Starting on February 22, the shorts nominated for the Oscars this year will be available on VOD and iTunes, as well as in theaters. We got an early look at them and as usual they are all exceptional. First up, the Live Action shorts. Predictions at the end of the piece. My short reviews in order of preference, not how I think the Academy will vote.
5. “Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” (Directors: Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari, Finland/Finnish). Synopsis: Sini tries frantically to get her family ready to leave for a wedding, but her husband and two children are interfering with her efforts. All of the ways one incident can be screwed up in contained this very funny, lively short. Well acted, tightly paced screwball comedy fits a small story into the frame of a short film. It wouldn’t be in this category if it weren’t good, and of the five it is probably your most reliable crowd pleaser. It is probably too light, however, to win the big prize.
4. “Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)” (Director: Esteban Crespo, Spain/Spanish). Synopsis: Paula, a Spanish aid worker, has an encounter with an African child soldier named Kaney.
From a pure filmmaking standpoint, this one shines above the rest. The handheld camera, the shootouts, the emotional pull – it all works beautifully together. I suspect this director has a bright future in filmmaking. It is difficult to watch, however, and frustrating in that it’s difficult to reconcile the politics involved. Of the five, it is probably the one (other than Helium and Just Before Losing Everything) that would make a fine feature. Spanish aid workers are captured, held hostage, tortured and eventually one of them escapes. Vivid and memorable yet probably not our winner, although one never knows how these things turn out.
3. “Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)” (Directors: Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras, France/French). Synopsis: Miriam has left her abusive husband and taken refuge with her children in the local supermarket where she works. I had to pace the room watching this exceptionally made domestic violence thriller. The way the story unfolds builds tension as it releases more and more information. The stakes become higher, the desperation is like the beat of a panicked heart. This is an example of brilliant storytelling, something I fear has been lost in American storytelling, both in terms of how our filmmakers approach the narrative – but mostly in how the critics respond in mass. It seems to me that what we value leans towards flash over substance. That is probably why the films nominated here do not hail from the US, despite our hundreds upon hundreds of graduating film students every year. As good as it is, though, it is not our winner I don’t think, this in part because it is about women – women helping women. Four of these five shorts, in fact, are beautiful examples of how foreign storytellers treat women overall – they are utilized in every way EXCEPT as hot pieces of tail. In America, that’s the message pounded in our heads every day: a woman’s worth is dependent upon her level of hotness.
2. “The Voorman Problem” (Directors: Mark Gill and Baldwin Li, UK/English). Synopsis: A psychiatrist is called to a prison to examine an inmate named Voorman, who is convinced he is a god. Martin Freeman stars as a lawyer opposite Tom Hollander and insane inmate who believes he’s god. A superbly witty screenplay adapted by Baldwin Li and director Mark Gil from David Mitchell’s novel number9dream, The Voorman Problem is likely your winner for Best Live Action Short. Its only potential drawback is the length. With great exchanges like “What kind of god would create war?” “A bored one,” this film stands out from the rest. It is a funny, surreal, refreshing take on God, our need to make sense of something that can’t be made sense of, and the odd notion that maybe we are just living our lives by the hand of someone who likes to mess with us. It also has the benefit of having stars in it, which always helps, and solid production design.
1. “Helium” (Directors Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson, Denmark/Danish). Synopsis: A dying boy finds comfort in the tales of a magical land called HELIUM, told to him by the hospital janitor. The sappiest of the five, Helium had me dissolving into a soggy wreck at the outset. But it is more than just a sentimental ode to a dying boy in a hospital. It is inventive, imaginative storytelling that offers, I think, a useful method of dealing with death itself. If you aren’t plagued by thoughts of dying, or worse, of children dying, you might not be as captivated by Helium as I was. It is not the kind of movie grown men will be proud to say they liked best, as it doesn’t have the “cool factor” to help manage some of the sentiment. Though all five are very well made works, Helium is the one that will stay with me the longest, I figure.
Prediction: The Voorman Problem