Oscar ShortsI got a first-time opportunity to check the short films nominated for Oscars this year.  I catch the awards show every year but if there’s any couple of awards I used to care little about, it was the shorts, because I would never see them.  Theatre time for me is getting to be more of a precious commodity these days and the Oscar-nominated shorts generally weren’t something I’ve been clamoring to catch.  And I even live in L.A., the easiest town in which to see the damn things.  But this collection was definitely worth laying eyes upon.

LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM NOMINEES

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) (Director: Esteban Crespo, Spain/Spanish). Synopsis: Paula, a Spanish aid worker, has an encounter with an African child soldier named Kaney.

In terms of scale, this is the most impressive, utilizing a ton of extras and even some military hardware with some impressive battle scenes.  It’s yet another reminder that there are just some areas of Africa that are always going to be not good ideas to visit (although this isn’t specific as to which country it is).  Told in flashback, this is the story recounted by Kaney, the former child soldier, to an audience in Spain, with Paula watching and reliving a horrific experience of her and her boyfriend being captured by a local warlord, of whom Kaney was one of his child soldiers, and her perilous escape with Kaney in tow.

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Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) - (Directors: Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras, France/French). Synopsis: Miriam has left her abusive husband and taken refuge with her children in the local supermarket where she works.

This is my pick for the winner, just a little over That Wasn’t Me.  It’s a 30-minute slice out of another escape story, this time of a French woman and her two children from her abusive husband.  They stop off at the supermarket where she works and she frantically tries to clear up her paperwork to facilitate her quitting her job, with the help of her coworkers who know her situation.  Of course you know the husband is going to show up and there’s a surprising amount of cautious white knuckle tension as to whether or not she is going to succeed.  When the family scampers off like the Von Trapps, you can’t help but root for them.

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Helium (Directors Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson, Denmark/Danish). Synopsis: A dying boy finds comfort in the tales of a magical land called HELIUM, told to him by the hospital janitor.

This is a touching story, heartfelt but one that deftly skirts the maudlin.  Just reading the synopsis you know it’s going to be emotional, and it is.  I think steampunk or Peter Pan fans would like to check out Planet Helium (if it is a planet, that’s never delineated exactly), as it looks like a mixture between both and is gorgeously represented onscreen.

HELIUM

Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) (Directors: Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari, Finland/Finnish). Synopsis: Sini tries frantically to get her family ready to leave for a wedding, but her husband and two children are interfering with her efforts.

This was an amusing short, but at only seven minutes, just really felt more like an extended Super Bowl commercial.  But at least a good one.  I understand that there are only so many ways to break down these categories, but when comparing this against longer fare in the same category, just really feels like it belongs in another.

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The Voorman Problem (Directors: Mark Gill and Baldwin Li, UK/English). Synopsis: A psychiatrist is called to a prison to examine an inmate named Voorman, who is convinced he is a god.

This ran about thirteen minutes and featured Martin Freeman as the psychologist and Tom Hollander as the inmate.  This was clever and pretty funny, although Belgians might not be happy (I can say no more on the subject).  Really the only bad thing I can say about this short was that there wasn’t enough of it.  Really liked Hollander in this.

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ANIMATED SHORT FILM NOMINEES

Feral (Directors Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden, USA/Non-dialogue). Synopsis: A wild boy who has grown up in the woods is found by a hunter and returned to civilization.

This runs 12-minutes and looks like it was done in traditional hand-drawn animation by what looks to be pencil (and if I didn’t know better, charcoal?).  Familiar story of a boy who is brought by a hunter out of the wilds where he was raised by wolves into society, where he just can’t fit in and will die if he remains.  It’s beautifully done and a likable effort, but I couldn’t quite get this out of my mind the whole time…

PressKit

Get a Horse! (Directors: Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim, USA/English). Synopsis: Mickey Mouse and his friends are enjoying a wagon ride until Peg-Leg Pete shows up with plans to ruin their day.

This is a new six-minute Disney animated short that premiered last year and was shown in front of Frozen in theatres.  It mixes old-style “Steamboat Willie” Disney animation and modern computer-animated style.  It also resurrects the voices of Disney himself, Marcellite Garner and Billy Bletcher, the original voices of Minnie Mouse and Peg Leg Pete respectively.  I liked the juxtaposition of the new and old here.  Old (old, old) school Disney animation fans should get a thrill out of this.

GET A HORSE!

Mr. Hublot (Directors: Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares, Luxembourg/France/Non-dialogue). Synopsis: The eccentric, isolated Mr. Hublot finds his carefully ordered world disrupted by the arrival of Robot Pet.

This is a gorgeously-rendered computer-animated effort that has a Victorian look and features a society of robotic animals and people.  Hublot is an OCD type who takes in a puppy off the street and then soon has more than he bargained for when the puppy starts to grow into a gigantic, rambunctious dog.  This may be the best-looking computer-animated film I’ve ever seen.  Quality is awesome.  My vote would go to this one for the statue.

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Possessions (Director: Shuhei Morita, Japan/Non-dialogue).  Synopsis: A man seeking shelter from a storm in a dilapidated shrine encounters a series of household objects inhabited by goblin spirits.

This is an anime telling the story of a craftsman traveler who is caught in a storm and seeks shelter in a haunted shrine.  The spirits within inhabit old items like umbrellas that have fallen out of use and been left to rot…and they ain’t too happy about it.  But both the spirits and craftsman get more than they bargained when the craftsman sets about to repairing the items, bringing new life back into them.  This was a cool short, with good anime.

POSSESSIONS

Room on the Broom (Directors: Max Lang and Jan Lachauer, voices by Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon in UK/English). Synopsis: A genial witch and her cat are joined on their broom by several friends as they set off on an adventure.

This was a computer animation short made mostly for kids, featuring Gillian Anderson’s and Simon Pegg’s voices among others.  It’s told in nursery rhyme style and features a good-hearted witch with a penchant for camping (go figure) and her cat, who pick up a dog, a bird and a frog on their adventures flying on a broom.  Unbeknownst to all of them, they’re being tracked by a dragon who’s looking for his next snack.  The animation here is good, and I did like the story, but I’m not that big on nursery rhymes anymore, so that got as tad tedious after about 25 minutes.

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DOCUMENTARY SHORT NOMINEES

Documentary Program A

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (Directors: Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed, Canada/USA/UK – English). Synopsis: At 109, Alice Herz Sommer is the world’s oldest pianist…and its oldest Holocaust survivor. At the heart of her remarkable story of courage and endurance is her passion for music.

Alice Sommer is a delightful person to listen to, and the chances of finding a more compelling story to be told are slim to none.  What she’s seen and lived through in her 1.1 centuries is the stuff of epic novels and great movies.  She was a celebrated pianist in Prague when the Nazis invaded and destroyed her family, including her husband.  She and her son, Rafi, survived because she was a Jew with a musical gift.  And even when people were dying around her, she never lost her faith in that music.  Today she still plays in her neighborhood and everybody around knows her by it.  Even though she has and had plenty of reason to be embittered by her experience, she never let it overcome her.  She also has a couple of friends, an actress and a cellist, who were in the camps with her who lend their own stories to this documentary.   But it’s Alice and her amazing story, and her even more amazing piano playing that hold your attention.

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Karama Has No Walls (Director: Sara Ishaq, UAE/UK/Yemen – Arabic). Synopsis: When protesters in Yemen added their voices to those of other nations during the Arab Spring, the government responded with an attack that left 53 people dead and inspired widespread sympathy throughout the country.

Powerful documentary about the Friday of Karama (Dignity) attack in Change Square in Yemen during the Arab Spring.  53 died in a conflict that started a major revolution in Yemen to bring down President Ali Abdullah Saleh.  This film has the rawest footage I’ve probably ever seen, taken from the epicenter of the whole conflict.  It has unfiltered imagery of the death and carnage, the suffering, the valor, the cowardice, everything.  It’s my pick for the winner.

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Facing Fear (Director: Jason Cohen, USA/English). Synopsis: As a gay 13-year-old, Matthew Boger endured a savage beating at the hands of a group of neo-Nazis. Twenty-five years later, he meets one of them again by chance.

This is a very simple documentary featuring two narratives coming from the opposite sides of the beating of a gay teen some 30 years ago.  Tim Zaal was one of 14 Neo-Nazis who savagely beat (they had razor blades on their boots) Matthew Boger, a 13-year-old living on the streets of West Hollywood.  They had a chance encounter decades later at the Simon Wiesenthal Center where Matthew works.  Tim’s and Matthew’s stories are familiar ones. Tim grew up in and around the Neo-Nazi movement but then became disenchanted with it later and left it.  Matthew was thrown out of his strict religious house by his mother when she found out he was gay and landed on the streets of West Hollywood selling his body to get by.  The chance meeting became a story of forgiveness, for one of an attacker, and for the other, himself.

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Documentary Program B

Cavedigger (Director Jeffrey Karoff, USA/English). Synopsis: New Mexico environmental sculptor Ra Paulette carves elaborately designed and painstakingly executed sandstone caves, driven by an artistic vision that often brings him into conflict with his patrons.

Enjoyable and interesting documentary about a guy who has one of the weirdest hobbies / obsessions / jobs you’ll ever see.  Ra Paulette makes literal man caves out of the soft sandstone hillsides of New Mexico.  Some of them are as ornate as any art gallery full of sculptures you’re likely to ever visit.  Without a background in engineering, but with over 25 years of experience, he makes things that are part temple and part geological wonder.  He also takes the ancient Egyptian approach to the whole thing: hand tools only, by sunlight only, and wheel barrow only to cart out the debris.  And his creations are really amazing; the guy’s part Michelangelo, part Frank Lloyd Wright.  But there are drawbacks to his passion in that he and his wife are often broke, because his works are commissioned art for which he charges only affordable labor rates and that take months at a stretch.  And then there are the conflicts with his customers, whom he calls his patrons.  Ra often goes off in directions on his own with which his patrons disagree.  We catch him as he has recently resolved to stop working for others and start creating his “magnum opus’ for himself.  But even when there’s a major setback, we leave Ra where someone will probably find him dead someday, carving out his next mini-cathedral out of a hillside in the desert.

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Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (Director: Edgar Barens, USA/English). Synopsis: In a maximum security prison, the terminally ill Jack Hall faces his final days with the assistance of hospice care provided by workers drawn from the prison population.

This is a tough documentary to sit through, especially if you have sat by the bedside of someone you loved as they died a slow, shitty death.  It’s well-made, but it’s not a film I’d really ever want to see again, precisely for the reason just mentioned.  It’s a matter-of-fact documentary, sans any flowery BS.  If you’ve never seen anyone die slowly, and what hospice care is like, and what it takes to see that, either as a family member or a caregiver, this film will show you exactly that.  It doesn’t take on any larger issues of prisoners dying behind bars or moneys that should or should not be spent on their care or anything in the background.  It’s just very much a “Here’s Jack Hall, he served in WWII.  He killed the dope dealer who dealt to his son, causing his son to hang himself.  He’s serving a life sentence, he’s an old man now, this is him dying…slowly” affair.  And that’s the only way it should be really.  Jack Hall didn’t seem like the kind of man that would go for any build up or manufactured sentimentality.  And he was given none here.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall premieres on HBO on March 31.

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The Oscar Nominated Live Action and Animated Shorts open in Los Angeles at The Nuart in West L.A. and in Orange County at the Regency South Coast Village 3  on Friday, January 31. The Documentary Shorts open in L.A. on February 14  For info on when the shorts will be showing in your area, you can check out this link.

So, really a diverse and interesting bunch of shorts.  My picks again for the winners:

  • Live Action Short Film: Just Before Losing Everything
  • Animated Short Film: Mr. Hublot
  • Documentary Short: Karama Has No Walls