Short films used to be the redheaded stepchild of the Oscars. Not banished to another night — like the awards for scientific and technical achievements — but instead sandwiched between the main attractions of the golden night. The Academy Awards for Best Short Film seemed to offer us homeviewers a chance to refill our wine glasses and popcorn bowls, take bathroom breaks, and talk about the fashion. But the times are a changing. Here's a rundown of this year's crop, which proves that good things come in small packages of 40 minutes or less.
The Animated Films
It's hard to deny that the most eye-catching entry is Disney's Get a Horse!, which was directed by Lauren MacMullen and shown before Frozen. The idea behind the film is to make a brand new hand-drawn cartoon that looks like it came from 1928 and runs into and interacts with its modern 3D CG counterpart. However you feel about the modern part, the "old" cartoon is absolutely remarkable. It could, in fact, pass for a real 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon — complete with the brasher and more fantasticated Mickey and that "rubber-hose" animation style. The Mouse House was able to find enough clips of Walt Disney doing Mickey's voice to cover the whole film, while other original voice artists Billy Bletcher (Peg-Leg Pete) and Marceline Garner (Minnie) were augmented by Will Ryan and Russi Taylor respectively.
- Feral's animation technique utilizes vaguely defined images
While Get a Horse! is certainly noteworthy, my personal favorite is Larurent Witz's and Alexandre Espigares' Mr. Hublot, a co-production of France and Luxembourg. This is a wordless film that's essentially an animated steampunk sci-fi take on French filmmaker Jacques Tati's work — with his M. Hulot reconfigured as the robot Mr. Hublot. Like his flesh-and-blood counterpart, Mr. Hublot is a nice fellow who always means well but for whom few things work right. Considering he lives in a wholly mechanized world where even the flowers are robotic, there's ample room for him to be flummoxed — especially since a simple light switch defeats him. The adoption of Mr. Hublot's puppy (mechanical like him) provides the slender storyline where trouble arises after the robot pup begins to grow far too much and far too qucikly. The film is sweet — and short — but whether this gently whimsical tale will win is another matter.
The other three animated films are a mixed bag. The Japanese entry from Shuhei Morita, Possessions, has the advantage of being very colorful and nice to look at, but even at 14 minutes, it feels rather thin. The British Room on the Broom from Jan Lachauer and Max Lang certainly has its charms, and the voice talents of Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Timothy Spall, and Sally Hawkins help. But the story about a kindly witch who keeps adding to the brood riding on her broom is nothing special, and the animation is pretty standard stuff.
Daniel Sousa's Feral — the American entry — is the only film out of the lot I actively disliked. In the short, wolves rescue a feral child, but the story of domestication via wild animals isn't a new, plus it just isn't done very well. It's done in an animation style I just simply don't like. You may feel differently.
The Live Action Films
While there's no clear standout among the Live Action entries, the British The Voorman Problem is a solid and thought-provoking entry. First-time director Mark Gill has crafted a thoroughly professional film that makes good use of stars Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander. It also manages to keep what could have been a one-joke affair constantly intriguing. The script by Gill and Baldwin Li — drawn from David Mitchell's novel number9dream —contains subtleties that are rare in short films of this type. The set-up is simple: a psychiatrist (Freeman) is called to a prison to (hopefully) certify an inmate (Hollander) who claims to be God as insane. The approach isn't nearly as simple, being both playful and ultimately disconcerting — many thanks to the evil mind games played between the prisonor and the psychiatrist. It's my first choice for winner, but there's competition.
- The Voorman Problem is based on novelist David Mitchell's number9dream
France's Just Before Losing Everything, from writer-director Xavier Legrand, provides the biggest competition for Voorman. This is a subtle work of slowly revealed suspense, brought to intense life as a series of hard-to-fathom events, which reveal that we're spectators to a potentially life-threatening event. Since part of what works about the film lies in its slow-reveal, I'll say no more about the plot, but this is one of the stronger entries.
The Danish Helium by Anders Walter is the most ambitious of the films in terms of special effects. Yes, the story — an orderly in a hospital offers comfort to a dying child with stories of a place called Helium (essentially heaven with zeppelins) — is a little corny and unabashedly manipulative, but the film's final shot is moving and it's well done for what it is. It wouldn't surprise me if it sneaks in to win since, well, schmaltz sells.
Much less successful is Esteban Crespo's That Wasn't Me. This entry from Spain is undeniably well made, and some of it works. Its basic notion of tackling the topic of child soldiers in Africa is powerful stuff, but therein lies the problem. The subject matter is too powerful for a short film. It obviously means well — and manages to be harrowing — but there's a lack of persuasion.
If it's too serious, the Finnish entry from Selma Vilhunen, Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, is too slight. The title is almost as long as the film, which is simply the story of a beleaguered wife trying to get her family to a wedding on time. Everything that can go wrong does and at a frenetic pace. It's pleasant enough, but it's definitely the runt of the litter.
See this year's nominations during the Charleston Film Festival on March 15 at 4 p.m. at the Terrace Theater (1956 Maybank Hwy.) For more information, visit terracetheater.org.