Who Views Short Shorts
TMT Weighs in on 2014’s Oscar-Nominated Shorts

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)

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CATEGORY: DOCUMENTARY

The Lady in Number 6 (Dir. Malcolm Clarke)

I’m not sure what aesthetic principles were guiding the making of Malcolm Clarke’s The Lady in Number 6. At almost 40 minutes, the film could have used some judicious editing, and its gauzy cinematography and poncy voiceover seem an odd pairing for the life story of its subject. Thankfully, that subject is the remarkable Alice Herz Sommer, at 109 years the oldest known Holocaust survivor, her presence and thoughtful discourse anchoring the film. Clarke traces the chronology of Alice’s life, from her Prague upbringing among artists and musicians, to her nascent career as a concert pianist, all brought to a tragic halt by her deportation to Theresienstadt, a feeder camp for Auschwitz where artists were sent to contribute to the Nazi propaganda machine. The film really flowers with the introduction of two of Alice’s best friends, Anita and Zdenka, who add their stories and commentary (Anita recalls a particularly chilling memory of having to play cello for “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele, the deranged engineer of horrific medical experiments at Auschwitz). But despite their histories, the three women have maintained a reverence for life and are able to talk of their experiences with impressive eloquence and grace. If it does little else, The Lady in Number 6 is an honorable record of that. (3.5/5)

Cavedigger (Dir. Jeffrey Karoff)

Another epically long short film, Jeffrey Karoff’s Cavedigger is the least contentious and political of all the nominees. I’m glad the Academy threw an eccentric character study into the mix, but Karoff’s film is short on revelations and somewhat monotonous. The subject is Ra Paulette, an artist and self-proclaimed “digger of caves and a piler of rocks” (is that a thing?). With the hippie-speak and droning score, Ra starts to resemble that daft uncle who moved to New Mexico — until you see the caves he digs. They are bizarre, exquisite subterranean sculpture, as holy as inverted cathedrals, and pretty astonishing. That Ra gets paid little more than minimum wage to do this kind of work only confirms the failures of the hippie ethos in a capitalist economy (here’s hoping some newly-minted tech billionaires see the film and subsidize this guy!). Like the film’s late reveal of Ra’s caves, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a much more interesting story lurking underneath, but Karoff’s reverence hovers on Ra’s work, and in 40 minutes, we barely scratch the surface of the life of this strange and mystical man. (2.5/5)

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (Dir. Edgar Barens)

Edgar Barens’ Prison Terminal starts as a close look at the waning life of elderly prisoner Jack Hall, a World War II veteran who suffered from alcoholism and (undiagnosed) PTSD. The crime that put Hall in jail happened decades after the war: his teenage son committed suicide while on drugs, and Hall sought out the dealer who had sold to his son and killed him. From Hall’s story, the film expands to include the hospice workers who take care of Hall and dying prisoners like him (who interestingly are also inmates). The fuzzy images and meandering quality of the filming gave me the impression that Barens didn’t so much make a film as he did hover and wait. Still, it has compelling moments. Some external drama appears in the form of one of Hall’s sons (Hall apparently had eight wives), who freely admits that he was the one who turned his father in. Despite that (or because of it?), this son is the only family member we see visiting Hall on his deathbed. From there, Barens’ film winds to its inevitable and nonetheless moving conclusion. The hospice workers bring great kindness and simple dignity to a lonely man’s last moments, and that part of Barens’ film lingers. (3/5)

Facing Fear (Dir. Jason Cohen)

The shortest and punchiest of the lot, Facing Fear was my personal favorite. For one, it’s the only film to employ more conscious, palpable cinematography (and seemingly to take advantage of the expansive digital tools available to filmmakers — the documentary shorts show surprisingly little of the artistry of the documentary feature nominees). The film tells the story of Matthew Boger, who was kicked out of his suburban California home when he came out to his Catholic mother. Only 13, Matthew hustled to survive on the streets. Tim Zaal also grew up in the California suburbs, but he veered toward hardcore punk rock and eventually joined up with a group of skinheads. In the early 1980s, the two men’s lives collided one night when Tim’s group spotted Matthew hanging out on the streets of West Hollywood. Spoiling for a fight, they chased Matthew down and almost beat him to death. The film does a nice job of effectively and movingly setting up this backstory before the twist: decades later, the two men collide again, this time at the Museum of Tolerance, where Matthew works and Tim (now an ex-skinhead) is invited to speak about his experiences. There’s just something quintessentially American about this story, and the men’s experiences are such interesting representations of the times in which they lived. I wonder if the film would pack the same punch if you already knew Tim and Matthew’s story (I didn’t), but formally Jason Cohen’s film is a strong piece of work. (4/5)

TMT PICK: Karama Has No Walls (Dir. Sara Ishaq)

Benefitting from clear, matter-of-fact storytelling, director Sara Ishaq’s Karama Has No Walls chronicles a critical moment in the Yemeni revolution against president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The film is about March 18, 2011, now known as the Friday of Dignity (Karama), when government forces turned on the peaceful protesters in Yemen’s capital city Sana’a. Inspired by events in Egypt, protesters who had been gathering for weeks in Sana’a’s Change Square were calling for the resignation of president Saleh. On that Friday, snipers began shooting at the crowd, turning the protests into violent chaos, leaving 53 people dead and hundreds more wounded. Ishaq’s film shows us Change Square the day before the attacks, a crowded, lively tent city that with its soccer matches and food vendors seems more like a carnival than a protest. When we shift to March 18, Ishaq begins editing in interviews with the families of two victims and with two young cameramen who were filming in the square, and their recollections are cut throughout the increasingly disturbing and brutal footage of the attacks on the protesters. Ishaq’s film is an undeniably compelling and immediate firsthand account, but in truth, most of that power comes from what is credited as the camera footage of the two young men. If that is the case, Ishaq does a credible but not inspired job of constructing and editing the film. The interviews with the families, though moving, felt like more of a concept than a structural necessity. What is truly vital is the imagery from the square. Regardless, I’d put Oscar pool votes on this one for the win. (3.5/5)

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CATEGORY: ANIMATION

Room on the Broom (Dir. Jan Lachauer and Max Lang)

One of the (presumably) bigger-budget animated films, Room On The Broom conforms to standard animation tropes for a project like this (adaptation of a popular book, famous cast, cutesy score, erudite narrator). In case the film leaves you wanting more, the Room On The Broom website helpfully advertises a “sparkling new game app” and toys for sale. Hey, at least they know their audience! There’s melody in the characters voiced by notables like Gillian Anderson, Sally Hawkins, and Simon Pegg, and Broom doesn’t lack charm, but anyone whose age isn’t in the single digits will likely find it a snooze. (1.5/5)SL

Possessions (Dir. Shuhei Morita)

Linear narrative, thematic simplicity, and a coherent, cartoonish drawing style give Possessions a definite heft and shape. Shuhei Morita’s confident parable is at its strongest in its magical passages, where flurries of action give the feudal-era Japan forest setting an energy that is too often lacking from the piece. Yet at just over 10 minutes in length, the thing still manages to drag somehow. The repairman figure — serving double duty as the short’s sole human character and as tribune for the traditional values on show in Possessions — too often has nothing to do but wait. The waiting sequences drag a bit, but where Room on the Broom runs through endless laps of its repetitive character-development plot loop, Possessions avoids the repetition trap and the strictly-for-kids feel that comes with it. The result is satisfying, despite being slight and a bit too preachy. (3.5/5) –AP

Get A Horse! (Dir. Lauren MacMullan)

The necessary Disney entry in the animated shorts category this year is Get A Horse!. It’s been screening in theaters before their feature hit Frozen, and it’s worth noting that both films are directed by women (in fact, Get A Horse! director Lauren MacMullan is the first woman to have a solo directing credit on an animated Disney movie). That political distinction aside, I found the film sweet but a little dull. It’s certainly constructed in a clever way, but I’m not sure if this style of hybrid, self-conscious media worked for me. For the first third of this six-minute film, Get A Horse! is modeled on the hand-drawn Disney animation style of the late 1920s. At that point, Mickey Mouse bursts through the screen and into his modern full-color, CGI iteration. The film’s basic plot follows Mickey and Minnie Mouse as they are chased and tormented by Peg-Leg Pete, and during these chases, the characters dip back and forth between the retro, black-and-white world and the modern CGI proscenium (for some reason, the modern world is represented by a movie theater stage — upon arrival Minnie looks around and goes, “Where are we? Poughkeepsie?”). Although most of the film is a faithful recreation, Mickey’s voice is mined from the vaults and is literally pure Walt Disney. Still, I’d trade this manufactured cleverness for last year’s elegant Paperman, a kind of PG-animated missed connections that felt both timeless and unique. (2.5/5)SL

TMT PICK (TIE): Feral (Dir. Daniel Sousa)

Feral is a simple story, breathed to life in (mostly) muted, shadowy blacks, greys, and whites. I liked the flow of the images here, the lack of dialogue, and, yes, even the heavy symbolism. A hunter finds a feral child in the woods, takes him back to town and attempts to domesticate him, but the boy breaks free and returns to the wild. The melancholy score nicely fits the story, a coherence that is echoed in many of the film’s formal choices. To up Feral’s hip factor, filmmaker Daniel Sousa has made the film available on Vimeo for rental or purchase. That would be a buck well spent. (4/5)Susanna Locascio

TMT PICK (TIE): Mr. Hublot (Dir. Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares)

There is great value in showing without telling, though that binary may be less useful in animation where every object and concept shown on screen can be completely controlled by the author. Mr. Hublot invites the eye to linger over little details of its steampunk robo-future, such as the analog scrolling counter windows cut into the forehead of its titular tinker character. As the eye lingers, the mind cobbles, and the result is a rough-hewn sense of the larger world inhabited by Hublot and the robo-pup he adopts. There’s something sickly-sweet at the center of the narrative — capable, eccentric, probably-OCD loner adopts hapless sub-species dependent, learns hard lessons about self and world — but if you can ignore that for the dozen or so minutes that Mr. Hublot putters around in front of your face, you may find much to enjoy about the world-building work that’s going on in the details here. The visual work here, which wraps a Despicable Me-like animation style in smoggy grays and stultifying browns, is enough fun to fiddle with mentally that the stock tropes of the narrative hardly irritate. Best of all, no one speaks; Lauren Witz and Alexandre Espigares leave you to sort it out for yourself. (4/5)AP