How many children in peril can we possibly see? That is a common theme in the Academy Award-nominated live-action short films every year. If it’s not cancer, it’s school shootings. If it’s not abusive parents, it’s Nazis. If it’s not sweatshops, it’s child soldiers. Many of the shorts in the live-action category typically have an agenda of some sort, usually to promote a charity by bumming you the heck out. So it’s kind of a relief to see that the short’s in this year’s live-action category are a little less heavy-handed than usual. One is an outright comedy, one is a Twilight Zone episode, and one, well, just happens to be an excellent movie under any circumstances.
Here are the five films nominated for Best Live-Action short:
Helium (dir. Anders Walter, Denmark)
The program starts with a boy with cancer, doomed to die, and the touchy new-hire orderly who discusses the afterlife with him, creating a steampunk version of Heaven (called Helium) that the boy seems to like better than the angels-and-salvation version. Heavy-handed, manipulative, and once again putting children in peril, this film represents almost everything that’s wrong with the short film form. Not that the acting isn’t great, and the filmmaking isn’t competent, I’m just increasingly uncomfortable with watching children slowly die.
The Voorman Problem (dir. Mark Gill, England)
Possessed of the highest pedigree, The Voorman Problem stars Martin Freeman as a skeptical shrink who is asked to interview a prisoner named Voorman (Tom Hollander) who claims to be a god, if not the God. And while Voorman sounds like a rambling madman, and Freeman doesn’t believe him, there is something supernatural going on. The film plays a lot like a Twilight Zone episode, including a big twist ending, making it one of the more entertaining shorts of the lot.
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (dir. Selma Vilhunan, Finland)
It’s been said by frustrated shorts directors that the form’s brief length requires a “telling a joke” approach. There is only enough time for a setup, and a “punchline.” That is certainly true of the comedic Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, which is a trifling little 7-minute film about a bustling morning in a suburban Finnish home as a family gets ready for a wedding. And then there’s a punchline. And that’s pretty much it. There’s nothing to really recommend this film.
That Wasn’t Me (dir. Esteban Crespo, Spain)
Perhaps the shoo-in for winner, and easily my least favorite film of the lot, That Wasn’t Me is an Amnesty International-backed tale of child soldiers in Africa. This is a film narrated by a former child soldier, and contains children murdering people, a dangerous freedom fighter cult leader, an on-screen rape (that the main character gets to watch), and a young boy being shot deliberately through the leg, only to wail in agony. That Wasn’t Me is a manipulative tearjerker “message” film of the most grating order. It also has the most salient political message and the highest production values, so it will likely snag the award.
Just Before Losing Everything (dir. Xavier Legrand, France)
Not only is Just Before Losing Everything the best film of this year’s nominees, but it’s also just a good movie. It’s 29 minutes, but it tells one of the most quietly desperate tales of a relationship ever put to film, and perhaps outlines a situation some of us may have been in. A middle-aged mom (Léa Drucker) wrangles her two kids in the middle of the day and takes them to work. There is an unspoken conspiracy in their eyes. She talks to her boss. It’s only through gradual revelations that we see she is trying to leave town without her perhaps-abusive husband catching wind. “Just pack up and leave him” has never seemed like such a tension-driven and harrowing ordeal, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat, your heart beating fast for this woman and the family she is trying to rescue.