As I said when I reviewed The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animation, watching a feature-length anthology of unrelated shorts can be a disorienting experience: the stylistic and tonal shifts can deliver a nasty case of cinematic whiplash. And what was true of the animated shorts is doubly true of The Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action, which—this year—run the gamut from harmlessly amusing trifles t0 horrifying, rape-and-violence-filled war stories. (A note for parents: while the theatrical presentation of the animated films is safe for all ages, the live-action package is very adult fare.)
I can't claim to be an expert in the medium—I've only been watching the shorts for a few years now, since they became more widely available in theaters and via streaming services—but I have to say that (with a couple of exceptions) this year's batch does not, overall, strike me as a strong one. With at least two of the films, I have to believe there were better and more interesting options available for the coveted Oscar slots. Of the other three, one is a powerful but highly problematic piece of filmmaking; one is a charming and heartstring tugging success; and the third—worth the price of admission by itself—is an unqualified triumph.
From Finland comes Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, directed by Selma Vilhunen. The shortest of the entries—at just seven minutes—it's also the thinnest: a mother wakes up to discover the entire family is disastrously late for a wedding, and hilarity ensues. It creates some genuinely funny moments out of harried domestic chaos—the last minute outfits the children settle upon as formal wear are a nice touch—but it feels a little like the first five minutes of Four Weddings and a Funeral with a few more characters. Vilhunen demonstrates a deft and quirky enough comic sensibility that I'm curious to see more of her work, but ultimately this is a one-joke sketch.
Disappointing, also—especially considering its star power—is Mark Gill's The Voorman Problem, in which Martin Freeman plays a prison psychiatrist called in to deal with an inmate (Tom Hollander) who claims to be a god. Both stars are excellent, the setup is intriguing, and there is at least one amusingly clever idea—all I'll say is "Belgium"—in the execution. But Gill has a better directorial aesthetic than he has an ear for dialogue, and at 13 minutes the promising premise gets crammed into what feels like a truncated and substandard episode of The Twilight Zone.
Expertly directed and acted, but nonetheless a clunking misfire, is Spanish director Estaban Crespo's That Wasn't Me, a horrifying 24-minute story of two European relief workers (Alejandra Lorente and Gustavo Salmerón) taken hostage by a warlord (Babou Cham) and his child soldiers in an unnamed African country. The experience of watching That Wasn't Me is admittedly harrowing, but that's partially because the film is so manipulatively brutal and melodramatic. Crespo and his excellent cast achieve a powerful—even punishing—realism, but it's all in service of a ham-fisted, overly simple parable of atrocity and forgiveness that strays painfully into territory of black savages and white saviors. On the evidence of this, Crespo—like Gill, perhaps—is a better director than he is a writer. (Historically, of course, the Academy has adored tales of saintly white heroes bringing hope to darker peoples, so I won't be surprised if That Wasn't Me wins the trophy on Oscar night.)
Also emotionally manipulative—but in a good way, this time—is Danish director Anders Walter's Helium. Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbaek) is a terminally ill boy whose biggest concern about dying is that Heaven sounds so dull; Enzo (Casper Crump) is the hospital custodian who regales Alfred with tales of an alternate, much more colorful and appealing afterlife called Helium. Though "dying child" automatically promises tearjerker—and Walter delivers very effectively on that promise—Helium is also funny, and charming, and balances its treacly and melancholic elements very well. (Personally, I am undecided about Walter's decision to realize the magical world Enzo describes on-screen—the CGI vistas took me out of the sweet and authentic relationship Helium develops and a little too far into What Dreams May Come phoniness—but it's a small quibble.) And both leads are so good that Helium made me think for the first time about the particular challenges of acting in short films: we don't have time to learn much about either of them, but it is impressive how quickly Krusbaek and Crump create real, emotionally rich characters with inner lives and backstories we can easily imagine beyond what the film provides.
Far and away the best of the nominees—and a ridiculously promising directorial debut—is Xavier Legrand's Just Before Losing Everything.The film begins—intriguingly, and confidently—in mystery, as we watch a mother, Miriam (Léa Drucker, tremendous here) nervously picking up her two children and ushering them somewhere in a hurry. Legrand admirably lets us feel the mounting urgency and dread before we know what it means, but this, we soon realize, is the day Miriam has finally arranged to flee her abusive husband. Just Before Losing Everything is remarkable for the way it does not attempt to deal with all of the momentous issues at its core, but instead channels and encapsulates them through the minute details and terrifying obstacles of mundane, moment-to-moment concerns. Though the story takes place over a few hours, the 29-minute film feels like we are watching, in real-time, this one sustained, frenzied instant when—as its ambiguous title implies—absolutely everything will change one way or another. Beautifully executed, emotionally intense, and without a single wasted frame, Just Before Losing Everything is a masterpiece of compressed, immediate tension, and a perfect example of how effective the short form can be.