The Academy Award nominated short films are the bane of office Oscar pools everywhere, since keeping track of the buzz and even just going with your favorite nominee is, to many, impossible. Despite the prevalence of YouTube, short films are rarely promoted outside of the sketch comedy format, but they're an invaluable testing ground for new talent, or a satisfying creative sigh for established directors. Short films are important, damn it, and fortunately the Oscar-nominated ones get a theatrical release every year in certain markets.
This year, the Oscar-nominated live-action short films are interspersed with interviews featuring director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), actor Matthew Modine (The Dark Knight Rises), recent Oscar-winner Shawn Christensen (Curfew) and others exalting the form and explaining its relevance for audiences who already care enough about the medium to go out of their way to these short films in theaters. One wonders what the point was, although they all speak eloquently enough to justify their participation.
My reviews of five Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Short Films are presented in the order they appear in the theatrical program: Helium, The Voorman Problem, Just Before Losing Everything, That Wasn't Me and Do I Have To Take Care of Everything?
A young boy is dying. That’s bad enough, but the promise of heaven sounds really boring to him. What’s the point of an afterlife if not to give hope to someone who will find out if it’s real in the near future?
So a kindly janitor (Casper Crump) takes it upon himself to concoct a new afterlife for the boy, Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbæk), to believe in, called Helium. It’s a fanciful world of airships, islands in the sky and sparkly air molecules that director and co-writer Anders Walter films with reverance. It’s not an exciting world, Helium, it is merely a comfort to the person who needs to believe in it.
“Comforting” is a nice word to call a short film, but although well acted and sweetly produced, that’s all Helium has going for it. Walter’s film is awash in sentiment, and everything else gets lost in the tide. But as a simple, bittersweet confection it is very effective.
The Voorman Problem
Mark Gill’s The Voorman Problem provides an intriguing premise but no follow through. That’s the prerogative, technically, of a short film, and yet that doesn’t keep The Voorman Problem from feeling like the first half of a “Twilight Zone” episode (specifically “The Shadow Play”): the part without a dramatic resolution or a meaningful point to make.
Martin Freeman plays Doctor Williams, assigned to determine the whether a prison inmate named Voorman (Tom Hollander, of the Pirates of the Carribean sequels) really is God. He claims to be God, and the rest of the inmates worship him, but if he’s really an all-powerful being then why is he in prison? And what does he have against Belgium?
Hollander is enigmatic and alluring and Freeman possesses the right combination of disdain and fascination, but the ideas introduced by The Voorman Problem warrant – and perhaps even demand – more exploration than this 13 minute short can offer. One gets the distinct impression that The Voorman Problem is really just the proof of concept for a feature film that would have a little more oomph, and a lot more plot and subtext.
To The Voorman Problem’s credit, that’s a feature film I’d be interested in seeing.
Just Before Losing Everything
Just Before Losing Everything is pure suspense: a deceptively, impressively thrilling narrative that carefully parcels out the information you need, only when you need it, and leaves your heart racing by the end. It is certainly the best live-action short film nominated this year.
Miriam (Léa Drucker) picks up her young son from beneath a bridge where he has been hiding. She forces her teenaged daughter to say goodbye to her boyfriend. Then she goes to work, where her fellow employees help her get fired as quickly as possible. There’s an urgency to everything she does, a time limit on all of her actions, and a husband who just arrived in the store who could ruin everything.
Writer/director Xavier Legrand bestows on Just Before Losing Everything a breathless pace and a terrifying threat, made clear well before the film’s end. The ensemble works in unison to generate a thick fog of dread, whether they’re sympathetic, clueless or cruel. The ending robs the audience of catharsis because the story isn’t about a meaningful conclusion, but instead the rush of adrenaline and terror that lasts throughout the film’s intense 29 minutes. Just Before Losing Everything drops you in the middle of a crisis, offering just enough context to know what’s going on and yet never enough to view the heroine’s plight objectively. You are in the moment with her, and just as scared. This is very nearly perfection.
That Wasn’t Me
That Wasn’t Me has all the production value, moralizing and cheap melodrama you need to make a film feel important, short or otherwise, but the film’s flagrant messaging and shock tactics leave it feeling sleazy, and coated with a discomforting goo. Not the kind of grotesque veneer you’d expect and want from a film about the horrors of child soldiers in Africa, a sort of “anti-allure,” but instead a grimy adulation of the film’s own, self-perceived significance. Why simply make a point when you can rape, murder and helicopter strafe it into the audience’s skulls?
To be fair, That Wasn’t Me isn’t about a subtle topic, and the real-life horrors it relates are well documented. A Spanish couple (Alejandra Lorente and Gustavo Salmerón) are kidnapped by child soldiers in Africa, subjected to abuse and unspeakable tortures, before a sudden opportunity to escape arrives in the form of armed military conflict. Handguns are drawn, hostages are taken, and a young man, a former child soldier narrates, telling a sea of white faces at a posh academy that he’s learned his lesson.
The enormity of the violence in That Wasn’t Me isn’t entirely unjustified, but it overwhelms the film’s short running time. It’s hard to feel anything but exhausted by writer/director Esteban Crespo’s story, distilled as it is into only the most extreme plot points and only the most jarring contrasts. It’s harder not to look out over the film’s on-screen audience of intent bourgeois listeners and not feel condescended to, as if the terrifying nature of That Wasn’t Me couldn’t possibly have meaning unless the viewer saw their surrogate on camera, watching intently from a safe distance instead of remaining in the moment, as captive as the film’s ill-fated heroes.
For a sense of sheer scale, That Wasn’t Me is an accomplishment. As a narrative, it feels exploitative when it’s supposedly trying to take a stand against exploitation.
Do I Have To Take Care of Everything?
The flightiest Oscar-nominated short film this year, Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, is endearing, funny and human. It’s also a sketch comedy routine we’ve seen before, and plays like a Finnish remake of one of the funniest scenes from Four Weddings and a Funeral.
It’s simple, really: a family wakes up late on the day they were supposed to attend a wedding, forcing a very committed mother (Joanna Haartti) to solve everyone’s problems in a rush and then settle, infuriated but for all the right reasons, on one ridiculous compromise after another. Her daughter’s dresses aren’t dry, so they put on their Halloween costumes since that’s the only kind of party dress they can think of. The husband mislaid the wedding present, so an unremarkable potted plant will have to do. And so on, and so forth, and then the punchline.
But while there’s not much to Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, there’s enough to make a real impression. Director Selma Vilhunen, working from a screenplay by Kirsikka Saari, understands the affability of family chaos, and never loses sight of the good intentions and love that often get lost in the midst of hectic problem solving and embarrassing strings of bad luck. In the end, although we’ve only sent a few minutes with the characters (this is the shortest short film on the program), we care for them and we come to understand that they care for each other, and that charming quality elevates what could have been just a simple joke into a simple joke with a lot to say about the way family units deal with crappy circumstances.