For the last few years, I've pointed out that winning your Oscar pool in some ways depends on being smart about your selections in the short film categories. That everyone usually has a pretty solid idea of what's going to win in the major races is mostly a given (though tell that to anyone pulling their hair out over this year's best picture dead heat between 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Gravity). But down ballot? That's a whole 'nother ball game.
Well, I feel compelled to finally put that old canard to rest. There are plenty of other reasons to track down the films nominated by the AMPAS. There are as many as 15 reasons every year, in fact. Sixteen if you add the fact that ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures have been making it incredibly easy to knock them all down in one shot. Their firmly-established anthologies have been making rounds in movie theaters for at least the last half-decade.
No, I'm not suggesting every movie nominated in the category is going to be a winner. In fact, I've found the average is about on equal par with the slates in the main categories -- some great, some pretty good, some dreadful. But at least in the short film categories, you get to enjoy the roulette effect of not knowing which ones will be great and which ones won't since -- unlike Hustle, Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street -- these movies haven't already been discussed to death.
Jonathon Sharp and I are splitting prediction duties this year. I'll take the animated and documentary categories, and Jonathon will make his bets in the live-action rundown (which, if you ask me, is the most difficult one to pick this time around).
As always, take our recommendations with a healthy grain of salt. These are by far the most notoriously difficult categories to read. Better yet, head over to Uptown or Riverview and check out the nominees for yourselves. You'll probably discover a few new rooting interests in the bargain.
(NOTE: Uptown Theater will be presenting the ten movies nominated in the short animated film and short live action film categories this Friday, and the Riverview is bringing the five documentary shorts to the Twin Cities one week later.)
Best Animated Short
|Feral (Daniel Sousa & Dan Golden)
An elliptically told tale of a young boy raised by wolves who is plucked out of the wilderness and returned to civilization, only to find that human pack mentality can be just as ruthless as it was out in the hinterlands. The animation is minimal and poetic, with an emphasis on suggestive transitions. This is the one entry that seems overtly aimed at adults.
|Get a Horse! (Lauren MacMullan & Dorothy McKim)
It's been a long while since Disney has produced a new Mickey Mouse short, and accordingly, they bring him -- not kicking and screaming, either -- into the digital projection, 3-D era. Without a doubt, the most well-exposed nominee in the rundown, having preceded screenings of Frozen in theaters.
|Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz & Alexandre Espigares)
A steampunk-tinged bit of futurism in which the wound-too-tight cog Mr. Hublot, who spends his day readjusting his immaculately cluttered abode, opens his heart-unit to a poor stray dog and soon finds his highly structured existence turned inside out when the robot dog (WALL-D?) continues to grow.
|Possessions (Shuhei Morita)
One segment from a larger anime anthology (Short Peace), Possessions depicts a samurai Mr. Fix-It's odd evening spent inside a haunted junk shed. He goes to work, restores long-ago discarded trinkets to their former glory, and then goes on his muscle-bound way. Somewhere along the way, the WB frog seems to drop in for a cameo appearance.
|Room on the Broom (Max Lang & Jan Lachauer)
From the same people who brought you The Gruffalo a few years back comes another star-studded, reasonably epic (at least against its competition) fairy tale about a witch who, to her cat's consternation, keeps making more room on her broom for other outcast animals.
Will Win: This is a pretty well-matched and highly varied field. Though Get a Horse! is the ten-ton behemoth in the line-up, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it fall to any of the other four nominees. Feral and Possessions may end up splitting the vanguard voting pool. As The Gruffalo didn't win a few years back and Mr. Hublot's brand of riveted whimsy strongly resembles other recent winners The Lost Thing and The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, I'm betting on the latter. That gearhead dog is incredibly cute.
Deserves To Win: The panoply of textures in Possessions were positively eye-tickling, but I was won over by the understated haiku-like brevity of Feral.
Best Live-Action Short
|Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa?) (Selma Vilhunen & Kirsikka Saari)
By far the shortest film of the bunch, yet it plays like an overlong Super Bowl ad. The camera races around a mom as she rushes to get her family to a wedding. Tiny disaster follows tiny disaster, but dysfunctional antics cumulate in one decent laugh. All the while, however, it felt like I was being sold some mysterious deodorant for Nordic moms.
|Helium (Anders Walter & Kim Magnusson)
When a dying boy in a Danish hospital is bored by the Christian idea of heaven, he's told by a friendly janitor to dream of a different paradise -- one with huge balloon airships, floating planetoid fields and polychromatic snowflakes that sparkle in the air. This place, called Helium, gives the child hope, but it's obviously not real. We're then left to reflect on myths -– their power and their place -– in societies where God is all but dead.
|Just Before Losing Everything (Avant Que De Tout Perdre) (Xavier Legrand & Alexandre Gavras)
The most sobering entry in the category follows a woman trying to flee her abusive husband with her young son and teenage daughter. She takes her kids out of school and goes to quit her job at the supermarket when her husband shows up looking for her. Suspense arises impressively from the film's realism, and performances are solid all around. It's truly gem-like. Not a thing is out of place.
|That Wasn't Me (Aquel No Era Yo) (Esteban Crespo)
How the hell did this get here? Seriously. This mess about doctors being captured by a Kony-like warlord and his army of child soldiers suffers from an unbelievable case of heavy-handedness. Serious subject matter (i.e. rape, indoctrination) are handled with such cheesy melodrama that no amount of "golden hour" cinematography can help. Sadly, it manages to be both gross and silly.
|The Voorman Problem (Mark Gill & Baldwin Li)
Martin Freeman brings his signature nerd persona to yet another project. Here, he's a psychiatrist tasked with evaluating a prisoner who claims to be God, and his skepticism is severely tested when the supposed madman makes a country vanish from existence. The film doesn't really comment on matters of faith, instead the filmmakers turn God into something more fashionable -- an anti-hero. Fun stuff.
Will Win: It has to be either Helium, Just Before Losing Everything or The Voorman Problem. The latter has some helpful star power, and it's also the pithiest and punchiest of the bunch. But Helium has a bit more magic, and it offers something special in that it's simultaneously both cute and tragic. Losing Everything, on the other hand, is wonderfully crafted, but its heaviness could come off as monotonous. In the end, I have to go with Voorman. Its brevity and wit stand out, and I think they'll carry it through the photo finish.
Deserves To Win: Just Before Losing Everything and The Voorman Problemare both undeniably well-crafted. And since there's nothing exceptionally original or daring about any of the other films, that goes a long way. I'd give Just Before Losing Everythingthe edge here simply because it zeros in on a serious issue (domestic violence) but it never comes off as a PSA.
Best Documentary Short
|CaveDigger (Jeffrey Karoff)
For God only knows what reasons, Ra Paulette takes his pickaxe into the sandstone shelves of the New Mexico deserts, carving out intricate caves for a series of equally crazy customers, who commission him to carve out play-caves for them and then carp when his designs don't match their wishes. Seriously, his clientele are almost as exasperating as the American tourists in Jem Cohen's Museum Hours.
|Facing Fear (Jason Cohen)
Through an odd twist of fate, a gay man who was nearly beaten to death decades ago finds himself face-to-face with the now reformed skinhead who delivered the final kick to the man's head before he lost consciousness. Rather than seek vengeance, the man and his former attacker work toward forgiveness, using their story to teach the value tolerance to others.
|Karama Has No Walls (Sara Ishaq)
With obvious thematic ties to The Square (nominated over in the feature docs category), Karama benefits from strong first-person footage of the massacre in Yemen's "Change Square" that's almost impossible to watch, as 53 protesters seeking to end Ali Abdullah Saleh's reign were killed by snipers.
|The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (Malcolm Clarke & Nicholas Reed)
At age 109, Alice Herz Sommer is the world's oldest Holocaust survivor. Lest you think this is one of those documentaries that coasts on the atrocities of Hitler's final solution, The Lady in Number 6 is actually an endless delight. Sommer, a concert pianist who espouses the therapeutic value of music, turns out to be an endless and inspirational fount of optimism.
|Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (Edgar Barens)
An unsparing portrait of Private Jack Hall, a prisoner at the Iowa State Penitentiary who's approaching the end of life. With devastating intimacy, the psychological toll of the hospice experience and the capacity for human empathy are both juxtaposed against the realities of the American system of incarceration.
Will Win: Without a doubt, this represents the strongest lineup of the three short categories this year, which makes it even more difficult to make a call on what has in the past already proven to be an almost impossible award to predict. CaveDigger may be too "first world problems," and Facing Fear too pat and self-congratulatory in its conclusions, but it's pretty easy to make a strong case for any of the other three. That said, I expect The Lady in Number 6's winning blend of historical gravitas and charming personality portraiture to push it to the top.
Deserves To Win: Ties are rare, but I'm not the Oscars, so I can give them out indiscriminately. The Lady in Number 6 is endlessly pleasurable, and the mercilessly galvanizing Prison Terminal the precise opposite, in the best sense.
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