Review of Oscar-nominated short films 2014 (animated, live-action and documentary)


The animated short film “Mr. Hublot” uses computer animation and stop-motion to tell the story of a man and his robot dog. (Zeilt Productions)
January 30

Some Oscar mavens insist on watching as many nominated films as they can — even the shorts — before the big night. Fortunately for the obsessives, two local theaters are offering programs featuring all of this year’s Academy Award-nominated short films. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema, you’ll find the animated and live action titles; the West End Cinema is offering the documentaries.

The five titles in the live-action category are notably diverse, ranging from goofball domestic comedy (the barely seven-minute Finnish trifle “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?”) to a 25-minute Spanish drama that explores, with unflinching realism, the physical and emotional toll of war on child soldiers. That latter film, “That Wasn’t Me,” is the harrowing tale of two Spanish aid workers taken hostage in Sierra Leone and the efforts of one of them (Alejandra Lorente) to rescue a young soldier (Juan Tojaka), despite the boy having participated in atrocities. Bolstered by powerful performances — and the real-world gravitas of its subject — former documentarian Esteban Crespo’s film seems likely to take home the prize March 2.

“Just Before Losing Everything” is a tough and hard-hitting little film, too, dramatizing the difficult decision of a Frenchwoman (Léa Drucker) to leave her abusive husband.

A fourth nominee, the Danish melodrama “Helium,” is just as heavy. It concerns a terminally ill boy (Pelle Falk Krusbaek) and the efforts of a kindly hospital orderly (Casper Crump) to ease his transition into death by spinning tales of a fantastical afterlife. I doubt that this tearjerker — which includes stunning special effects — will win, but it was my sentimental favorite.

Balancing the generally somber mood is one more comedy. British actor Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Sherlock”) injects a bit of much needed levity into the proceedings with “The Voorman Problem,” an absurdist comedy in which Freeman plays a prison psychiatrist interviewing a convict who believes he’s God.

I was also able to screen four of the five animated shorts, and they’re purely a visual delight, incorporating novel mixes of old and new technology. (At press time, a sneak peek of Disney’s “Get a Horse!” was not available, but it was widely shown in theaters in conjunction with the animated feature “Frozen.” In it, characters from an antique-looking, black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon burst out of the screen, jumping back and forth between the 2-D and 3-D worlds.)

Of the other animated films, my favorite was “Mr. Hublot.” A hybrid of computer animation and stop-motion, this eye-popping French film was inspired by Belgian artist Stephane Halleux’s retro-futuristic figurative sculptures, which deserve an award of their own. Like it, “Room on the Broom” — an adaptation of the popular 2001 picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler — also blends disparate animation techniques, using 3-D models for the sets, computer animation for the characters and hand-drawing for its fire and water effects. The Japanese short “Possessions,” in which derelict artifacts come to life, is also a mix of computer graphics and hand rendering.

Purists will probably go for “Feral,” a delightfully abstract hand-drawn throwback about a feral boy found living among wolves and society’s futile attempt to civilize him. Like its subject, American animator Daniel Sousa is something of an anomaly in this age of computer-assisted cartoons: He’s still a bit of a wild child. Thankfully, he’s not the only animator out there who refuses to be tamed.

The documentaries, which tend to run longer, are being presented in two programs, though all five share a common theme: transformation.

Program A introduces the world’s oldest concentration camp survivor (“The Lady in Number 6”); a nation in the throes of revolution (“Karama Has No Walls”); and two men — a former violent skinhead and his former beating victim — who have somehow reconciled (“Facing Fear”). Program B features a terminally ill convicted murderer (“Prison Terminal”) and a New Mexico artist who builds amazing subterranean environments (“Cavedigger”).

Both of these showcases are strong, but if you can purchase only a single ticket, make it for Program B. The dramatic extremes embodied by “Cavedigger’s” Ra Paulette, a free spirit who turns sandstone hills into underground cathedrals, and “Prison’s” Jack Hall, an Iowa State Penitentiary lifer in hospice, are stark. One of these two films almost surely will win your heart, if not the Oscar.

Then again, Program A is no slouch. We should all be as hearty — and as happy — as pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, the subject of “The Lady in Number 6,” is at 109 years old. And the two subjects of “Facing Fear,” who now lecture together on tolerance, offer a testament to the power of forgiveness.

Last but not least is “Karama Has No Walls,” a documentary examination of the bloody 2011 revolution in Yemen. It makes an excellent companion piece to the Oscar-nominated feature “The Square,” a similar-themed documentary about the Egyptian revolution that inspired these Yemeni martyrs to demand a better future.

All programs are unrated and several include subtitles. “The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated” runs about 73 minutes and includes nothing offensive. “The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2014: Live-Action” runs about 98 minutes and includes some obscenity, violence, mature themes and a scene of rape. Both programs are at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.

Program A of “The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentary” runs 95 minutes and includes graphic violence, brief obscenity and mature themes. Program B runs 85 minutes, and includes mature themes and obscenity.
Both documentary programs are at the
West End Cinema.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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