February 23, 2014 4:50pm PT by Scott Feinberg
Oscars: Who's Going to Win the Shorts Categories? (Analysis)
In one week, when the 86th Academy Awards are presented in Hollywood, many Oscar pools across America will be lost by people who correctly predicted major categories but blew the three categories devoted to shorts. Correctly predicting best animated short, best documentary short and best live-action short is what separates the men from the boys -- or the female equivalents -- when it comes to Oscar contests. And so, in an effort to try to correctly predict all three categories' winners, as I did last year and in several years past, I did what I always do: I actually watched the nominees.
And guess what? You can, too! This year, all 15 shorts are being distributed theatrically in art houses across America by ShortsHD. That distributor has been in this business for many years because a relatively large number of people care to check out the films. (Oscar voters have it even easier. This year, in addition to hosting screenings of the nominated shorts and discussions with their filmmakers at its Beverly Hills headquarters on Feb. 25 and 26, the Academy also sent all of its members all of the shorts on DVD in a beautifully packaged mailing.)
So, while I encourage you to check out the films and formulate your own predictions, here are mine, along with explanations for why I made them. There is no way to dissect some of these films without providing minor spoilers, so beware.
BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Nominees: Feral, Get a Horse!, Mr. Hublot, Possessions and Room on the Broom
Feral is a story about a young boy who is found in the wild among wolves and is brought into civilization, where people attempt to clothe, educate and cultivate him, but he never really fits in and eventually flees. Hand-drawn and alternating between watercolors and what appears to be charcoal, it features no dialogue.
The behemoth in this category -- the tallest short, if you will -- is Get a Horse!, coming courtesy of Disney. It will probably benefit from having the widest exposure, via its pairing with Frozen, along with being an out-and-out comedy, unlike the other nominees. However, people who see it on DVD in 2D, as opposed to 3D, which is how it was projected theatrically, will miss out on much of what makes it special -- its characters bursting back and forth from the black-and-white past to the colorful present through a film screen while chasing and/or trying to evade one another. Blending hand-drawn and digital animation, it is the first theatrically released original animated short to feature Mickey Mouse since 1995 and also incorporates recordings of the late Walt Disney voicing that character.
Mr. Hublot is a colorful CGI-animated, dialogue-free film set in a futuristic metropolis that revolves around an OCD man who adopts a dog who offers him companionship but also messes up his apartment. The characters are a bit weird looking, but the story -- particularly its ending -- is charming.
Possessions is a Japanese film with English subtitles that blends anime and CGI to tell a story about a man who gets lost in a storm, seeks refuge in an abandoned hut and learns first-hand about an "ancient Japanese legend" that suggests that tools and instruments "attain souls and trick people" after 100 years of existence. Visually impressive in a surrealist, Fantasia-esque way, its plot is probably a little too weird for most Westerners.
And Room on the Broom is a CGI-animated film directed by the same person who was nominated for the animated short The Gruffalo three years ago. A fable written by the same author as the book that inspired that film, Broom revolves around a kindly witch who makes room on her flying broom for various animals who need a friend, and who ultimately return her kindness. While it boasts big-name voice talent (Gillian Anderson, Sally Hawkins, Simon Pegg, Timothy Spall, etc.) and a message about which we can all agree (we are strongest when we stick together), it moves at a glacial pace and its humor is inordinately wry.
Projection: I'm going with Get a Horse!, not because I think it's the most creatively animated (that would be Mr. Hublot) or endearing (that would be Room on the Broom), but because I think more people will have heard of and seen it than any of the others, everyone grew up on Mickey Mouse and voters aren't likely to rally en masse behind any one of its specific rivals.
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Nominees: CaveDigger, Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life and Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
CaveDigger is a film about Ra Paulette, a proud, aging loner who has devoted his life to digging massive, beautiful, intricately sculpted caves for pleasure and hire. He's an intriguing subject, but, at 39 minutes, the film feels too long.
Too brief is Facing Fear is the story of two men who crossed paths twice in life, 26 years apart. The first time they were both young, one a gay man and the other a neo-Nazi skinhead, and the latter participated in a hate crime that almost cost the former his life. The second time, they were both volunteering at L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance when they realized how they knew each other. The sheer fact that they crossed paths again in the way that they did is amazing enough, but the relationship that they developed afterward makes the film all the more interesting. Unfortunately, its ending comes just as one feels the film is beginning to explore the present-day relationship between the men, and so the story feels incomplete.
Karama Has No Walls is the story of what happened in Yemen's "Change Square" during a 2011 uprising that was part of the wider Arab Spring and marked the beginning of the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year reign over the country. Scenes of violence, chaos and injury -- such as a young boy whose eyes have been shot out -- may prove too much for some to handle.
The Lady in Number 6 is a moving and inspirational film that revolves around interviews with a sharp, smart and eternally optimistic 109-year-old woman -- the world's oldest Holocaust survivor, prior to her death today at 110. Alice Herz-Sommer and her friends eloquently explain how her love of music helped her to survive her darkest days and sustained her throughout her life, up to and including the period chronicled in the film, during which she still played the piano daily. One of the two filmmakers nominated for this doc, Malcolm Clarke, previously won an Oscar in this same category 15 years ago.
And Prison Terminal, which is set to air on HBO on March 31, focuses on Jack Hall, an elderly World War II veteran incarcerated in Iowa for murder, and the prison hospice system that he was able to enjoy during his last days -- a sharp contrast to the conditions that many prisoners experience as they near death. Shot entirely by one man who embedded himself in the prison for 15 months, it is fascinating on multiple levels, not least including the relationship between Hall and his son, who turned him in for his crime years earlier.
Projection: CaveDigger revolves around a compelling individual, Facing Fear tells a remarkable story, Karama Has No Walls features amazing footage and Prison Terminal is surprisingly moving -- but The Lady in Number 6 does all of these things and seems to me to be tailor-made for the Academy, covering as it does the Holocaust, music and elderly people, three subjects that have long been embraced by Oscar voters.
BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT
Nominees: Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, Just Before Losing Everything, Helium, That Wasn't Me and The Voorman Problem
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? is a Finnish comedy about a young family of four -- bossy wife, spineless husband and eccentric daughters -- rushing to get ready to attend a friend's wedding. In both its tone and the way it is shot, the film -- which is, at just six minutes, the shortest of the nominees -- reminds me of the television show Modern Family, except that it is only moderately funny.
The longest of the nominees, at 30 minutes, is Just Before Losing Everything, which is a dark film about a woman and her children preparing to flee from her abusive husband. It takes a while before it becomes clear what exactly is going on in the film, and after that it is mainly just upsetting.
Helium is also about a situation that isn't exactly feel-good -- a young boy who is dying -- but it handles its story in a way that is more satisfying, if also a bit schmaltzy. Essentially, the boy is very interested in blimps, and a kindly janitor who takes more interest in the boy than his own family elects to weave a story about an alternative heaven in which the boy can ride the blimp of his dreams with other loved ones who have predeceased him. Some of the measures that are taken by the janitor to maintain this relationship border on creepy, but his intentions are entirely pure and there is no question that he brings comfort to the youngster. The film also gets points for its cool computer-generated images, which are blended seamlessly with the live action performances -- something that is not always the case in films with mega-budgets, let alone shorts.
That Wasn't Me is, like Just Before Losing Anything, a film that seems to want to call attention to a social problem, but mainly just disturbs its viewers. Structured around an unnecessary framing device, it focuses on a Spanish couple who travel to Africa on some sort of medical mission, whereupon they are kidnapped and threatened by child soldiers who answer to a ruthless leader. In trying to show how any one of us can lose some of our humanity under the right -- or wrong -- circumstances, it includes scenes that are extremely graphic, violent and disturbing, depicting, including, among other things, a murder, a rape and the shooting of a child. While its production value -- big explosions, helicopter shots, etc. -- is impressive, the experience of watching it is still more wearying than enlightening.
And The Voorman Problem is a cute and quirky little drama right out of The Twilight Zone playbook -- only without a great ending of the sort that Rod Serling always wrote. It stars Sherlock's Martin Freeman as a psychologist assigned to examine a prison inmate who believes himself to be God, played by Tom Hollander, and who finds the tables unexpectedly turned on him during their time together.
Projection: Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? and Voorman are lightweight but amusing and Just Before Losing Everything and That Wasn't Me are about serious subject matter but take themselves a bit too seriously, but Helium is substantive and engaging and should therefore prevail.