OSCAR COUNTDOWN: The Short Film Races

Alas, the only categories guaranteed to have no films overlapping in any other category. Is that an issue? Maybe. I think short films are a severely neglected subset of film and deserve more national attention than just the select crop of Oscar nominees that get screened nationwide and animated shorts in front of Disney movies. They deserve to be better integrated into the infrastructure of the film industry, but instead are seen simply as a way of breaking into it. I don’t know if that’s fair, especially given the often low quality of the Oscar nominated shorts. If they reached for at least the same standard of quality that the average Oscar nominated feature meets, we may have a more noteworthy and compelling field. Unfortunately, having a lower standard of quality does not make it easier to predict the winners.

Get a Horse!Best Animated Short Film

  • Feral
  • Get a Horse!
  • Mr. Hublot
  • Possessions
  • Room on the Broom

From what I can tell, there are two things that appeal to voters of this category: endearment and invention. Last year’s winner, Paperman, had both, blending 2D and CG animation while telling a cute (if paper thin) story of love. This year I’m struggling to find that crucial overlap, not least because we’re dealing with the ugliest lineup I can recall in recent memory. We know CG animation is becoming the standard in animation, but that nearly four out of the five nominees use it to fake other forms of animation only shows how lazy animators have become.

PossessionsI can say what I’m rather confident won’t win, first of all being Room on the Broom, a faux-claymation children’s fable that plays like an overlong picture book with zero dramatic rhythm. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see entertaining toddlers on Nick Jr., but feels odd nominated in the same awards show as 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street. On paper Possessions sounds significantly stronger, an anime tale of a traveler who earns shelter from the store by repairing a legion of animated umbrellas, tapestry, and other broken goods. Sounds stunning, but the way it’s realized with painfully distracting and overall rather hideous CG-fakery takes away from the beauty of its anime designs.

Which leaves three films I can feasibly see winning this race, one simply because everyone’s seen it ad nauseam in front of Frozen. Disney’s Get a Horse! was a darling from the start of the season, mostly because of its supposedly innovative use of 3D technology with 2D animation. I did not see it in that probably preferable 3D form, so I could only assess based on the animation and the story, which is garish in both categories. Besides the fact that all that happens is that Mickey Mouse and the gang repeatedly punish their nemesis with the wonderful magic of 3D technology, the single shot set-up cuts off any and all attempts at beauty. I shudder to think it could win by the default of being paired with a genuinely charming film.

FeralThen there’s Mr. Hublot, which isn’t inventive but has endearing on its side. Here’s the plot: Man sees stray dog. Man saves stray dog. Dog turns out to be Clifford. Man gets bigger apartment. The end. Oh, and they’re all robots. Cute. Not particularly affecting, but cute and well-realized by the animation. It doesn’t look hideous, so that’s a plus, and that may put voters in its favor. What I’d most like to see win is Feral, the only seemingly handdrawn film of the batch. Some computer-animation may be aiding it, but it overall looks pretty gorgeously realized, if also pretty simple. Though it’s just about a boy struggling to find his place in the world, it’s the only short film with symbolic and emotional resonance. I may end up being proven wrong for hoping, but I expect Academy voters will feel the same.

Predicted and Preferred Winner: Feral
Write-In Vote: Gloria Victoria

Aquel no era yo (That Wasn't MeBest Live-Action Short Film

  • Aquel no era yo (That Wasn’t Me)
  • Just Before Losing Everything
  • Helium
  • Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?
  • The Voorman Problem

Earlier this month I ventured a theory that the editors of this year’s live-action short presentation were in favor of 12 Years a Slave winning. Regardless of whether or not that theory is true, I’ve since submitted myself to higher powers in the Oscar season such as the crucial turns of the BAFTA, DGA and PGA awards, but since the shorts program itself doesn’t speak too strongly for itself, it may be up to bigger films to speak for them. Next Sunday’s winner may still be a foreshadowing of the Best Picture winner, at least in one of two cases.

HeliumOne short that seems primed for sentimentality is Helium, the story of a terminally ill boy whose friendship with a nurse helps him create an alternative heaven full of color and life. You could say it’s what happened to Sandra Bullock’s daughter when she died before the start of Gravity, though Helium deploys less formal bravura than broad-faced sentimentality. On the flip-side of the child-troubles coin is Aquel no era yo (That Wasn’t Me), a pretty grungy and harrowing story of foreign doctors traveling through a Uganda-like country who get captured by a group of child soldiers led by a Kony-like militant leader. It’s searingly topical from the first moment, and manages an compelling bit of shock at the sight of kids so vacantly killing adults. It does degenerate a bit into a final-girl horror film towards the end, but its look at real-world atrocities should find great sympathy in a year where 12 Years a Slave has been a dominant point of conversation.

Two nominees in this race feel simply too thin to win, none more so than Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, by a long distance the worst film nominated for this year’s Academy Awards. The story of a lower class family who scrambles to get ready for a wedding, it relies on pretty dim humor and doesn’t end having actually said anything. It’s a wank, and a particularly shocking one to see Oscar nominated. Less irritating is The Voorman Problem, a jaunty British sketch where Martin Freeman plays a psychiatrist trying to prove Tom Hollander, a man who believes himself to be God, insane, only to find that he may actually be God. It’s amusing, if a bit obvious. It’s an excusable, if not remarkable nominee here.

Just Before Losing EverythingThe longest film nominated is Just Before Losing Everything, about a mother who tries to eject her family from a toxic environment under her abusive husband. That seems simple, but the film deploys an extraordinary tension as we learn the circumstances of the family, the husband shows up to complicate their escape, and the action of this domestic crisis plays out deliberately across a supermarket. While all its competitors feel abbreviated to some degree, Just Before Losing Everything thoroughly feels like a complete film, and I’d be particularly delighted to see the Academy choose this effectively disciplined thriller.

Predicted Winner: That Wasn’t Me
Preferred Winner: Just Before Losing Everything
Write-In Vote: Redemption

CavediggerBest Documentary – Short Subject

  • CaveDigger
  • Facing Fear
  • Karama Has No Walls
  • The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
  • Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Perhaps better described as The Upworthy Award. Instinct tells us this field of nominees should be the strongest of three short races, but as I watched this year’s nominated docs for the first time, I realized exactly what types of films are nominated in this category. Ardent, sweet-natured films that don’t challenge viewers are easier for voters to swallow, though is it really worse to be uncomfortable during a film than to be asleep? The Lady in Number 6, while focusing on the oldest living Holocaust survivor, downplays the difficulty of that tragedy at every turn. The message we end up leaving with is that the Holocaust wasn’t so bad for everyone, which feels obviously contrary to truth. As for Prisoner Terminal, I unfortunately can’t comment on it because it’s the only one I missed, but the trailer plays up its subject’s sentimentality in a way similar to Lady in Number 6, using a beige, gauzy filter to make it look like the camera is fogging up with tears.

Karama Has No WallsBesides those, CaveDigger is the only nominee that focuses on one central character, though not one who has gone through any real world crisis. It’s more of a character study and an artistic study, focusing on the work of a man who turns caves into works of art. It’s one of the few nominees that engenders interest in a subject the viewer may not have been aware of heading in, and besides that his work looks simply gorgeous on the big screen. Though it’s perhaps the category’s strongest selection, I feel the race is between the two most topical films.

If The Square or The Act of Killing raise the bar of social relevance in the documentary feature category, Karama Has No Walls does the same for the short categories. It’s significantly less substantial than those films, but it grounds its cameramen in the middle of Change Square in Yemen where a peaceful protest turns disastrously violent. For the jarring images captured, it may be the most affecting doc on display. I imagine, though, that Academy voters will go for something with a kinder ending. Facing Fear follows a gay man and the straight man who nearly killed him, the two of whom become reunited years later and forced to address what happened between them. It’s an amazing story, but like many docs here, it’s not rendered in a particularly cinematic way.

Predicted Winner: Facing Fear
Preferred Winner: Cavedigger
Write-In Vote: The King’s Body

Other Oscar Predictions:
Best Adapted Screenplay

Best Original Screenplay
Best Animated Feature
Best Documentary Feature
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Costume Design
Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Best Production Design
Best Original Score
Best Original Song
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Visual Effects

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