A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the Oscar-nominated live action short films at Williamsburg’s charming and cozy Nitehawk Cinema. This category has always been completely irrelevant to me in past years, and it probably still is for you. But, ya know, it doesn’t have to be that way.
So here’s the lowdown on this year’s lot, from someone you can trust. For easy conceptualization, I’ve ranked them from worst to best.
Helium by Anders Walter (23 minutes, Denmark)
The screening kicked off with a remarkably cheesy sob story featuring a dying, hospitalized child who strikes up a friendship with a shy and sensitive hospital janitor. The janitor tells the boy stories of a twee afterlife called “Helium,” in which children prance about on clouds and swing on infinite swing sets. You know the drill.
If my characterization sounds insensitive, you need to see it to believe it. This is unapologetically manipulative and treacle nonsense, without even a shred of creativity. Even the fantasy sequences look annoyingly cheap. This film might well appeal to the most tenderhearted among us, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s easily the worst of the five.
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) by Esteban Crespo (24 Minutes, Spain)
This film focuses on the use of child soldiers in armed conflict, perhaps the most difficult and morally complex issue affecting the international community today. Crespo is primarily interested in communicating the grotesque senselessness of child militarization and its attendant moral complexities. But his film has a secondary purpose, that being “paying a tribute to the altruistic labor” of humanitarian volunteers worldwide. Somewhat simplistically, these twin goals are embodied in two main characters, one a European doctor and the other a child soldier.
The first chunk of the film is good filmmaking. There develops a nauseating sense of tension when a team of volunteer doctors is stopped by armed militants. The encounter follows all too inevitably into a viciously distressing Deer Hunter (1978) style captivity sequence.
Crespo’s project gets gets too big for its britches about 2/3 through, as he attempts to harness the chaos of wartime combat. He lacks both the budget and technical skillset to pull of what he attempts.
But it’s the film’s finale and frame-epilogue that effectively ruins it, which crescendos into a kind of hymn on First World compassion and saintliness. Several friends I was with found the film racist, but I think that’s probably too harsh a label here. I have no doubt that Crespo and company have good intentions, as the film was apparently released in association with a half dozen Spanish NGOs aimed at stopping the use of child soldiers.
To me, the film’s problem isn’t one of political misunderstanding or problematic ethics, but rather what happens when an artist prioritizes activism over craft. By the end, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we’re watching another naïve #StopKony2012 meme rather than real cinema.
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) by Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari (7 minutes, Finland)
This is a playful study in Murphy’s Law that brings a desperately needed sense of levity to an otherwise utterly morose set of films. The action follows a cute and terribly awkward family scramble to, as it were, get to the church on time.
Clocking in at only half the length of any of the other nominated shorts, the film has a chain-reaction density to it that sells the family’s endearing incompetence and engages the viewer with the story’s cartoonish chaos. Everything within the film is right on, but it never really does anything worthy of particular distinction. It’s an unpretentiously funny, cute and warmhearted experience, but not much else.
The Voorman Problem by Mark Gill (13 Minutes, United Kingdom)
I was pleased to see a film with a supernatural story nominated, but I was even more impressed to learn that it was the category’s current frontrunner. Gill’s clever and spooky little film posits a prisoner claiming to be an omnipotent deity. When all of his cellmates begin worshipping him as such, a criminal psychologist (Martin Freeman) is called in to investigate.
Freeman seamlessly alternates between confident and agitated as he deals with the inexplicable Voorman, skillfully communicating the narrative’s sense of cascading discomfort.
The flick is tight, spooky, and fun. It even provides some concise commentary on the American prison system and normative attitudes about mental illness. Although this was not the best of the nominees, when it wins, I’ll still be relatively satisfied.
Avant Que de tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) by Xavier Legrande (29 minutes, France)
This wasn’t just the best film of the five. It’s the only one that deserves legitimate distinction. In fact, it’s one of the most perfect short films I have ever seen.
Legrande crafts an absolutely unbearable climate of tension and suspense, overlain with sorrow and meek hopefulness. Nathalie Durand’s powerfully intimate cinematography hums with intense moments of subjectivity. In one particularly nuanced moment, the camera occupies a view from the backseat, as a child processes adult elements through the space between the front seats’ headrest. Maybe it’s a random personal reference, but I found this shot insanely brilliant.
Broadly, we’re voyeurs peeking into a key process in one family’s life, as they teeter on the brink of a painful change. You can watch the (quite excellent) trailer if you’d like to get a sense of what is afoot, but one of the more attractive features of watching this film is the extent to which it invites the viewer to piece together the narrative personally. Legrande has little interest in talking down to his audience, trusting instead his ability to show and not tell. It’s unfortunate to note that this approach severely lacking among the category’s other nominees, and it’s all too rare in modern cinema at large.
For all its technical brilliance, compassion, and intelligence, I don’t think Just Before will win. The prize will likely go to The Voorman Project, a fun film that nonetheless pales in comparison, or possibly Helium, the category’s sappy lowest common denominator.
But whoever wins, it’s well worth keeping our eye out to see what directors Mark Gill and Xavier Legrande do next. They’ve proven that much.
The films are now available on iTunes, and for the price of some fast food you can enjoy two hours of unique filmmaking from all over the world. It’ll enhance your experience this Sunday, and it’ll also give you and I something new and exciting to argue about.