By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
8:00 AM PST, February 1, 2014
The 15 short films nominated for Oscars each year, five in each category — live action, animation and documentary — usually feel completely untethered to their longer siblings. But this year, the shorts, like the longs, are a serious, substantial bunch, with a great many international contenders among them.
Oh, a little cheek slips in here and there. In "Get a Horse," director Lauren MacMullan takes a satirical swipe at the animation form itself by waging a 3-D-versus-2-D, color-versus-black-and-white debate with a little help from Mickey Mouse. And "The Voorman Problem," directed by Mark Gill and starring the very busy Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander, has one of the cleverest conceits I've seen in ages. It considers the concept of deity via a psychiatrist's conversations with a prisoner who thinks he is a god.
But more often this year's nominated shorts frame matters of life and death in more deliberate ways.
Documentaries in particular dig into the darkest corners. In Sara Ishaq's "Karama Has No Walls," the filmmaker exposes the deadly 2011 attack on protesters in Yemen; Jason Cohen's "Facing Fear" follows a gay man's decades-later encounter with one of the neo-Nazis who brutally beat him as a teen. In Edgar Barens' "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall," the focus is on a terminally ill inmate in a maximum-security prison for murder as the end draws near, but the larger question is the aging prison population.
The subjects make Jeffrey Karoff's "CaveDigger," which captures an environmental artist's extraordinary carved sandstone caves and the conflicts with his patrons seem mild, and director Malcolm Clarke's "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life," about the world's oldest Holocaust survivor at 109, is against all odds, pure joyous inspiration.
Whatever is fueling the moods, the contenders are among the most artful and emotional we've had in years. But this is, after all, the height of the awards season, so it seems fitting to single out my favorites from the best of the best.
For the short that I know will stay with me the longest, look to the live-action brilliance of "Helium." From Danish director Anders Walter, it is the story of a young boy in hospice care whose spirits are buoyed by the janitor's magical stories of what lies beyond this world. Not heaven, but Helium, where days are spent on mystical islands that float — like a giant blimp — in a wondrous sea of clouds. The film is almost magical in the way it moves between the reality of the boy's life dimming and the janitor's determination to finish the fable. A great humanity and heart, adeptly underplayed, in every frame.
In animation the competition is so stiff you can't help but wish more of the genre's inventiveness would spill over. The range of artistic styles is vast and the stories are captivatingly varied. There is director Daniel Sousa's "Feral," a vision in black-and-white that follows a child of the woods thrown into the "civilized" world, the boy and the warring ways of life assembling and disassembling around him. In the enchanting tribulations of the very French "Mr. Hublot," directors Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares bring retro-animation whimsy to the eccentric mechanized man in an industrialized world whose isolation is upended by a dog. As the pup's metal keeps morphing beyond his original nuts and bolts, delightful dilemmas abound.
But if I had to choose, and I do, the one that stole my fancy is "Possessions," from Japanese director Shuhei Morita. It begins with a laborer caught in a storm who seeks refuge in a broken-down shrine deep in a forest. The building is filled with objects that take on a spirited life as the shrine magically traps and teases the man with all the discarded disarray. But this is an industrious fellow who sees not detritus but possibility. Watching the reclamation going on in the shape-shifting shrine is a dizzying visual delight, its message about relative value flowing through the visual slipstream.
Documentaries present perhaps the toughest challenge for choice making. There is so much substance within each well-told story. But "The Lady in Number 6" swept me away. The director has a wonderful subject in Alice Herz-Sommer. At 109, when the film was shot, she still lived on her own, still practiced her classical piano favorites for hours each day on the gleaming upright that is the most distinguishing feature of her modest London apartment. Her story began in Prague in 1903 where she was the child of privilege, her memory sharp in remembering Franz Kafka and composer Gustav Mahler's visits to her house. Then World War II, and Hitler's death camps, dismantled that life; her skill at the keyboard saved her. What is extraordinary is not only the music so beautifully played as she sits on that piano bench in No. 6 but that she does not look back in anger.
The live action and animation shorts have just started their pre-Oscar swing through L.A. theaters, with the documentaries due mid-month. Which means you have time to see them all and judge for yourself before Oscar and Ellen (DeGeneres, that is) roll around on March 2 to hand over all that gold.
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