Of all categories worth scrutinizing during the chaos of Oscar season, none provides a more diverse overview of recent cinema than the short film categories. While the documentary shorts tend to offer fairly conventional examples of the form (and some of them, like this year’s HBO-produced “Prison Terminal” even have broadcast deals in place), the animated and live action short films are different beasts: international in scope and stretching across multiple genres, they provide a diverse contrast to the largely straightforward crop of feature-length projects in contention.
Of course, “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” and “Her” alone represent a range of complex narratives, and the inclusion of “The Act of Killing” in the best documentary category marks the rare occasion of truly radical cinema entering mainstream consciousness. Overall, however, Oscar hype homogenizes the conversation around the best movies of the year, turning the whole charade into a mishmash of celebrity faces and snark. By virtue of receiving less attention than the other movies in contention, the short films become the ultimate underdogs of the race, which raises the question: Do they deserve it?
With all the nominees now in theaters at New York’s IFC Center — in three separate programs, for live action, documentary and animated shorts — now’s the ideal time to dive in.
Usually, the animated shorts provide the best juxtaposition to the feature-length category, which is usually dominated by large scale productions. The latest selection of animated features nominated for the award are noticeably broader, ranging from the mainstream-friendly “Frozen,” “Despicable Me” and “The Croods” to the quirky French children’s tale “Ernest & Celestine” to Hayao Miyazaki’s allegedly final work, the subtle “The Wind Rises.” Still, the animated shorts provide a much more extensive overview of international sensibilities.
The certain frontrunner, Disney’s 3-D “Get on a Horse!” (which screened nationwide ahead of “Frozen,” but premiered at the Telluride Film Festival before “Gravity”) tussles with the studio’s history using a complex blend of early twenties animation and modern CGI. Its zippy plot, directed by Lauren MacMullan, involves a fast-paced slapstick adventure involving Mickey saving Minnie from the scheming Peg-Leg Pete, who actually manages to hurl both mice through holes in the front of the movie screen framing them — allowing the action to erupt into a lively mixture of vibrant colors and black and white as Mickey, Minnie and an ensemble of Disney staples constantly shift between the two worlds. While some critics have taken issue with the short’s dubious relationship to Disney history, there’s no doubting the technological complexity of the its execution and the way it provides a keen statement on the progress of the medium.
However, what “Get on a Horse!” wins in impressive formalism it loses in emotional intelligence. That honor goes to the sweetest of the nominees, French directors Laurent Witz and Alexandre Epigares’ steampunk tale of a lonely robot who rescues a mechanical dog from the dangerous streets outside his apartment — only to cope with the critter growing larger than the space can handle. Set in a beautifully realized science fiction universe devoid of dialogue but filled with a blur of technological details, “Mr. Hublot” magically combines its complex visuals with a small, gentle story about companionship. I’d call it the dark horse if it weren’t so lighthearted.
Far from the only member of the category to involve a relationship between man and animal, “Mr. Hublot” is the upbeat alternative to “Feral,” Daniel Sousa’s expressionistic (and similarly wordless) tale of a young boy discovered in the woods by a hunter. A kind of abstract riff on the plot of Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” Sousa’s black-and-white plot involves the experiences of the wolf child as he reacts violently to civilization and eventually returns to it. Though it lacks the scale of other more advanced shorts in this category, “Feral” stands alone for that very reason, its appeal steeped in a poetic yearning for the call of the wild and the dangers of disrupting instinct.
Another woodsy tale with fantastical dimensions, Shuhei Morita’s “Possessions” involves a traveling Japanese handyman who gets stuck in a hut in the middle of the night and faces an an anthropomorphized collection of broken umbrellas and other objects come to life. Whether or not their antics are part of a dream becomes irrelevant when the man faces them down in a climactic battle straight out of “Samurai Jack.” Visually, “Possessions” offers as much a dreamlike sense of imagination as anything in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, though its scenario is front-loaded with invention and loses its thrust in the final minutes.
Even so, “Possessions” contains a lot more vision than the category’s sole weak entry, the juvenile “Room on the Broom.” Juiced with celebrity voices, Max Lang’s BBC-produced adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s children’s book features narration by Simon Pegg, as well as Gillian Anderson as the leading lady — a witch struggling for balance as various characters request spots on her flying vehicle: first her cat, then a bird, a dog, a frog…all of whom lead to logistical problems with the witch faces the advances of a portly dragon (voiced by Timothy Spall). Aside from being a traditional kids story, “Room on the Broom” is more forgettable than anything else in Oscar contention this year. Those exposed to some of the great animated shorts playing the festival circuit in 2013 knows that there were plenty of finer entries: My favorite among the ones not nominated was the delightful “RPG OKC,” but the apocalyptic “The Event” also deserves singling out. The nomination for “Room on the Broom” amounts to a wasted slot.
Fortunately, it’s the only weak link in an otherwise fairly diverse category, which can’t be said for the mixed bag of live action shorts. A category that has in recent years made room for whimsical, entertainingly lo-fi projects like the absurdist chamber drama “The New Tenants” and the irreverent romcom “God of Love” has fewer risks this year. The only truly bizarre entry is Mark Gill’s “The Voorman Problem,” which draws from David Mitchell’s novel to tell a cosmic joke involving the attempts by a prison psychologist (Martin Freeman) to interrogate an inmate (Tom Hollander) convinced that he’s a god who created all of reality nine days earlier. Freeman taps into some of the klutzy ingredients of his Biblo Baggins alter ego as his character attempts to rationalize the inmate’s apparent powers. “The Voorman Problem” climaxes with a mock-profound discussion about faith versus reason, but it lasts just long enough to make its single punchline sink in.
But the overall strongest entry in the category is Xavier Legrant’s “Just Before I Lose Everything,” a French domestic thriller about a desperate woman who flees her abusive husband and brings her children to the supermarket that employs her, only to face mounting pressure from her employers at the worst possible moment. Legrant’s patient approach gradually builds to a tense ending set in the parking garage as the protagonist engages in one final attempt to get away from her oppressive ex. A tightly wound example of filmmaking in miniature, “Just Before I Lose Everything” marks an unquestionably major achievement in economical storytelling from a promising new directorial voice.
By contrast, the rest of the category’s films can’t compete — though Academy voters may feel differently, since two of them set their phasers on tearjerker. Anders Walter’s “Helium” finds a hospital nurse consoling a child dying of cancer by telling him he’ll soon join a great helium balloon in the sky, which he does, in a weepy finale that’s just too sappy for its own good. “That Wasn’t Me” suffers from another cliché of sentimental filmmaking: Didacticism. Esteban Crespo’s grim tale involves a Spanish aid worker who enters a war-torn region of Africa, only to wind up kidnapped by a violent group of insurgents, forced to witness the murders of her companions and raped. The intense pandemonium cuts deep, but then Crespo makes the fatal mistake of cutting to years later, as one of the reformed insurgents speaks to a classroom about his misdeeds. From that point forward, Crespo yanks so hard on the heartstrings that the whole enterprise threatens to come crashing down — and eventually does. It’s just shamelessly manipulative enough to win.
At least, “That Wasn’t Me” has a better shot at the prize than Selma Vilhunen’s one-note “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?,” a brief comedic short about a family that thinks they’re attending a wedding, only to wind up at a funeral. The punchline lands, but could anyone really make the case that this goofy sketch constitutes one of the best live action short films released last year? Then again, viewed alongside more substantial shorts — some of which are mediocre, and others less so — “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” completes this category’s representation of the best and worst of short form storytelling. It’s up to Academy voters which variant they’d like to endorse.