In a welcome winter tradition, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema is once more screening the 2014 Academy Award–nominated live action and animated short films, in two separate programs, ahead of the March 2 Oscar ceremony.
Of the live action nominees, the standout is France’s Just Before Losing Everything. The movie puts us on guard quickly and simply. A young boy, walking through his neighborhood one morning, is stopped by a teacher driving past. “Aren’t you going to school?” she asks. He says yes, but then we see him mark time, hiding under a bridge until a car pulls up on the road above, and he hurries in.
Behind the wheel, actress Léa Drucker plays the mother’s boy and becomes the focus. She next picks up her teenage daughter and drives both kids to her workplace — a bright, big, anonymous retail store, where she enlists family and coworkers in an urgent, scary mission. In only a half hour, writer-director Xavier Legrand creates a domestic mini-epic, powered by the kind of tension that Hitchcock would have appreciated. He achieves this mainly by what is not shown or stated explicitly, but implied. It’s a nail-biter.
Spain’s That Wasn’t Me also includes tons of tension. That happens when you show African teenage soldiers waving cocked automatic weapons inches from other people’s noses. Almost every year, the horrors of impoverished, war-torn African nations get showcased in an Oscar-nominated short. This year’s follows two young members of (we assume) Doctors Without Borders as they wind up on the wrong side of those teenagers, held captive by the adult “general” who trains the boys to shed blood as a rite of passage. The centerpiece is a claustrophobic, horrific scene of violence, but the movie quickly loses some credibility when it comes to resemble a Hollywood action flick. (Gunfire! Explosions! Chase scenes!)
The final shot, of a young lady doctor smiling serenely, undercuts what power the film has sometimes mustered. The movie becomes a liberal guilt trip and exercise in self-congratulation. (Surely unintentional, but that was its effect on me.)
Another mixed bag, Denmark’s Helium, isn’t as buoyant as its title would suggest. It centers on a young kid’s impending death (from one of those nameless movie diseases that allows him to sicken with little more than a gleam of sweat on his brow). He’s befriended by a shaggy-bearded hospital orderly named Enzo (Casper Crum), whose own kid brother, we realize, also died young. Enzo takes special interest in the ill boy, telling him stories of the fabulous world above the clouds called Helium, where we go when we die. It’s a place full of houses on floating crags borrowed from Avatar. (The movie’s partial use of CG also recalls the retro look of The Polar Express.)
A sweet-natured but morbid bedtime story with nice FX, Helium isn’t offensive, exactly. Its final image even has a mild, heart-twisting power. It just feels a little too artificially constructed, with elements brought together by an awards-seeking algorithm.
The two shortest live-action entries may be one-trick ponies, but they’re engaging in different ways — one coolly poised on the edge of a Big Picture existential puzzle, the other sloppily celebrating the foibles of everyday life.
Britain’s The Voorman Problem takes us into a penitentiary, where psychiatrist Martin Freeman (of Sherlock and Hobbit fame) interviews the inmate of the title, played by Tom Hollander. The problem is, Voorman has convinced the other prisoners that he’s a god — or even God. The jailers want the shrink to certify the fellow, so he can be sent away to a psych unit and stop causing unrest. Not so easily done. The nation of Belgium provides the punch line in this politely surreal sketch, perched halfway between wry comic story (the type Woody Allen snapped off in the 1970s) and tale of horror.
Like an expansion on a recurrent joke in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Finland’s Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? follows a young mother’s heroic struggle to get her husband and two little girls out of bed and out the door for a friends’ nuptial ceremony. A potted plant, a broken high heel, and a Pippi Longstocking costume figure into this very slight but sweet offering that pays tribute to the human determination to reach a destination, even when everything goes wrong along the way.
In the bill of animated shorts, Room on the Broom tries to recapture the tone and look of Britain’s The Gruffalo. (The movie shares one of that 2011 Oscar nominee’s directors.) Based on Julia Donaldson’s 2002 children’s book, the film is amiable but too long at half an hour. In the computer-animated tale, a witch invites, near wordlessly, a cat, a dog, a bird and a frog to share her broom. Overcoming territorial spats, this mismatched quartet rise up to protect their necromantic mistress, Musicians of Bremen–style, when she’s imperiled by a dragon. Cute but oddly unmagical.
So is Japan’s Possessions, lovely to look at but static. A feudal fellow shelters from a storm overnight in an abandoned forest hut. The ghosts of the inanimate objects within — umbrellas, swatches of silk, crockery — become, well, animated and give the guy an uneasy night.
The most beautiful short is Russia’s Feral, a hand-animated, mainly black-and-white sketch about a snow-haired boy discovered in the woods and brought, briefly, to live in “civilization.” Wordless, gorgeous, deeply enigmatic and with an awed appreciation of nature.
Mr. Hublot from France is a steam-punk vision of a future world, in which a solitary man-machine with a digital readout in his forehead (think of old-time gas station registers) lives alone in a cozy, retro bachelor pad. That is, until he takes in a rattletrap, stray dog. (Well, a dog-machine anyway, made of what looks like parts of a toaster and a lot of cogs.) Though unrelated and not as fabulously weird, the short has some of the tone and off-kilter charm of the 2010 Oscar winner The Lost Thing.
Finally, there’s the obligatory Disney/Pixar slot, filled by Get a Horse! A celebration of Disney animation, from the crude line drawing of Steamboat Willie days to its current emphasis on 3-D animation. That’s the format in which this brief romp was initially screened, accompanying Frozen. Owing a little to Sherlock Jr. and The Purple Rose of Cairo, the short features a chase and battle involving Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Peg-Leg Pete, first seen in simple black-and-white form, then breaking through the movie screen in color. The color incarnations make the characters look up-to-date. But the old-time gender roles don’t get transformed: Minnie is in need of rescuing, no matter what side of the screen she’s on.
The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated, 102 minutes. Unrated.
The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Live Action, 113 minutes. Unrated.