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oscar shorts posterSince 1998, I’ve followed the Oscars very closely and for some reason actually enjoy watching the show. It usually provides fodder for me to complain about since the Academy rarely picks the films that I deem best as their best. So it goes. And in the Oscar pools that I participate in, the short film categories (live action, animated and documentary) usually leave me clueless as to who should win since I never get a chance to see them. This year, however, that has changed. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to view them ahead of Hollywood’s Big Dance and have been extremely excited to do so. I can’t imagine how many films were submitted for these awards, but I have been exceedingly impressed with most of the films that made the cut.

Animated Shorts

Get a Horse!

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This is Disney’s annual entry in this category, something I’ve always thought of as weak. They (along with Pixar, a Disney-owned company) have had a stranglehold on the Best Animated Feature ever since it was introduced at the 2001 Oscars (ironically, Shrek, a Dreamworks film, won over Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.).

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Get a Horse! is an interesting film as it brings the historical Mickey Mouse into the modern era by mixing animation from the original black and white films with the depth and color of modern animation with the two of them literally battling it out as Peg-Leg Pete kidnaps Minnie Mouse and tries to keep her away from Mickey Mouse. I must say, the animation as the characters alternate between the black and white world and the color world is pretty amazing. My kids absolutely adored this when we saw it before Frozen. Directed by Lauren MacMullen (nice to see Disney finally getting some women directors into the mix), Get a Horse! is the likely Oscar winner in this category. Is it the best film, though? Not in my opinion. Fun all the same, though.

Mr. Hublot

oscar shorts - mr. hublot posterAn incredibly inventive film set in some nebulous future time that follows Mr. Hublot, an agoraphobe with OCD, who works out of his home content to fix his belongings and trinkets and watch the TV rather than step out into the cold, scary world. One day, he overhears a robotic dog being dumped in the street outside his dwelling. He watches the pet over a series of days, curious about it.

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When it appears that the box the dog has been using as a house is being dumped into a shredder, Mr. Hublot finally breaks out of his home into the world to rescue the dog. Seemingly too late as the box has been dumped into the shredder, the robo-dog sidles up next to him. Mr. Hublot takes the dig in, not thinking about how it would disrupt his orderly world. As time passes, the dog grows bigger and bigger, space runs out for him and Mr. Hublot is no longer able to keep his belongings in the order he wishes. So what else can he do? The rendering in the animation is out of this world and Mr. Hublot’s world is so vivid that it seems real. The final scene is rather touching, but I don’t want to give it away. This was by far my favorite of the films in this category and I would dearly love to see it pull off the surprise win on March 2. This film was directed by Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares.

Feral

oscar shorts - feral posterThe most curious of the five films nominated in this category, Feral follows a similar narrative as that of Greystoke – a boy is found living in the woods among the wolves by a man. He is brought to civilization and taught the ways of city folk – he’s cleaned up, has clothes to wear and is sent to school. It’s clear this is a world that is not suitable for him, however. He also seems to have special powers a la Rogue from the X-Men, able to connect with and steal the essence of other beings and objects becoming them. He deserts his civilized surroundings and retreats back to the forest where he belongs. The animation of this film is much different than the others in this category as it appears handpainted, like a Bob Ross watercolor, eschewing the CGI of Mr. Hublot and the mixture of hand drawn animation and CGI in Get a Horse! The effect is quite arresting, though. Written and directed by Daniel Sousa.

Possessions

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A well told supernatural tale taking place in a forest in Japan, Possessions catches Otoko lost amidst a thunderstorm in the woods. When he sees a temple embedded in a large tree, he seeks refuge there. It is here that he awakens spirits who come to him in a variety of ways – broken paper umbrellas, a dragon formed out of debris and refuse and a ghostly beauty who showers rich fabrics on Otoko.

oscar short films possessionsAs a man who fixes anything, he does his best to put things right. This was my second favorite of the five in this category and really interesting to watch as it was so different than the other films. Directed by Shuhei Morita.

Room on the Broom

oscar shorts room on the broom posterIt seems that feature-length animated films drawing A-List talent to voice, the shorts are as well. With talent such as Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, two-time Oscar-nominated actress Sally Hawkins and Rob Brydon all lending their voices to Room on the Broom, one can figure this one will get its fair share of attention. Based on the book by Julia Donaldson, the story revolves around a happy-go-lucky witch who with her cat flies around on her broomstick doing what witches do. However, when her hat blows off in the wind and they go to look for it, they come across a stray dog who is chewing on it. She decides to add him to the group…much to the chagrin of her cat.

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When next she drops the bow in her hair, they all go look for it. This time a bird finds the bow…and also joins the group, the broomstick running out of room. Next when she drops her wand, a frog finds it and he, too, joins the group. However, the whole time that they are dallying, a dragon she accidentally created at the beginning of the film is chasing her and it finally catches up to her. As she tries to get away, the broomstick breaks and she fears that her end is nigh. However, the four animals band together to trick and scare the dragon away. With the broom only half its size, how will it accommodate all of the animals? This film has a really cute ending and I can see why it has a large audience. I’m not really into cute, so this one didn’t do it for me. I would bet quite a bit though that many people would really like it if they were able to see it. Directed by Jan Lachauer and Max Lang.

Live Action Shorts

Short films like short fiction have usually left me a little cold. Never getting enough time with the characters or for the situation to develop, in the past I have dismissed them. This was stupid of me. The more I watch shorts, the more I’m impressed by them – by their narrative efficiency, by the quality of the writing and with the advent of better, cheaper technology, the quality of the look. And much in the same way that top tier talent are working in the animated short films, we see the same in the live action shorts. This year, where the short animated films were flights of fancy, three of the the live action nominees were unexpectedly full of heavy and pertinent subject matter.  This is an amazing crop of films with some as short as 6 minutes and others as long as 30 minutes.

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)

oscar shorts aquel posterSo…wasn’t expecting what I got from this one. When two doctors, a couple Paula (Alejandra Lorente) and Juanjo (Gustavo Salmerón), attempt to connect with a rogue group of guerrillas in the jungle of Africa, the trip goes exceedingly awry. When the local warlord finds them stuck at a checkpoint, held up by two child soldiers (one can assume that they have been kidnapped and conscripted), they are taken to the guerrilla camp and interrogated along with their driver. As one might expect, things go badly from here.

oscar shorts - aquelDeath, rape and army intervention all follow as Paula escapes with one of the child soldiers from the beginning. Scared of the surrounding the situation and the boy, who has already shown her many reasons why she should be afraid, Paula does everything she can to secure their safe passage. Book-ended by two passages showing who we are to believe is the grown up version of the child soldier telling his tale in a lecture setting, we see Paula in the crowd. Redemptive and poignant, this is a story that is of this day and age and extremely powerful. Writer-director Esteban Crespo wove a tight, white-knuckle inducing narrative in the less than 30 minute running time. This one has maybe the second best shot at winning the Oscar.

Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)

oscar shorts just before losing everything posterAvant Que De Tout Perdre hits you in the gut much in the same way Aquel No Era Yo does, but much more subtly. The film opens with Julien (Miljan Chatelain) making his way to school, but getting sidetracked, playing around and not making much of an effort to get there despite being accosted by one of his teachers. Wee receive no reason for his erratic behavior until, after ensconcing himself under a bridge, he hears a car horn and jumps into the car. A frantic woman, his mother Miriam (Léa Drucker), then picks up her daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), who, in tears is torn away from her boyfriend.

oscar shorts just before losing everything

At this point, we know something is up. They drive, carefully scanning the scene, to Miriam’s place of employ (a department store) where she resigns her position. It is then that she tells of the abuse she suffers at the hands of her husband and she must leave with the children immediately. As she goes through the process of terminating her work, he shows up unexpectedly to talk to her. Fearing for her life, she covers the best she can to throw him off any scent that she might be leaving him. With the help of her sister, who is waiting at a nearby gas station, and her coworkers, the threat that her husband poses is absolutely terrifying and palpable. This is a short film that shows you don’t need much to set up arguably the tensest moments I’ve seen in film in the past year. This is a truly incredible piece of filmmaking by Xavier Legrand.

Helium

oscar shorts helium posterAnd so continues the happy subject matter of the live action shorts category. Helium is far and away my favorite of this set of shorts. Extremely sad in some parts and incredibly uplifting in others, Helium hits especially hard for those who have children. The film takes place in a hospital where new janitor Enzo (Casper Crump) meets Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbæk), a young boy with an unspecified terminal disease.

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Enzo makes an immediate connection with the boy, who asks tough questions of Enzo, who, in turn, weaves a tale for the ages to help usher Alfred to the other side. Helping Alfred visualize where he might go after his death, Enzo tells of the magical place called Helium, a city in the sky that is attainable only by zeppelins and where the homes are suspended in the air by large helium balloons. Enzo tells him this story over several days and when Alfred is moved to a hospice-like part of the hospital before hearing the end of the story, Enzo, with the help of a nurse (Marijana Jankovic), gets to Alfred just in time. This film is magical in so many ways and it would get my vote for the Oscar. Bravo to co-writer and director Anders Walter.

Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)

oscar shorts - do i have to take care of everything posterMuch lighter fare, Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? brings us a tale of a comedy of errors that befalls one family as they waked up late on morning thinking that they’ve overslept for a wedding they are to attend. In the rush to get ready to go, the mother (Joanna Haartti) does everything she can to get her two kids and herself ready while her husband (Santtu Karvonen) stands by and really doesn’t help adding further frustration and anxiety for the mother.

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In the course of the 6-minute long film, everything that can go wrong does (broken heal, skinned knee, dropping the plant they grabbed to give as a gift when they lost the real gift, stained shirt etc.), but at least they arrive to the church almost on time…only to find out it’s the wrong day and there is a funeral going on. Unable to leave as the entire church has turned their attention to them, they play it off as if they were meant to be there. This is a very funny short and one that took me by surprise. Directed by Selma Vilhunen.

The Voorman Problem

oscar shorts - voorman problem posterWe’ve seen it before…a psychiatrist comes to a mental institution to meet with a patient who believes he is a god. Usually, in films such as these, the false prophet is exposed as a delusional schizophrenic. But what happens if the patient actually is a god? And how does he prove it? Well, these are the dilemmas that Dr. Williams (the fantastic Martin Freeman) faces when he meets with Voorman (Tom Hollander), who weaves a very convincing argument as to the fact that he is truly a god. How does he prove it? Well, he erases Belgium from the map and memory of everyone on the planet…or that’s what Dr. Williams is led to believe.

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When he goes home after his first meeting with Voorman, Dr. Williams’ wife (Elisabeth Gray) has no idea what he’s talking about when he mentions the country and when he consults a map, where Belgium used to be, it’s just a lake. Convinced that this is some trickery on Voorman’s part, Dr. Williams goes back to the institution to interview him again. Big mistake. Hilariously funny, The Voorman Problem seems to be the odds on favorite to take home the Oscar in this category (for you kids playing in Oscar pools at home). This whimsical tale made me laugh quite a few times. Based on the novel number9dream by David Mitchell (who also wrote Cloud Atlas), it’s no wonder this movie is fantastic. Propers go to Baldwin Li and Mark Gill (who also directed) for the adaptation of this one.

This is an incredible crop of films that really take you through every emotion. I can’t help but to think that that Academy actually it right for once (I can’t believe I’m saying this…). Hopefully anyone interested in these will get a chance to see them in the theaters. A program like this with varied subjects, themes and emotions is quite satisfying as so rarely do entire feature films provide you with a spectrum such as these films do. So check ’em out, people.

Documentary Shorts

Another crop of incredible films, the documentary shorts also tackle incredibly important subject matter, and better, make it accessible for viewers who may not watch an entire feature length doc on similar subjects. All five of these films were incredibly engrossing and several left me wanting more. It is frequent that short films are made into longer films after the fact; there are at least three in this category with which I would like to see that happen.

Cavedigger

oscar shorts - cavedigger posterWithout a doubt, this was my favorite of the group (and I think I would say of all 15 shorts nominated for Oscars) and would get my vote for the Oscar. This film follows Ra Paulette, an artist who digs caves into the soft sandstone hills of New Mexico. At first he did this as a way to commune with the earth, to occupy himself in a worthy manner and dedicate his energies to creating something beautiful that all people could enjoy. When he started getting commissioned to do other caves, he put all of himself into the endeavors. However, without total creative control of the projects, they usually were never finished according to his plans or were abandoned due to differences with those who commissioned the caves.

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As he is getting older, Ra decides to dedicate himself to his last work, his magnum opus, in his own backyard. However, when a permanent setback costs him his dream, he’s left to regroup and begin again. Paulette‘s outlook on life and purpose is enviable. He doesn’t crave material possessions, he just wants to express himself in the only way he knows how – in the shaping of cave walls and creating a space that melds the earth to the human experience. I could have watched a 10-hour mini-series on Paulette and his work. That the films leaves off with him 22 months into his final 10-year project, I have hope that director Jeffrey Karoff will revisit Paulette as his projects nears completion and give us a final chapter.

Facing Fear

oscar shorts - facing fear posterFacing Fear is an almost unreal story of hate, reconciliation and forgiveness and goes beyond my comprehension of how someone is able to look beyond terrible things done to them and forgive the party who inflicted pain that I hope to never know.  This is the story of Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal and two encounters that changed their lives. When Matthew was a teenager, he’s been kicked out of his house for being gay. He came to Los Angeles to seek refuge, but found little but hostility and abuse. One night he encountered an amped up group of skinheads who decided to that Matthew wasn’t worthy of sharing the street of LA with them, so they beat him mercilessly and left him for dead. Tim Zaal was one of those men.

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When, 20+ years later, Zaal, who had reformed his neo-Nazi ways, came to the Museum of Tolerance where Boger was now the manager wanting to tell his story of redemption, they both knew after a few minutes who the other person was. At first reluctant to be near one another, they eventually talked and decided to lecture together and tell their story to help others see what can be achieved by reaching understanding about how our actions affect others and ourselves. I commend both Boger and Zaal for the steps they took to achieve their reconciliation. I don’t think I could have done what Boger did. Directed by Jason Cohen.

The Lady in Number 6

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at 109 years old, Aliza Herz-Sommer plays her piano everyday, not like she was once able, but hell, she’s 109. Still chock full of energy, meeting with friends daily, she draws her essence from the music she plays and listens to. Once a famed concert pianist from Prague, Czechoslovakia, Aliza has her share of stories – of love for her husband, her son and her music. However, she also has another part of her story that is encompassed in The Lady in Number 6 – she is a Holocaust survivor.

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Of Jewish parentage, Aliza like so many others was whisked off to a concentration camp during WWII, but unlike so many others, she was spared the ending 6 million others like her met. And this was because she could play music so beautifully. This film tells this tale, and masterfully so, and it’s no wonder that this is the film that will likely take home the Oscar for this category. Herz-Sommer is a firecracker and she has great lucidity in telling her tale, one that is rare to hear from a primary source these days. While this is a story that has been told in documentary and live action films alike, both shorts and feature-length, Herz-Sommer‘s outlook on life is a wonder to behold. This film is a testament to her joie de vivre and it is absolutely infectious. Directed by Malcolm Clarke.

Karama Has No Walls

oscar shorts -karama has no wallsWhat could easily be a sister piece to Jehane Noujaim‘s The Square, Sara Ishaq‘s Karama Has No Walls centers itself on the popular uprising in Yemen, a country located on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. As the Egyptians fought to oust Hosni Mubarak, the Yemenis fought against the 33-year oppressive rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. They too had their share of heartbreak and pain when peaceful protest came under fire by the police, army and hired thugs.

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This film tells the story of several of those who fell in the protest, some of those who were injured and those who made it out alive to see a better day. As tempers flare in places like the Ukraine, films like these have a special kind of significance as they show that overcoming oppression is possible. Ishaq‘s film stitches together all the different narratives in a coherent manner and gives us a broad view of the uprising. Her usage of footage taken at the protests, some of it quite graphic, punches you in the gut and gives the struggle that so many of us take for granted a more visceral presentation. In short, this film hits you in all the right spots. Something that is very hard to do in 26 minutes.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

oscar shorts - prison terminalThose who are parents know the extremes we will go to protect our children. If something should happen to them that is beyond our control, how far do we go take it right, or at least right in our eyes? Jack Hall did just that – a decorated war veteran, Hall took it upon himself to seek justice for his son who overdosed on drugs and killed the drug dealer who sold the drugs to his son.

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Director Edgar Barens trains his camera(s) on Hall during his last months in a maximum security prison where he will die for his crimes. Hall enters the self-created hospice program at the prison he’s at and where he is cared for by fellow inmates, those who are also incarcerated for violent crimes similar to Hall‘s. What Barens delivers is an unflinching look at death as it progresses and how those who are condemned to end their days behind the walls of a prison can die with some dignity whether you believe they deserve it or not.

And that’s the last of categories in the short film categories up for Oscars. Like I said from the outset, this is an incredible slate of films over the three categories. I was duly impressed with the quality and range of the films’ subject matter. Many emotions were brought out while watching these fantastic films and if these are indicative of the state of short films, we all have something to look forward to.