by Matt Levine
It used to be that short films were seen as calling cards for up-and-coming directors, who could employ their (slightly) reduced budgets and smaller scope to garner the attention of feature-film production companies. While this may still be predominantly true—as evidenced by the short-film programs that populate film festivals worldwide (and the illustrious laurels given out in their honor)—broad awareness of the eclectic pleasures that short films can offer has exploded over the last decade. No mere stepchild of feature filmmaking, short films serve as the cinematic analogue to the short story: reduced only in length, but not (at least in some cases) in ambition, emotion, or ingenuity.
Directors: Esteban Crespo (That Wasn’t Me), Xavier Legrand (Just Before Losing Everything), Anders Walter (Helium), Selma Vilhunen (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), Mark Gill (The Voorman Problem)
Producers: Primavera M. Ruiz (That Wasn’t Me), Alexandre Gavras (Just Before Losing Everything), Kim Magnusson, Tivi Magnusson (Helium); Elli Toivoniemi (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), Baldwin Lee, Lee Thomas (The Voorman Problem)
Writers: Esteban Crespo (That Wasn’t Me), Xavier Legrand (Just Before Losing Everything), Christian Gamst Miller-Harris, Anders Walter (Helium), Kirsikka Saari (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), Baldwin Li, Mark Gill, novel number9dream by David Mitchell (The Voorman Problem)
For the ninth year running, ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures are teaming up to distribute the ten Oscar-nominated short films (live-action, documentary, and animated) theatrically throughout the country, providing short-form aficionados (or merely Oscar fanatics obsessed with checking off every box on their ballot) with the opportunity to experience the most acclaimed shorts produced each year. As with many short-film anthologies (or most Oscar nominees, for that matter), the results might be hit-or-miss, but they also provide a diverse array of genres, styles, and themes to satisfy the majority of curious moviegoers.
Comedically, short films are naturally suited for the one-joke premises that are belabored by certain features, as writers and directors are able to focus on developing and delivering the perfect punch-line without needing to pad out ninety minutes of screen time. (Imagine how much better Don Jon would have been as a short film, for example.) The best example in this year’s lineup is Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, a Finnish comedy comprised entirely of one amiable family frenetically preparing for a wedding. Their intermittently amusing misfortunes—like a potted plant which serves as the family’s last-minute wedding gift, or the Halloween costumes the children are forced to wear when their dresses are left in the washer—lead to a punch-line that’s delivered with a sleek visual style and deft timing, but the movie succeeds as little more than a well-told joke. The film is charming enough, though it’s somewhat surprising that Academy voters singled this out as one of the finest live-action shorts (comedic or otherwise) this year.
Though it’s a bit more somber, the British mindbender The Voorman Problem also amounts to a one-joke premise: the film’s warped sense of humor finds a derisive prisoner in a British jail proclaiming himself a god—then enacting a handful of inexplicable pranks (such as eliminating the country of Belgium from existence, replacing it with a body of water called the Walloon Lagoon) to prove it. There is some morbidly interesting subtext regarding humanity’s relationship with some sort of divine creator--The Voorman Problem envisions gods as bored, mordant deviants who try to screw with our heads simply because they’re disgusted by our never-ending cycles of war, greed, and subjugation—but mostly the film provides a fun conundrum, more entertaining than it is thought-provoking. Here’s a short that might benefit from expansion into a feature-length running time, which would allow the creators to indulge and elaborate on some of the provocative ideas briefly intimated here.
Helium, meanwhile, takes its bite-sized conceit—hospital janitor befriends a dying boy and convinces him that an airship will carry him away once his time on earth is over—and topples over into outright schmaltz. The movie might be sweet, but it’s absolutely nothing else; it’s not even emotional, since its attempts to jerk some tears out of the audience reek of manipulative sentimentality. The visual effects, to be fair, ably transport us to this balloon-infested Elysium, though it’s only a short skip away from our collective fantasy’s trite vision of heaven (floating clouds, perpetual sunlight, reunion with deceased love ones). It may not be as repugnant as stabbing Haley Joel Osment for a contrived emotional climax in Pay It Forward (2000), but Helium still relies on dying children to provide the entirety of its dramatic impact. Given the dour performances and tepid personal relationships, this simply isn’t enough.
Tipping the scale further into the realm of solemn tragedy, the final two films in the program deal with dauntingly upsetting subject matter—child soldiers in war-torn countries and spousal abuse—but thankfully incorporate a bit more subtlety and complexity. That Wasn’t Me, a Spanish film set in an unnamed country (though it resembles recent strife in Sudan), briefly introduces us to a Spanish husband and wife, both doctors, who are transported into a volatile region where child soldiers work as hired guns for a vicious warlord. It doesn’t take long before the European couple is abducted by one of these armies, whose demands for blood and stockpiles of assault rifles are guarantees (or so they claim) of their indomitable power. Say what you will about the movie’s flaws (and there are many)—it doesn’t shy away from troublesome themes that are ripped from the headlines, as they say. Although That Wasn’t Me is still essentially a white-people-in-exotic-peril saga like Blood Diamond (2006) or The Constant Gardener (2005), a specious subgenre as irritating for its clichés as for its xenophobia, it at least attempts to humanize the child soldiers by flashing forward to a reformed refugee years later. If the film is awkwardly pitched between cultural exploitation and respect (a balancing-act achieved much more powerfully by one of this year’s feature nominees, Captain Phillips), it’s also a jumbled mismatch of sleek war-movie pyrotechnics (whatever the movie’s budget, the majority of it seemingly went into explosions and helicopters) and self-serious sermonizing. Perhaps in this case, Oscar voters were enticed mainly by provocative material rather than its skillful elucidation.
By far the best short in the bunch, as well as the most emotionally powerful, is the French drama Just Before Losing Everything. The audience is on edge immediately, and not just because of the ominous title; the mobile camerawork by Nathalie Durand and fractured jump-cutting by Yorgos Lamprinos presage some kind of unknown agitation. It isn’t until ten minutes into the film’s thirty-minute running time that we even discover what’s happening: department-store clerk Miriam desperately tries to escape her abusive husband by leaving town with their two children in tow. The savagery of his abuse is revealed to us not in weepy confessions but through small, unsettling moments—their young son casually mentioning the time his dad aimed a rifle at his mother; the welts and bruises glimpsed on her back and legs as she’s changing out of her uniform—which point towards an untold, horrific past. As Miriam’s husband shows up at the store almost at the same time she intends to flee, Just Before Losing Everything also temporarily turns into a feverish thriller, with the emotional stakes ratcheting up the suspense unexpectedly. The quiet yet haunting tone of the film, along with its uniquely fluid camerawork, point towards a filmmaker in full command of his craft—in this case, first time writer-director Xavier Legrand (who’s also an actor, notably in Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants). Thankfully, he also exhibits clear, intense compassion for his cast, observing the small yet telling idiosyncrasies that make even minor characters believably complex.
If short films still partially serve as calling cards for heretofore unknown directors, Legrand should be satisfied in knowing that Just Before Losing Everything marks the arrival of an exciting and sure-footed talent . Not all of the directors featured in the live action program, though, can take similar comfort. If we truly want to get a sense of the most dynamic, disparate short films produced internationally each year, it may be more gratifying to peruse the plethora of short films available online (especially on ShortsHD’s website) than to rely on what Oscar voters honor with their nominations. The selections here provide an enjoyable cornucopia, but if it’s greatness that the Oscars supposedly commemorate, the Live Action Shorts nominees fall short.
Runtimes: 25m. (That Wasn’t Me), 30m. (Just Before Losing Everything), 22m. (Helium), 6m. (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), 12m. (The Voorman Problem)
Countries: Spain (That Wasn’t Me), France (Just Before Losing Everything), Denmark (Helium), Finland (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), UK (The Voorman Problem)
US Distributors: ShortsHD, Magnolia Pictures