Oscar's Live Action Shorts

This year’s crop of live action short films nominated at the Academy Awards is an impressive bunch. Oscar’s Live Action Shorts offer one of the most diverse categories among the nominees. Not only do all five films offer voices and stories from outside Hollywood, but also the films themselves couldn’t be more different. Hard-hitting dramas, strange star-studded comedies, message movies, and the speculative arts all find a place here.

The first offering in the programme, Helium (Dir. Anders Walter; Denmark, 23 min.), is a touching story about teaching a child about death and the afterlife. Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbæk) is a young boy with terminal illness. He asks the janitor, Enzo (Casper Crump), a clumsy man tasked with cleaning Alfred’s room on his first day of work, the story of “helium.” Enzo, sensing the child’s uncertainty in the next step of his life, regales him with fanciful stories about the faraway land of Helium. It sounds like a nice place for escape. Enzo is right and Helium is a great escape for how subtly and lovingly it uses the power of the imagination to harness closure and catharsis. The small touch of fantasy that pops-up at the end of this otherwise soberly realistic drama reminds viewers of the power of storytelling—both as a visual art and as a medium to convey ideas too difficult to put into words. The closing shot of Helium is a delicate, touching, and bittersweet nod to the imaginative flights that connect us all.

The refined fantastical finale of Helium offers a fine segue to the loony The Voorman Problem (Dir. Martin Gill; UK, 13 min.). I caught The Voorman Problem back at the CFC Worldwide Short Film Festival in 2012 whilst reviewing the “Celebrity Shorts” programme and it barely earned a passing mention aside from a Clarice Starling joke. (It screened with strong goodies like Pitch Black Heist and Friend Request Pending starring Michael Fassbender and Judi Dench, respectively.) The Voorman Problem improves upon subsequent viewings, though, for Gill brings a strange twist of droll humour to this farfetched farce starring Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander. Talky and far less visually engaging than the other four nominees in the programme, though, The Voorman Problem relies heavily on the underplayed comedic chops of its two stars to keep the one-note joke going for thirteen minutes. The benefit of a one-note joke in a short film, however, is that it plays itself out tremendously well before it loses steam.
Just Before Losing Everything
The Oscar Live Action shorts programme then changes gears dramatically for the riveting domestic drama Just Before Losing Everything / Avant que de tout perdre (Dir. Xavier Legrand; France, 29 min.). An exceptionally executed film starring Léa Drucker as Miriam, a woman on the run with her two children, Just Before Losing Everything is just about perfect. Writer/director Xavier Legrand deftly unfolds the story by revealing and telling as little as possible. It’s a film in which silence and pauses—both awkward and anxious—twist the viewer in a mesmerising story of domestic violence and the need to escape. The laudably understated screenplay delivers a story that is completely believable both for the way characters discuss domestic violence with an elusive awkwardness style and for the way such subtlety is necessary when children are caught in the centre of said violence. From the flawless performances of the ensemble including Drucker, Denis Ménochet (In the House) and Mijan Chatelaine, to the tense lingering cinematography by Nathalie Durand and the suspenseful  editing by Yorgos Lamprinos, Legrand’s film is a taut feat of cinema. Just Before Losing Everything is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Not quite in the league of a masterpiece, however, is the fourth film in the programme, That Wasn’t Me / Aquel no era yo (Dir. Esteban Crespo; Spain, 24 min.). That Wasn’t Me, which won the Goya (Spain’s equivalent of the Oscar), has its heart in the right place, but it never quite shakes off the whiff of moralising that oozes out of its story about a Spanish doctor held at the mercy of child soldiers. Strong production and an impressive opening half make That Wasn’t Me two-thirds of a worthy nominee. The film tells a tale of redemption as it crosscuts between past and present, and the back-and-forth energy builds an increasingly ludicrous drama in the past narrative while the feel-good speech in the present thread nearly culminates in a pat on the back for the crusading foreigner who lets the film fly off the rails with her unconvincing actions. It’s a well-done film nevertheless, both in the execution its tense story and its sensitive subject matter, yet it ultimately feels self-congratulatory for a film that starts so boldly.
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?
The Live Action Shorts programme then lets the audience come up for air after the tense interval of Just Before Losing Everything and That Wasn’t Me. Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? / Pitääkö mun kaikki hoitaa? (Dir. Selma Vilhunen; Finland, 7 min.) is a hilarious farce of Murphy’s Law that sees a beleaguered wife and mother (Joanna Harrtti) ready her family for a wedding one chaotic morning. Vilhunen explodes the situational humour and delivers one amusing slice-of-life gag after another. The control of the film couldn’t be better, as this brisk comedy, which plays like a blow-for-blow between Harrtti and Santtu Karvonen as her husband, is refreshing, relatable humour. The comedic timing Vilhunen displays in the editing brings the film to life with a zany energy. (She cut the film herself.) This fun romp brings the Oscar shorts to a strong finale.

Best short: If I could cast an Oscar ballot, my vote would go to Just Before Losing Everything.

The Oscar Live Action Shorts are available on iTunes.
They screen in Ottawa at The ByTowne March 21-24.

Which Oscar short gets your vote?