Thursday, February 27, 2014

One... er, Three Categories at a Time: The Shorts

For the last several years, Shorts International has done an excellent job at bringing the Oscar nominated short to theatres and other online outlets so that ordinary plebeians like myself can actually see all the entries in these once marginalized categories. There's something to be said for the creative liberation that many filmmakers enjoy when working with a shorter format, and this year's strong crop of mini-movies certainly verifies that. At the end of the day, good storytelling knows no length.

In Best Animated Short, we have a showdown shaping up that's not too dissimilar from what we saw last year: a studio heavyweight squaring off against four independent productions. With last year's rule change allowing the entire membership to vote, Disney's well promoted and hugely popular Paperman was always the heavy favourite to win, which it did, despite my superstitious refusal to predict it. I won't be making the same mistake this year. Even though everyone in AMPAS receives a screener featuring all five nominees, Get a Horse! is still probably the one that most voters (even those who haven't bothered to pop in their DVDs) have seen by default, having screened ahead of the box office smash Frozen. That makes it the defacto frontrunner, but let's not assume the race over and done with. As innovative as its technique is, the purely comedic gag toon might strike some as too slight to deserve an Oscar. If enough people actually watch their screeners, then there's more than a decent chance that any of the other four could triumph.

The whimsical and imaginative steam punk design elements of Mr. Hublot could be enough to impress Academy members on technical merit alone, and that's before considering its cute and charming story of an OCD person (or, robot?... egg-timer man?... I'm not sure) who adopts an abandoned dog (also of the mechanical variety). Very creative world-building in this one.

Or perhaps they'll be most impressed (as I was) with Feral, which I think is heads and shoulders above the rest of the lot both in terms of content and form. It's impressionistic charcoal-like animation makes for some extraordinary and abstract images (to say nothing of its use of sound), but those very abstractions will probably bar it from defeating more accessible fare. Under the old voting system, however, I would have pegged this for the win.

Possessions, part of Japan's Short Peace omnibus, uses a method similar to last year's Paperman of painting over computer-rendered animation with hand drawings. Its story seems perhaps a bit too culturally specific to have earned the nomination on those merits, but it's doing such imaginative things with visual design and atmosphere, that it's unsurprising to see the animation branch spring for it.

Arguably the weakest of the group would be Room on the Broom, and BBC kids television special from the creators of 2010's Oscar nominated The Gruffalo. The animation is not particularly striking and the simplistic narrative makes it hard to imagine anyone over the age of six being all that captivated by it. How do these guys keep getting nominated?

Will win: Get a Horse!
Runner-up: Mr. Hublot

Should win: Feral
Should've been nominated: Hollow Land

The Best Live-Action Short crop is as strong as its been in years, and the result is a race which any of the nominees could conceivably win. The one I'm rooting for is Just Before Losing Everything, a superb French thriller about a woman and her children attempting to flee a violent husband. The elegant, implicit exposition of story and tight construction of tension embodies the best of what a short format offers (even though it's the lengthiest of the five, at 30 minutes).

But maybe voters will be more impacted by the powerful child soldier drama That Wasn't Me. Its production values alone make a strong case for it, although being such a relentless downer might turn off more squeamish viewers.

If they're in the mood for a tearjerker, Helium would be the one to beat. The touching tale of a hospital janitor who comforts a dying boy with stories of a fantastical afterlife tugs mighty hard on the heartstrings, but sometimes that's just the ticket in this category.

Sometimes, comedy can turn the trick, as it did for recent winners The New Tenants and God of Love. That sort of mood would bode well for Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, a fleet six-minute gag with a punchline that sets itself apart from the crowd for being all laughs.

But the one I'm going out on is The Voorman Problem. The witty, intriguing short about a psychiatrist evaluating a prison inmate who believes himself to be a god feautres well known British actors Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander, and is the only one of the five with no subtitles. As much as I hate to boil it down to superficial factors like those (and I hope the Academy proves me wrong on this), they could be advantageous when looking to appeal to a broad mainstream organization.

Don't take this prediction as written in stone. I may change it right up until just before the show, but I'll post it if I do.

Will win: The Voorman Problem UPDATE: Helium
Runner-up: The Voorman Problem

Should win: Just Before Losing Everything
Should've been nominated: Record/Play

Over in Best Documentary Short,which is the only category whose nominees I've not yet seen, things are no easier to anticipate. The one that I, and most pundits, seem to be predicting on subject matter alone is The Lady in Number 6: How Music Saved My Life. It chronicles the life and times of Alice-Herz Sommer, the oldest Holocaust survivor at 109 years of age when the film was shot, who avoided death in concentration camps because she was a talented pianist who could entertain her Nazi captors. Sadly, Ms. Sommer passed away just this past Sunday at 110 years old.

Other docs in the category feature topics that are a bit more current, including violent Arab Spring protests in Yemen (Karama Has No Walls), rehabilitating men in prison (Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall), modern art (CaveDigger), and the unlikely friendship between a gay man and one of his past assailants (Facing Fear). But it serves little purpose in analyzing these films sight-unseen, so all I can do in the time being is guess.

Will win: The Lady in Number 6
Runner-up: Karama Has No Walls

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