Each year since 2009 my wife and I have made a day-long date of visiting Keystone Art Cinema, the only dedicated art-film theater in Indianapolis, to view the big-screen release of the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film. Results vary each time and aren’t always for all audiences, but we appreciate this opportunity to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether we agree with their collective opinions or not.
Presented below are my thoughts on this year’s five Live-Action Short Film nominees. Shorts International, which masterminds these theatrical releases, strongly discourages the nominated filmmakers from posting their works online for free, but it’s my understanding they’re available on iTunes, Amazon, and/or Video On Demand. If you live in a large city where they’re playing in theaters, this year you’re treated to bookend interviews with various Oscar-nominated creators extolling the virtues of short-form over longform, with pro advice from the likes of Matthew Modine, writer/director/actor Shawn Christensen (the 2013 winner for “Curfew”), and 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen.
Enjoy where possible!
The Voorman Problem: Based on a tiny section from the novel number9dream by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), “Voorman” stars the ubiquitous Martin Freeman as a psychiatrist tending to a patient who thinks he’s God (Tom Hollander, who was a stiff-necked thorn in Jack Sparrow’s side in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3). Voorman has mesmerized the other inmates into chanting his name in praise, and he may not be bluffing about his job title. Freeman doesn’t have much time to indulge us in his trademark skeptical irritation, but it’s just as well because I’m not a fan of works based on the cynical supposition that God, if real, is either a madman or a bully.
Helium: A Denmark entrant about a terminally ill boy and an inexperienced orderly who bond over a love of flying balloons and a fantasy afterlife they craft together called Helium, that’s supposed to have balloons everywhere and you can fly all the time and it’s better than Heaven ’cause it looks like James Cameron’s Pandora. Call it Blimp to Terabithia if you will, but the difference here is that we know death lurks around the corner. This time it’s not about the fantasy becoming poignant after the fact, but rather about finishing their world-building before it’s too late. If you forgive their mild arrogance at thinking Heaven can be topped, it’s a touching entrant in the child-tragedy sub-subgenre, and it’s the only nominee with a visual effects budget.
That Wasn’t Me: It’s rare to see a won’t-someone-think-of-the-children? piece that’s absolutely not for children. A pair of Spanish doctors venture into the heart of evil terrorist Africa (they avoid specifying any one country) and quickly find themselves surrounded by a heavily armed child militia, all trained by their wild-eyed elders to worship the power of the almighty gun. Events turn tragic, gruesome, despicable, and briefly unwatchable. At the same time we’re expected to applaud the future-day framing sequences in which one of the participants is now a reformed adult on a speaking tour of schools outside Africa. Inspiration and repulsion generally make an incongruous couple, and I’m not convinced that enormous gap was bridged here.
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?: Seven minutes of expert comedy in which a Finnish family of four frantically fumble and fuss to prepare themselves at the last-minute for a family wedding. Everything that can go wrong does, in any number of wacky, relatable ways. If this were ever released into the wilds of the internet for free, I could see this going viral among Facebook crowds in a matter of minutes if said audiences wouldn’t mind subtitles. For us it was a well-timed palate cleanser after having to endure the heaviness of its Oscar opponents.
Just Before Losing Everything: Best of Show, far as I’m concerned. For anyone who’s ever escaped an abusive relationship by the skin of their teeth, this French short might need a “Trigger Warning” label up front. A mother of two who’s had enough collaborates with family and coworkers to make a long-overdue getaway from her thug of a husband once and for all. What appears at first like everyday errand-running slowly builds to nerve-wracking suspense when cracks begin to form in the plan. The screws are wound tightly enough that even the innocent act of walking the full length of a grocery store in one long tracking shot becomes a precarious high-wire performance. Though the ending might appear deceptively anticlimactic, that’s because it’s not an ending. It’s a beginning.