Film Review – Oscar Nominated Shorts (Live Action)
This year’s Oscar nominated live action short films are distinguished in many ways; they are in multiple languages, multiple genres and varied length. Though not all of these shorts are as equally deserving of their nomination, they do approach their material with a confident sensibility and a distinct visual approach. However, many of them fail to use their limited run time in a way that is most advantageous for the types of stories they want to tell. Or in the case of a minority of the selections, they lack an interesting story, but try to make up for it with an artistic presentation or a clever twist.
This is not to say that all of the shorts are a total wash, and even the worst of the bunch have their redeeming features. This selection ranges everything from small masterpieces all the way to complete failures but what is most important about this category is that the narrative short-form is one of the last places where a first-time filmmaker can get academy attention with risky ideas and dangling ambiguities.
Helium – 20 mins
In this Danish selection, written and directed by Anders Walter, the story juxtaposes youthful innocence against the adult fear of death. Unfortunately, this soppy tear-jerker chooses to spend most of its 20 minutes making broad metaphors, as we are projected into the mind of Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbaek), a terminally ill child who daydreams as a friendly orderly named Enzo (Casper Crump) entertains his last days with fairytales about a heavenly place beyond the clouds called Helium.
Because it’s in another language, and it’s acted with conviction people will be tricked into thinking this is a good film. The reality is had this been shaved down two minutes this could have easily been repurposed as a hallmark commercial. The fantasy visuals are surprisingly unoriginal—resembling a candy colored, steam-punk instagramland—and the relationship between this man and the child is never explored with any motivation other than general good samaritanism. There are a handful of moments where the on-screen bond between these actors are warm and effective but the concept behind this short is unforgivably trite and the execution only highlights its cloying obviousness. If you doubt my assessment I submit these lines of dialogue for your consideration:
“I’m just feeding him lies” says the teary-eyed Enzo to a fellow nurse.
“No, you’re giving him hope” she replies.
…But luckily, this is the worst of the bunch, so things only get better from there.
Final Grade: D+
The Voorman Problem – 13 mins
The Voorman Problem, directed by Mark Gill, is a British short staring some familiar faces in Martin Freeman from BBC’s Sherlock and Tom Hollander from the Oscar nominated dark comedy In the Loop. In this, Freeman plays a stuffy psychologist who has been recently assigned to question a troubled psych ward inmate named Mr. Vorman (Hollander) who actually believes he is god and that everything in existence is actually only nine days old. Upon their first meeting, despite the ridiculousness of his claims, Vorman manages to sneak some self-doubt into the mind of the stiff-upper-lipped doctor.
This is a humorous short and the chemistry between these two actors is undeniably captivating, even as they only share a couple major scenes. Subtly, the high concept of the film addresses themes of faith, reason, and justified skepticism, all while remaining funny and mysterious. What keeps it from reaching greatness though is a bolted on twist ending that brings the short to a screeching halt.
I don’t dismiss the intrigue and the innovation of this short but Rod Serling was able to play with similar themes and ideas and often he would end his Twilight Zone episodes on note just as arc, but he did it in a way that felt a little more organic and a lot less gimmicky.
Final Grade: B-
Do I have to Take Care of Everything? – 7 mins
This Finnish short, directed by Selma Vilhunen, gives us a candid tour of a suburban home as a mother tries to get her family ready for a dressy event and rush them out the door. Sini (Joanna Haartti) forgets to get buy a gift and has to improvise on the fly, her husband (Santtu Karvonen) spills coffee on his shirt, and their two daughters try to leave the house in Halloween costumes.
What’s to say about this film? This is a cute short, and that’s all it really is. How this particular selection impressed anyone enough to nominate it is surprising—not because it’s awful though, actually it’s a well-made, well-acted, and tightly realized, but it’s also slight and ultimately forgettable. Structurally the race-against-the-clock motif work really well within its seven minute run-time, but it has the lasting impact of a casual knock-knock joke.
Final Grade: C+
That Wasn’t Me – 25 mins
The Spanish short That Wasn’t Me, directed by Estaban Crespo, is a very startling and serious film about two young doctors (Alejandra Lorente and Gustalvo Salmeron) traveling though war-torn Africa who are captured by a violent militia on the way to their destination. Midway through, the tables get turned and the victims are put into a very compromising position to save their lives.
From the first scene when doctor’s jeep gets stopped by children wielding machine guns, the film’s energy is intense of unrelenting. Shot in a hand-held docudrama style, this short is a visceral punch in the gut and it is by far the most difficult of the nominees to watch. But despite Crespo’s stylistic skill and the dedicated performances by the entire cast, it’s undercut by an undercooked framing device and an overall sense of exploitation.
Logistically, it is one of the more accomplished shorts of this year’s selection and as a relevant story its ideas are worth exploring, but it’s definitely painting in broad strokes and in doing so it registers as a tad racist. I’m sure that wasn’t intended by filmmakers but with only 25 minutes to establish and investigate the key relationships, what was intended to capture the realistic horror of something like Hotel Rwanda or The Battle of Algiers, ends up edging much closer to the revenge fantasy of I’ll Spit on Your Grave.
Final Grade: C+
Just Before Losing Everything – 30 mins
Though most of these nominees have their distracting hindrances and their flaws, one of these films is a near-perfect piece of short-form storytelling. The French produced Just Before Losing Everything, directed by Xavier Legrand, is a tense family drama about a mother named Miriam (Lea Druker) who is trying to escape, with her kids, the ritual abuse of her violent husband (Denis Menochet) by sneaking them through the department store in which she works. It’s a fully realized and subtly complicated piece that knows just how much information the audience will need to keep them interested, while still remaining mysterious.
The film begins on the most outer edges of the story, following Miriam’s youngest child Julian as he rendezvous with his family, bunkering for safety in the office of the store. Even before we know the full history of these relationships, we can sense an air of danger and immediacy in every scene, and as the film slowly cranks the dial further it pushes the tension into a full palm-sweat without it ever waving its arms and begging for the audience’s attention. Shot with precision and deliberately pace, this film showcases a major talent in Xavier Legrand to keep an eye out for. And while it might be too subtle or ambiguous for the average Academy member, it certainly has my vote.
Final Grade: A-