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2014 Oscar-Nominated Shorts – Animation, Live-Action & Documentary

February 6, 2014

2014oscarshorts

 

Each year the Academy nominates fifteen short films, five selected and placed in three categories – Animation, Live-Action and Documentary. The likelihood of anyone seeing these shorts before they receive an Oscar nomination is slim. It takes them getting the nomination for these creative, transportive and informative films, to earn the recognition they deserve. These three categories wind up being my favorite of all the Oscar nominees, because they open viewers up to new filmmakers, different styles and stories from parts of the world we may have only thought we knew about. So, let’s take a look at all the films in this year’s Shorts categories….

 

ANIMATION

The animated shorts that have been nominated in this category typically showcase a variety of creativity, offering a wide range of tone and style. There are no restrictions in animation. It’s a medium that can defy logic and constraints and often times can convey more emotion and beauty than any live-action film. In recent years, one or two of these shorts have been somewhat on the scary side, geared more toward adults, but the nominees here are all for the most part quite family-friendly. Here’s my rundown of the five selections nominated this year.

 

 

possessions

 

POSSESSIONS (2012)

directed by Shuhei Morita

Japan/14 min.

Japanese director Shuhei Morita made a name for himself back in 2005 with the short “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” and his latest short, “Possessions” is probably the most trippy of all the nominees in this category. Similar to a fable, it’s a story about a man who seeks shelter from a storm in an old shrine located in a dense forest. Once inside, he finds that the empty shrine houses old artifacts that come to life once they are spookily-possessed by goblins that taunt the traveller (who reminded me of Kikuchiyo in “Seven Samurai”), preventing him from leaving the shrine. The gruff character is at first shocked and bothered by the inanimate objects that have come to life in bizarre fashion, but he soon realizes he must adapt and overcome, proving to be quite a resourceful and calm character. The title refers to a folk legend that has objects gaining souls after 100 years have passed, often playing around with those who possess them. This is one of the only shorts which uses a variety of animation styles to tell its story. From cel-shaded CGI to flat shapes that resemble Japanese renderings, the images are striking and carry an impressive sense of depth and weight. The protagonist may have virtually no lines and is almost a one-note characterization, but it is still one of the oddest of the nominees and may be one of my favorites.

RATING: ***

 

 

roomonthebroom

 

ROOM ON THE BROOM (2012)
directed by Max Lang and Jan Lachauer
UK/27 min.

For those familiar with previous Animated Short nominees, you may recognize the names Max Lang and Jan Lachaur. Lang directed “The Gruffalo”, which was nominated back in 2010 and, his latest, “Room on the Broom” has very similar animation style and animal characters. Here, Lang is joined by animator Lachauer, as they adapt a children’s picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (who also wrote and drew the book “The Gruffalo” was based on). “Room on the Broom” tells the simple story of a care-free witch with a cat and the misadventures her generous heart gets them into. Like “The Gruffalo” the short employs popular actors to voice the characters, such as: Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Sally Hawkins and Martin Clunes, with narration by Simon Pegg. It’s a fun and good-natured short that has expressive animation with detailed textures and vivid colors. It does suffer from a formulaic storybook mode that it seems content with. Nothing wrong with that, it just limits itself to a certain demographic audience.

RATING: **1/2

 

 

mrhublot

 

MR. HUBLOT (2013)
directed by Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
France/11 min.

From France comes “Mr. Hublot”, which is highly-influenced by steampunk and will most likely win an Oscar. It’s just a hunch, but the intricately detailed world created by Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares offers a beautifully-rendered cityscape with fluid movement and clever sound design. It’s about an isolated character named Mr. Hublot (who looks like an evolved Minion from the “Despicable Me” movies), who has an odometer in his head and where’s goggles, whose most prominent character trait is a humorous case of OCD. Mr. Hublot takes in a robot pet, which spins his structured life out of control. This is another short that relies on sound effects and music to tell a dialogue-free story. That’s a decision that allows viewers to completely immerse themselves in this character’s world. Although, I didn’t completely connect with this character and his world, it is nevertheless quite infectious with its light and easy to follow tone. It’s a short that has already won several animation awards, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it did win an Oscar.

RATING: ***

 

 

feral

 

FERAL (2012)
directed by Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden
United States/13 min.

I’ve noticed over the years, that as I watch these Oscar-nominated Shorts, I gravitate towards an animation style that feels like a painting or a drawing that has come to life. “Feral” feels like such a short. Directed by Daniel Sousa and Dan golden, “Feral” is a take on the age-old “boy-raised-by-wolves” storyline. It’s a playful story, yet there’s an intriguing uneasiness about, which I liked. Most of the figures, like the wolves and a hunter who takes the boy out of his savage element, are quite exaggerated, except for the boy who has round delicate features – even when his feral teeth come out. While the story of a savage boy getting acclimated to human life isn‘t anything really all that new, the charcoal renderings and ghost-like images that come to life in primarily black, white and grey tones are quite memorable. This is yet another silent short, that relies on dialogue-free sounds and music to heighten the emotions and accentuate the tone. It’s a fitting approach to this somewhat abstract yet artfully crafted piece and along with “Possession” it is probably my favorite of the nominees.

RATING: ***1/2

 

 

getahorse

 

GET A HORSE! (2013)
directed by Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim
United States/7 min.

“Get a Horse!” is a throwback to Old School Disney, with a black-and-short featuring a Mickey Mouse rendered in his earliest animation style. Mickey hops on a horse-drawn musical hay wagon that has Minnie and several farm animal characters, like cow and horse, as they frolic their merry way across the countryside. Impatient antagonist, Peg-leg Pete comes sputtering along behind them in his motorized jalopy and becomes enamored by Minnie. Insistent on having her, the rest of the short turns into a chase and all-out fight between Pete and classic Mickey and his pals. In the process the silver screen is ripped and characters topple into a theater, becoming both colorized and three-dimensional. Chaos, mayhem ensues amid the silly physical comedy. This is a short that played theatrically in front of the successfully “Frozen” (which is also Oscar-nominated) and is probably the first exposure for many to this Mickey. For others, it will brim with nostalgia. As for Oscar consideration, this short isn’t really offering anything new beyond that. Although it’s fun, it feels like Disney just wanted to have a horse in the race (pun intended), but this is not worthy of the award.

RATING: **1/2

 

 

LIVE-ACTION

 

Short films should be just that – short. Not more than 30 minutes. They should be one-and-done too, meaning the stories shouldn’t necessarily leave me hanging or wanting more. (That’s not to say they shouldn’t make me want to spend more time with the characters – that’s something different). Now, these are just my own personal criteria. Others may not agree with me. That’s fine, because applying this line of thought has worked well for me in the past, so it’s something I’ve stuck with. 

Some of the Live-Action Shorts nominated for an Academy Award have followed my formula, while others have definitely left me wanting. Regardless, once again we have five well-made shorts that have intriguing, compelling or amusing approaches, evoking a variety of tones – from whimsically endearing to intensely harrowing. What’s most refreshing about these Shorts? None of them are from the U.S., which exposes us film enthusiasts in the States with a look at international talent we would otherwise not know about. Let’s take a look….

 

 helium

  

HELIUM (2013)

directed by: Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson

Denmark/23 min.

Here’s a short about a relationship between Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusaek) a dying young boy in a hospital and Enzo (Casper Crump) a kind-hearted janitor. Playing off the boy’s obsession with blimps, Enzo tells the boy of a magical place floating in the sky called Helium. A place where you can relax and play with friends or family who are no longer living. Although the subject matter is saddening, this is still a hopeful, often amusing (thanks to Crump’s portrayal) tale that surprisingly has a fantasy element to it. Directors Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson provide us with characters that are easy to connect to and care about. While this film definitely follows my criteria, it doesn’t necessarily feel completely different or original.

RATING: ***

 

 

voormanproblem

 

THE VOORMAN PROBLEM (2012)

directed by Mark Gill and Baldwin Li

UK/23 min.

Voorman is a patient in a UK prison who has developing quite a following amongst his fellow prisoners, because he claims he is a god. He’s a problem for the warden, hence the title of this light and humorous short directed by Mark Gill  and Baldwin Li, which is the only nominated short to actually have some recognizable name actors in Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander. Freeman plays Dr. Williams, a thorough psychologist who is brought to the prison at the behest of the warden in order to evaluate the disheveled Voorman (Hollander). If the inmate is insane, he can be shipped off to the asylum and the warden would be done with his problem. While it sounds like it could be an intense battle of the minds, it’s actually quite humorous. This is a curious and clever short with engaging characters and an unpredictable storyline. But, the biggest problem with “The Voorman Problem” is it’s too short. It could easily be turned into a feature-length film.

RATING: **1/2

 

 

la_ca_0127_just_before_losing_everything 

  

AVANT QUE DE TOUT PERDE (JUST BEFORE LOSING EVERYTHING)

directed by Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras

France/29 min.

“Just Before Losing Everything” tells the story of Miriam (a fabulous Lea Drucker), a mother of two and wife of an abusive husband, Antoine (Denis Menochet, “Inglorious Basterds”). He doesn’t know it, but she is taking their children and leaving. When we meet her she is at the supermarket where she works, hoping to collect any money before they leave town. Tension builds though when Antoine stops by looking for Miriam. As some of her co-workers cover for her, Miriam and her kids must rendezvous with a friend outside the store in a way that attracts very little attention. Filmmakers Alexandre Garvas and Xavier Legrand (who also wrote the screenplay) waste no time with introductions or explanations (a good thing when it comes to making a short) and instead dive us right, at the height of the main character’s dilemma. It’s an impressive immersion that allows the viewer to figure for themselves what exactly is going on with this desperate woman. The directors are all about “show don’t tell”, like in how we see Miriam’s bruises on her thigh and torso while she’s changing, knowing that the abuse inflicted by her husband is hinted at. We also see how her manager and co-workers have urged her to file charges, yet she doesn’t respond. Maybe it’s because she had no time for a response, but it doesn’t seem like she plans to and in this urgent short we won’t find out why either.  This adds a curious and interesting element to Miriam. “Just Before Losing Everything” is like eavesdropping on someone else’s crisis. It’s similar to why we slow down as we pass a traffic accident. Someone else’s tragedy grabs our attention and triggers our imagination. Who are these people? How did they end up where they are now? These are the kind of questions I asked as this short developed and by the time it ended I did want more, but I understood – this is where I get dropped off and I can only hope everything turns out alright for Miriam and her children.

RATING: ****

 

 

thatwasntme 

 

AQUEL NO ERA YO (THAT WASN’T ME) (2012)

directed by Esteban Crespo

Spain/26 min.

The most harrowing short is “That Wasn’t Me” written and directed by Esteban Crespo and it’s also the most problematic. Alejandre Lorente plays Paula, a Spanish aid worker, who’s traveled to a an unnamed war-torn African province with her boyfriend doctor (Gustavo Salmerón), when they are kidnapped by a General (Babou Cham) and his child soldiers. They are threatened at gunpoint and witness cold-blooded murder at the hands of a young boy named Kaney. That same boy narrates the film, only he is older and laments his homicidal actions. As he recounts this particular event before an auditorium of predominately white listeners, we see more gun violence as well as torture and rape in this volatile world. The subject matter here is in no way subtle. In fact, it’s overwhelming and actually kind of exploitative. It feels like something from an episode of “24” with its gunfights and explosions and bad guy stereotypes. There is palpable intensity and heightened emotions, but it’s just too much at times. It is powerful but it’s a challenge to connect with these characters when the storyline is so very formulaic. Still, this feels like one that just might take the Oscar, but I’d prefer “Just Before Losing Everything” win. 

RATING: **1/2

 

 

doihavetotakecareof 

 

PITAAKO MUN KAIKKI HOITAA? (DO I HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF EVERYTHING?) (2012)

directed by Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari

Finland/7 min.

The most kinetic and manic of all the nominees comes from Finland and is a both a delight and quite funny. The story is quick (it’s the shortest Short of them all) and straightforward, but it conveys a great deal of honesty. A family of four frantically wakes up late the day they are supposed to attend a wedding. Mother and wife, Sini (Joanna Haartti) kicks into high gear, putting out every family member’s fire as they scramble to get ready. Nothing goes right though – her husband lost the wedding gift, their daughter’s dresses are still in the wash, so they wear Halloween costumes and by the time they actually make it to the church – a real twist slaps them and the audience upside the head. This is a very light and relatable story written by Kirsikka Saari and directed by Selma Vilhunen with, fittingly, a primarily handheld approach that feels like we’re getting tossed around and dragged along with this crazy family. 

RATING: ***

 

 

 

DOCUMENTARY

 

 

karamahasnowalls

 

KARAMA HAS NO WALLS (2012)

directed by: Sara Ishaq

Yemen/United Arab Emirates/26 min. 

On March 18, 2011, on a day known as Juma’ at El-Karama (Friday of Dignity), Anwar Al-Muaati left his home and joined hundreds of other youths at “Change Square” in Sana’a for a peaceful sit-in demonstration with the goal of ending the 33-year reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. They set-up tents and left their weapons at home, hoping the unified act would topple a corrupt regime. Anwar would never come home to his father. Instead, he became one of 53 murdered, among the critically injured men and children that day. Director Sarah Ishaq puts us on the chaotic Yemen streets, where rocks are thrown and bullets are sprayed onto the crowd by government-funded soldiers and thugs. Using footage from 17 year-old Nasr Al-Namir and 23 year-old Khaled Rajeh, two filmmakers who witnessed the carnage around them as they ran with the crowd. Through their lens, we watch as authorities set flame to a wall that was erected to block off the protesters from the rest of the neighborhood, an action that kicked off the violence. 

Intercutting the violence are close-ups of individuals who’s loved ones were killed or maimed, like grieving Anwar’s father. We also hear from the family of 11 year-old Saleem Al-Harazi, who survived getting shot in the face at the cost of his eyes. Ishaq captures the bloody casualties, the heartbreaking retelling of identifying a dead child in a mosque strewn with bodies. Many have become desensitized to gruesome footage of unconscionable acts such as these, but seeing it humanized here makes this the most powerful and harrowing of all the shorts nominated.  

RATING: **** 

 

 

ladyinnumber6

 

THE LADY IN NUMBER 6: MUSIC SAVED MY LIFE (2013) 

directed by: Malcolm Clarke and Nicolas Reed

UK/39 min.

In a North London flat, their resides a 109 year-old woman who can be heard passionately playing piano like clockwork every day. She is Alice Herz Sommer and not only is she an accomplished (don’t tell her that), but she’s also the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. Directors Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed, start with her current piano playing and then recount the woman’s past with old black and white photographs and videos. For someone who’s lived over a century, she has a lot of life to cover. We learn when she was first exposed to music, how she started playing piano and most intriguing look at her experience in a Nazi prison camp. Talented musicians such as herself received different treatment than the rest of the prisoners, making her experience much different from many of her other friends and family. We also see her reflect on her husband and her son, both of whom she’s outlived. Through it all, she’s managed to keep a positive attitude, taking immense joy in music and the friendship of other women close to her age. “The Lady in Number 6” is an affective documentary of a woman worthy of reflection.  

RATING: ***1/2

  

 

facingfear 

 

FACING FEAR

directed by: Jason Cohen

USA/23 min.

Years ago, two totally different individuals collided on the mean streets of Los Angeles. As a young teen, Matthew Boger had been ostracized and kicked out by his mother for being gay and had uprooted himself to L.A., hustling his way up and down Hollywood Blvd. At the same time, young Timothy Zaal, a zealous skinhead would cruise around the same area with his white supremacist friends, looking to physically intimidate anyone they saw fit. Boger became one of their victims and was brutally beaten and kicked and left for dead. All he remembers was Zaal’s face and 6-inch high mohawk. 25 years later, Boger is now the director of a Tolerance Museum in L.A., a place where guest speakers come to discuss any hardship they’ve overcome in their lives or any changes they’ve made to combat challenges. When a completely reversed Zaal is invited to be a speaker, the two soon realize who the other is and an extremely uncomfortable and difficult path of forgiveness develops. There’s no getting around it, “Facing Fear” is an impacting documentary. It reminded me of “Five Minutes of Heaven” with its story of guilt, forgiveness, pain and, of course, fear. It probably the most inspiring of all the nominees. 

RATING: ***1/2

 

 

cavedigger 

 

CAVEDIGGER

directed by: Jeffrey Karoff

USA/38 min.

Director Jeffrey Karoff takes us to New Mexico and introduces us to 65 year-old environmental sculptor Ra Paulette, whose been digging and piling rocks for over 25 years. He actually builds caves into the earth. These aren’t just caveman caves, there are carefully and artistically carved walls and arches and working wooden doors that lead us in and out of these amazingly expansive custom-made caves. “Cavediggers” is a good example of a film exposing you to a talent you never knew existed. Ra has built these caves on  commission since 1986 and has only recently considered hanging it up. His activity has gone from a hobby to an obsession over the years, much to the dismay of his wife. The documentary is best when Karoff focuses on the artist at work in his element, but when we veer away and give his ex-wife and best friend some screen time, the film starts to lag. In fact, the whole thing is a bit too long. I didn’t mind the meandering pace and relaxing twangy soundtrack, but I did find myself edited as I watched the picture. 

RATING: ***

 

 prisonterminal

 

PRISON TERMINAL: THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVATE JACK HALL

directed by: Edgar Barens

USA/40 min.

For three years George William “Jack” Hall served in the United States Army during World War II. He received medals for his duty, among them a POW medal. Now, this frail 82 year-old man is the focus of an HBO Documentary Films short, written and directed by Edgar Burns, as the terminally ill veteran spends his last days in hospice care at Iowa State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison. After the war, Hall came back to the States and wound up killing a dope dealer, earning him a life sentence. “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” offers a look at the newly developed hospice infirmary at the prison, which is funded through donations and maintained by other inmates with life sentences, focusing on the fourteen days that Hall was in hospice care. What transpires is a quiet and touching look at the compassion and love Hall received from the nurses, his fellow lifers and his adult son. Barens shares that almost 20% of prisoners are elderly and many of them serving life sentences will die alone in their cells. Not so with Hall, a changed and fragile man who questions whether he’ll go to heaven or hell, because of the amount of men he’s killed. While its encouraging to learn that a few prisons have started these hospice programs to care for the terminally ill, watching Hall die makes for some emotional viewing that will leave viewers reflecting on their own life.

RATING: ***

 

 

Currently, most of these films can be viewed online at iTunes or Amazon as well as some On Demand platforms. In Chicago, both the Live-Action and Animated Shorts can be seen in a limited theatrical run at the Landmark Theatres Century Centre Cinema, while the Documentary films have an exclusive run at The Music Box Theatre.

 

 

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