A few years ago the Oscar nominated short films began releasing in theaters, in feature-length programs divided by category: Live Action, Animation, and Documentary. Ever since, I have made it a point to catch these often fantastic, under-appreciated little gems. The exception is the Doc Shorts which, to this day, still rarely make it outside of New York and LA. But if you’re lucky enough to live in a city with an independent theater, chances are you can catch the Live Action and Animated programs.
I recently sat down to both groups. Stay tuned later this week for my reviews of the animated films. Today I present my reviews, in ranked order, of the 5 films nominated for this year’s Oscar for Best Live Action Short.
(Note: “Short” film doesn’t necessarily necessitate “Short” reviews, but for ease of reading, I’ll keep these to a single paragraph each.)
5. Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) (Spain/English & Spanish, 24 min)
A Spanish couple, doing aid work in an unnamed war-torn region of Africa, encounter a group of child soldiers and their warlord. Soon they find themselves targets used for indoctrinating the newest youngest recruits. Like a French film reviewed further below, this shines a light on an important topic too often overlooked by the public. Unfortunately the heavy-handed style suffers from a chronic case of just-too-muchness. The occasional flashes-forward to a lecture hall provide occasional respite from the violence, but don’t exactly add much to the proceedings beyond a slightly awkward framing device. Some of the special effects are distractingly bad, as well. That said, some aspects of the film are very good, and I can see it gaining votes based on its social importance – perhaps even winning the Oscar. But I was too turned-off by its problems to appreciate any value that might have remained.
4. Helium (Denmark/Danish, 23 min)
A hospital janitor befriends a young terminal patient and raises the boy’s spirits by regaling him with tales of a fantastical alt-heaven called “Helium.” It’s quite touching, and the special effects are gorgeous. But it’s just a little too sappy to overcome the central cliché.
3. The Voorman Problem (UK/English, 13 min)
Martin Freeman stars as a psychologist called in to evaluate a prisoner (Pirates of the Caribbean’s Tom Hollander) who “believes” he’s a god. Those quotation marks are crucial to the film’s central gimmick. And it is a gimmick. It’s hilarious and well acted, but it’s a one-note joke. That’s not always a bad thing; I enjoy lots of joke-y shorts, including the Finnish film below. But there’s a well known “rule of threes” in comedy and storytelling. This film delivered its big turn on the second beat and ended, leaving an unfinished and unsatisfied feeling. In my opinion, the “problem” of the title is that it feels like only half of a great movie.
2. Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) (Finland/Finnish, 7 min)
After oversleeping, a woman has to get her useless husband and kids ready to leave for a wedding. This fast-paced comedy piles on more complications every few seconds, to perfectly recreate that sense of frantic frustration that’s so familiar. Like The Voorman Problem this could be considered a one-note joke, but unlike that film this has the advantage of a clear beginning, middle and end, an endearing tone, and relatable characters. The film is light, some might even say slight, but it’s very enjoyable.
1. Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) (France/French, 30 min)
A mother is desperate to leave town with her kids, but first they must stop at the supermarket where she works to make some final plans. I want to tell you what they are doing and why, but the film so expertly adds information piece by piece, steadily building tension and suspense, that I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, this is a powerful film, made by extremely talented women, about an important topic too often relegated to “women’s issues”, but whose audience is and should be universal. Everyone needs to watch this. The skill and artistry involved in every aspect of the production is absolutely top notch, and the script is as good as any in this year’s feature races. This is not only the best short film of this race; it may be the best live action short I’ve seen since I began paying attention to these races nearly a decade ago.
And there you have this year’s Live Action Short field. Needless to say, this ranking is my own opinion. I will make actual predictions for the Oscar races sometime over the next month. (Though my experience lately is the films I like the best actually often end up winning.) Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the Animation reviews coming up!