Short, not so sweet

JustBeforeLosing_WEBIf you’re like most people, when choosing your Oscar pool picks, you guess on a bunch on them, and definitely for the winners of the three short film awards. For many years, the short films were nearly impossible to see; the compilations of all of the nominees often didn’t show up at theater until after the Academy Awards were given, and they were usually only around for a week. Even after the advent of YouTube and iTunes, it’s still been bizarrely hard to see the films. However, not only are the Animation and Live Action films showing for a second week in San Diego (with the Documentaries opening February 28), but almost all of the films will be available online on February 25. They are worth seeing, and not only to increase your chance of winning the pool.

The animated films are always particularly interesting because they tend not to look anything like the big budget blockbuster animated films put out by Disney and Dreamworks. They’re much more artful, abstract, and complex with characters less likely to have been developed through a focus group of six years. The short films tend to be darker and edgier, but this year, with one exception, they are cheerfully sweet paeans to responsibility, often to pets. The most straightforward is Room on the Broom, which features the voices of Simon Peg and Gillian Anderson in about a witch who keeps adopting more pets (cat, dog, bird, frog), the weight of whom eventually becomes too much for her broom to handle. Also, there’s a dragon pursuing them. The animals and their expressions are cute, but the story is most appropriate for five-year-olds. Mr. Hublot is also about pets, with a very odd, partly mechanical man taking in a robotic dog and dealing with its increasing size. The most interesting thing about the film is the intricate steampunk world the man and dog live in, but there doesn’t seem to be a thematic reason for its setting. Still, it’s visually stunning.

The most gorgeous of the short animated films is inarguably Feral, about a little boy found in the snow by a hunter who tries to civilize him. The film is dark, even creepy, and the drawing, slightly abstracted and reminiscent of woodblock prints, communicates the emotional power of the boy’s confusion and fear. The artwork in Possession is just as effective, using a more finely detailed anime style to tell the story of a samurai who is trapped by the supposedly inanimate objects in an abandoned house where he spends the night. The most likely winner is Get is Horse! which is actually eighty years old, a recently unearthed Walt Disney-drawn Mickey Mouse cartoon. It’s cute and has a few moments ingenious, but it’s also only in this short list because of its creator, not its quality. Feral should win the Oscar, but it’s unlikely with Walt in the mix.

While the animated shorts are actually better than the animated features this year, the live action shorts don’t even approach the excellence of the dramatic features. In fact, only two of them seem Oscar worthy. The highest profile of the lot is The Voorman Problem, which is based on a David Mitchell story and starring Martin Freeman (from Sherlock and The Hobbit films) and Tom Hollander. The latter is an inmate who claims to be a good, and the former his incredulous psychiatrist. The film is so slight it’s basically one a plot twist and the end credits. Do I Have To Take Care of Everything? is about a Finnish family that has a lot of trouble getting ready for a wedding. It’s cute and silly. That Wasn’t Me is not cute or sweet; it’s viciously violent, wildly over-acted action film about Spaniards kidnapped by child soldiers in Africa. It’s a subpar Blood Diamond.

Helium, in Danish, is one of the good shorts. An angelic boy dying of an unnamed disease in a hospital is befriended by a bearded, oversensitive orderly who tells him stories about a magical land called Helium where people go when they are no longer alive. As Enzo the orderly, Casper Crump is enormously charismatic and heartbreaking. As good is Leá Drucker in the French Just Before Losing Everything, a tense, unnerving depiction of the several hours before a battered woman and her children escape her husband. She is fierce, unflappable, heroic, and Xavier Legrand’s direction is flawless. He will win the Oscar.

The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animation
The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Live Action
Various writers, directors, and actors
Not Rated
On iTunes February 25