Oscar-nominated live action shorts aim for the gut, the heart and the funnybone

Posted by · 9:51 am · January 28th, 2014

It seems an uncommon occurrence for the live action short Oscar category to feel so much more compelling than its animated counterpart. Perhaps that’s because the potential for instant gratification is so readily apparent in the animated field, or that the animators so often have a wide array of styles and media up their collective sleeve, making for a fresh-feeling crop every year. But I can’t remember the last time the live action nominees made for this stacked a race, and indeed, like the animated shorts and the documentary shorts, the field is in keeping with the overall trend throughout the Oscars this year: thick competition.

When I really dive into these films, I feel as though there are two that rise above the fray, but one could easily see any of these proving a fetching choice for voters. The least (and, by far, shortest) of them, even has an angle given the recent penchant for rewarding comedy in this category. So let’s start there.

Selma Vilhunen’s “Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” is a swift affair – not even seven minutes in length. It’s a gag piece, depicting a family hurriedly preparing for a wedding, late and rushed as the mother frantically holds things together. It all builds to a facile climax but it never feels overly familiar, which is actually an accomplishment with material this, well, familiar. Much of that is probably owed to a great and natural turn from actress Joanna Haartti, as well as an established sense of unpredictability throughout. You smile when it’s over. That can go a long way, particularly as much of this field deals in more sobering subject matter.

Which is a good enough segue to those two I see rising above the other nominees, and beginning with “Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me),” well, talk about an established sense of unpredictability. This film, from Spanish director Esteban Crespo, was so affecting I had to take a breather when it was over. It’s a story of a border crossing gone wrong in an undisclosed war-ravaged African country, children set up as ominous gun-toting soldiers and all the familiar imagery that conjures. But it keeps you glued to the screen with each new turn in the script, ultimately becoming a pretty powerful story of redemption carried exquisitely by wrenching performances from Alejandra Lorente and Gustavo Salmerón, among others.

If it were me with a ballot, I don’t know how I could keep from checking the box next to this one. Even when the film runs into trouble handling action territory, poor effects and compromised photography threatening to break the spell, it maintains focus on its story, unspooling with confidence every step of the way. It’s impressive to pack this much into a short.

That said, I don’t have a ballot, and those who do may well be moved by less harrowing material. And while “Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)” is hardly a walk in the park, it’s a few steps down from the gut-punch of Crespo’s film. It certainly doesn’t sacrifice suspense, though, as it reveals its narrative with a measured pace, letting information out like a slow leak.

The narrative is one of a domestically abused woman looking to make a getaway with her children and the difficult practical steps that have to be taken along the way, and when recognizable actor Denis Ménochet (“Inglourious Basterds”) pops up in this one, a chill runs through your spine. Like “That Wasn’t Me,” this one has won a pretty decent amount of awards across the globe. It was directed by actor Xavier Legrand (“Au Revoir Les Enfants”) and it could be one to watch for.

Even less harrowing than all of that but still registering emotionally is “Helium,” from director Anders Walter. This is the kind of thing where, when you just read the synopsis on paper, you can easily see winning. An eccentric hospital janitor tells a dying boy of the world of Helium and the boy longs for this heavenly place. Beautiful visual effects and design render the fantasy well and the craft on the whole is handsome. But “on paper” doesn’t always compute with these categories, and while “Helium” is the only film to register these kinds of touching grace notes, it faces stiff competition elsewhere.

Which brings me to “The Voorman Problem” and a secret weapon shared among many live action short winners: recognizable actors. Martin Freeman (the “Hobbit” franchise) stars opposite Tom Hollander (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise) in this “K-PAX”-like story of a doctor called in to study a prisoner who claims to be a god. Surely not, right? Well with one trick – well, two of them ultimately – this swift 12-minute affair has that doctor wondering by film’s end and it’s just the sort of tight ship one could see winning the category, much like, say, “The New Tenants.”

Worth noting is “The Voorman Problem,” while it hasn’t picked up as many trophies out there on the circuit as the other nominees have, it’s had a larger overall awards presence with tons of nominations and citations, including a BAFTA nomination last year.

The longest of the lot, at just over 30 minutes, is “Avant Que De Tout Perdre,” and I feel like its deeply serious content could drive it over the edge. But if you put me on the spot, I might just go with my heart and say “Aquel No Era Yo.” If you made me sit and really think about it, I might say “The Voorman Problem.” But then the nagging sense that lighter touches would prevail from “Helium” and, to a lesser extent, “Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa?,” would bother me.

So yeah, I see an angle for all of these and can’t quite commit to a prediction just yet. Thankfully I have over a month to decide.

You’ll have a chance to decide for yourself later this week as the nominees for Best Live Action Short Film will be released in theaters as part of Shorts HD and Magnolia Pictures’ annual Oscar Nominated Shorts showcase on Jan. 31. They arrive on VOD Feb. 25.

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