates our understanding of Sierra Leone’s violence, but That Wasn’t Me tries to make it as simple as an after-school special. (0.5/5)
Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything? (Dir. Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari)
After years of media hubbub around the question, “Can women have it all?” Finnish directors Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari have hit upon an important follow-up query: “Wouldn’t it be funny to watch them try?” Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything is mercifully short, and its uptempo editing rhythms help it move at the quick pace that all simple jokes should. And that’s what Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything is: a film version of a decent joke, the kind of low-ceiling one-off gag that depends upon the quality of the delivery. Your mileage may vary, but the simple, static shots Saari and Vilhunen employ make the joke about as funny as it’s capable of being. But is one belly laugh nestled into five uncomfortable minutes really the stuff Oscars are made of? [Ed. note: Oscars are made of an alloy called Britannia metal, and plated in gold.] (2.5/5)
Helium (Dir. Anders Walter)
The nomination of Helium to this group of film shorts makes the whole affair start to feel like an exercise in box-checking performed gravitas. “OK, child soldiers? (Check.) Feminist concerns? (Check, sorta? Kinda trolling.) Yeah, no, let’s count it though. Umm… Oh, fatally ill children? No? OK, what’s in the hopper under ‘fatally ill children’?” And out comes Helium, Anders Walter’s heartfelt but ultimately hollow story about the hospice care friendship between an adorable dying boy and a man who looks like Twitter comedian Rob Delaney attempting to be cast as Captain Haddock in a live-action Tintin movie. Casper Crump does solid, committed work as the mentally-frayed elder member of that friendship, and Walter’s wispy vision of an alternative heaven for aerodrome enthusiasts called Helium comes through clearly. But the craftsmanship can’t lift the leaden weight of the whole saccharine thing. Walter demonstrates the kind of light touch for visual storytelling and storyboarding grandeur that make full-length auteurs like Terrence Malick so revered (and reviled), and it would be fun to see what he does with stronger material than this. (2/5)
The Voorman Problem (Dir. Mark Gill)
Probably the best of the bunch in terms of establishing a visual style that’s both consistent and thematically rich, The Voorman Problem’s own problem is that it feels like a rehash of the most boring parts of a debate between a committed and sanctimonious atheist and a committed and sanctimonious person of faith. Martin Freeman plays a state psychologist sent in to a British prison to assess the sanity of the inmate Voorman (Tom Hollander), who has convinced the rest of the prison that he is god. He sets out to convince Freeman as well in a conversation that leans a bit too much on trite pop-culture atheism rhetoric. If it dragged out even a few minutes more, The Voorman Problem would be insufferable. Freeman and Hollander each put in good work to carry the half-assed metaphysical duel, and the menacingly institutional visual world that cinematographer Phil Wood and director Mark Gill create makes for a strong launchpad. All right angles and Kafka-invoking sterility, Wood and Gill’s vision boxed Freeman and Hollander in nicely just in time for their duel to resolve. (3/5)
TMT PICK: Just Before Losing Everything (Dir. Xavier Legrand)
If any of these films are going to win an Academy Award, it should probably be the assured, graceful, and upsetting Just Before Losing Everything, writer/director Xavier Legrand’s story of a Miriam’s flight from her husband. The short induces a measure of panic in the viewer, but there’s nothing panicked about Legrand’s filmmaking. A somberness infects the proceedings from the first shot, converting young Julien’s stop to say goodbye to the family’s German Shorthair hound on his way to school into a loaded question mark of a moment for the audience. Every subsequent reveal is subtly executed, even if the content of the moments is painfully blunt. Legrand shows without telling in all but a couple of instances and frequently locks the viewer into Miriam’s perspective, confident enough in his material to simply sit still for long, tense moments as she tries to chart her family’s escape course. In a relatively anemic year for live-action shorts nominees, Just Before Losing Everything probably does enough to take home a trophy. (3.5/5)