Who says award-season winners have to be epic? If you're looking for an alternative to the lengthy features vying for recognition and box-office glory, ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures have on offer the full slate of 2014 Oscar-nominated short films. Divided into three categories (documentary, animation, live action), each featuring five nominees, the program proves a study in the benefits and limitations of telling a story in a condensed format. That challenge can be daunting, and not every one of the films up for an Academy Award this year meets it. Yet, as argued by one of the many talking-head "hosts" (including Matthew Modine, Peter Webber, and Jim Field Smith) whose interview comments are presented between selections, shorts afford filmmakers a chance to succinctly and stirringly develop one clearly defined idea from beginning to end. Here are this year's ideas:
Constrained runtimes frustrate depth when it comes to this crop of nonfiction nominees, as superficiality hinders all five films' ability to fully examine their subjects. The best of an underwhelming bunch is Cavedigger, director Jeffrey Karoff's portrait of New Mexico artist Ra Paulette, who digs and decorates complex sandstone caves using only hand tools, and whose idiosyncratic hobby at least provides a window onto a unique artistic process. Expect no such distinctive perspective in The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, which takes as its subject the fascinating 109-year-old Alice Herz Sommer — a Holocaust survivor who still tickles the ivories every day — and then loses its focus on her incredible life by distracting itself with her friends' wrenching, but peripheral, concentration camp sagas.
Also skimming the surface is Karama Has No Walls, a depiction of Yemen's bloody 2011 protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. You-are-there footage notwithstanding, the short undercuts its impact by giving no comprehensive context for its material. Facing Fear also boasts what should be gripping subject matter — the unlikely reunion between a gay man and the former neo-Nazi who almost beat him to death as a teenager — and then goes nowhere with it. Meanwhile, the headed-to-HBO Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall strives to elicit empathy for a dying war hero serving a life sentence for murder in Iowa, but it so disingenuously stacks its deck by omitting discussions of Hall's crimes that it proves infuriatingly misguided.
Thankfully, all five animated shorts boast an aesthetic certainty that carries them over their bumpier patches. A new Mickey Mouse short, Get a Horse!, stands as Disney's contribution to the program, while the charming Room on the Broom (voiced by, among others, Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, and Timothy Spall) tells the tale of a witch, her cat, and the unexpected new friends who take up residence on her airborne sweeper. Mr. Hublot doesn't get very far, narratively speaking, but its gorgeous, steampunk-inspired CGI makes it a marvelous-looking ode to the sacrifices any of us might make for a loved one (in this case, a giant mecha-dog). Feral also doesn't traverse novel ground with its wordless fable about a raised-by-wolves boy taken in by a man and introduced to modern society, yet its expressionistic animation — full of figures drawn in sharp lines, and without specific facial features — is gorgeous. Head and shoulders above the rest, however, is the beautiful Japanese animé Possessions, about discarded household objects coming to life, which argues that even things old and shopworn can be of vital value.
In past years, the live-action category has been the weakest of the Oscar-nominated lot, in large part because its fictionalized plots often seem too half-formed to resonate as more than diverting jokes. That's still true with regard to The Voorman Problem — except that Mark Gill and Baldwin Li's futuristic tale of a psychiatrist (Martin Freeman) visiting with a patient (Tom Hollander) who claims to be a god is a sharply written, consistently amusing joke, one that riffs on notions of free will and predestination with a light, devilish touch. Similarly jovial, albeit in a more freewheeling mode, is Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (Pitääkö mun kaikki hoitaa?), Finnish directors Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari's jaunty vignette about a family struggling mightily, and sloppily, to get ready for a wedding.
Grimmer, and not for the better, is That Wasn't Me (Aquel no era yo), Esteban Crespo's account of two Spanish aid workers kidnapped by a group of mercenaries — and, in particular, one murderous child soldier — in an unnamed African country. Framed by a speech given by the now-grown killer kid, it's a pedantic film whose hopefulness feels glib, willed by Crespo rather than organic to the material. Still, that short is preferable to the schmaltz of Helium, but superior to both is the sobering realism of Just Before Losing Everything (Avant que de tout perdre), a bracing mini-drama from Xavier Legrand that tracks an abused wife's efforts, at her superstore place of employment, to make arrangements to abscond with her two kids before her menacing husband can stop her. As exemplified by its stunning final shot of a car fleeing a gas station, it's a sterling work that epitomizes how, at their best, shorts can find piercing suspense and insight amid the everyday.