Every year, audiences watching the Academy Awards take a collective bathroom break whenever the Oscars for Best Animated Short Film, Best Live-Action Short Film, and Best Documentary Short Film are announced, since just about all the nominees in those categories have played only during local film festivals. But over the last few years, that has started to change — this month, all 15 short film nominees are playing in theaters across the country (click here for a list of theaters), and starting on Feb. 25, they will be available on VOD.
Running anywhere between six and 39 minutes long, this year’s crop is especially international in scope, and ranges from madcap animated comedies to harrowing live-action dramas to fascinating documentary portraits. In case you don’t have the time to watch them yourself, here is everything you need to know about them before the Oscars air on March 2 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC.
3. BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
4. Get a Horse!
Nominees: Lauren MacMullan (director) and Dorothy McKim (producer)
Logline: The dastardly Peg-Leg Pete launches Mickey Mouse from his original old-fashioned, hand-drawn, black-and-white world into today’s CG, 3-D animated world.
So how is it? If you’ve seen any of the short film nominees, it’s likely this one, since it’s been playing ahead of Disney’s (also Oscar nominated) animated feature Frozen. And if you’ve seen it, you know this is an insanely fun caper that captures the spirit of the classic Mickey Mouse shorts.
5. Mr Hublot
Nominees: Laurent Witz (director and writer) and Alexandre Espigares (co-director)
Logline: A steampunk-y, OCD shut-in has his life turned upside-down after he takes in a mechanical stray dog.
So how is it? This visually stunning and inventive film builds to a satisfying and funny pay-off. I especially loved the weird detail of the numbers that tick off in the titular character’s head that appear to measure his level of OCD pique.
Nominee: Shuhei Morita (director)
Logline: A medieval Japanese handyman takes shelter from a rainstorm in a shrine tucked away in the forest, and proceeds to hallucinate interactions with the centuries-old forgotten possessions inside it. Or does he?
So how is it? The two-and-a-half-dimensional style of animation creates some wild, fantastical imagery, but the story is thin, even for a short.
Nominees: Daniel Sousa (director and writer) and Dan Golden (producer and composer)
Logline: A feral boy discovered in the woods by a hunter struggles to adjust to life in civilization.
So how is it? More impressionistic than the logline suggests, the film’s painterly animation style is more impactful than the filmmakers’ decision to resolve their film with intellectualized abstraction over concrete emotion.
8. Room on the Broom
Nominees: Max Lang (director and writer) and Jan Lachauer (director)
Logline: This adaptation of a popular 2003 British children’s book follows a witch who takes in an orphaned dog, bird, and frog, much to the dismay of the witch’s cat.
So how is it? The story, a sweet parable about adoption, doesn’t really support this short’s TV-friendly length, but I did love the tactile, storybook look of the animation.
9. BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM
10. Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
Nominees: Xavier Legrand (director and writer) and Alexandre Gavras (producer)
Logline: A mother, scrambling to escape her abusive husband with her children, hides out at the supermarket where she works.
So how is it? I was so riveted as I was watching this film, I only had the presence of mind to scribble this into my notes: “Fucking intense.” Masterfully directed and acted, this one of the best, and most nerve-wracking, films nominated for an Oscar this year, at any length.
11. The Voorman Problem
Nominees: Mark Gill (director, writer, and editor) and Baldwin Li (writer, producer, composer, and editor)
Logline: Sherlock and The Hobbit franchise star Martin Freeman plays a psychiatrist tasked with evaluating the titular prisoner (Tom Hollander), who believes himself to be a god. And he can prove it.
So how is it? This witty, fleet Twilight Zone-like story is almost too short, which makes me hope the filmmakers are planning a feature-length version.
12. Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
Nominees: Selma Vilhunen (director and editor) and Kirsikka Saari (writer)
Logline: An exasperated mother scrambles to get her family to a wedding in their Finnish town on time.
So how is it? A very quick sketch of a film that is exactly the length it should be, with a pretty damn funny ending.
13. Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Nominee: Esteban Crespo (director and writer)
Logline: A pair of Spanish doctors run afoul of a warlord in Africa — and one of his child soldiers.
So how is it? Grim and violent, it certainly packs a punch. But it feels like the filmmakers spent too much time on the (not quite convincing) spectacle of warfare and not nearly enough on genuine character development.
Nominees: Anders Walter (director and writer) and Kim Magnusson (producer)
Logline: A hospital janitor befriends a Danish boy with a terminal illness and spins a tale of a magical alternative to heaven called Helium, “where sick kids go to get their strength back.”
So how is it? It’s hard to criticize a film about a dying kid, no matter how manipulative the story ultimately becomes — and this film could likely serve as a balm to anyone going through a similar ordeal.
15. BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT FILM
16. Karama Has No Walls
Nominee: Sara Ishaq (director, producer, and editor)
Logline: On March 18, 2011, known as the Friday of Karama (i.e. Dignity), the ongoing protests against the regime in Yemen drew a violent response that ultimately killed 53 people.
So how is it? Cutting between street-level video of the protests and violent crackdown, and interviews with the cameramen, their families, and other victims, this documentary does not flinch from the gruesome realities of the Arab Spring. What it may lack in political clarity, it more than makes up for in visceral authenticity.
17. Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
Nominee: Edgar Barens
Logline: At a state penitentiary in Iowa, a group of fellow inmates volunteering at the prison’s in-house hospice care look after a dying WWII vet and former P.O.W., George William “Jack” Hall, serving a life sentence for killing the drug dealer that got one of his sons fatally addicted to heroin.
So how is it? A sober, thoughtful, and unsentimental portrait of incarcerated men striving to be better inside prison than they were outside. (The film will premiere on HBO on March 31.)
Nominee: Jeffrey Karoff (director and producer)
Logline: This is a portrait of Ra Paulette, an artist who carves within the sandstone rocks of vast, sui generis caves in northern New Mexico. At times, his obsessive dedication to his work puts him at odds with the owners of the land on which he’s building those caves (and are paying him for the privilege).
So how is it? Paulette’s creations are genuinely gorgeous, but the real draw here is the man himself: a complicated, stubborn, and possibly ingenious man fiercely determined to live his life as an artist, even if very few people see him as one.
19. Facing Fear
Nominee: Jason Cohen (director and producer)
Logline: Matthew Boger was a 13-year-old gay kid living on the streets who fell victim to a gang of Neo Nazi punks who beat him within an inch of his life in an alleyway in West Hollywood, Calif. Twenty-five years later, Boger encountered one of those men, Timothy Zaal, and the two ended up forging a most unlikely friendship.
So how is it? This powerful story of true forgiveness smartly dials down the cinematic bells and whistles so common in documentary filmmaking today.
20. The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Nominees: Malcolm Clarke (director and writer) and Nicholas Reed (producer)
Logline: The oldest living survivor of the Holocaust at 109 (when the documentary was filmed), former concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer still brilliantly plays the piano every day — as the title plainly states, the instrument kept her alive, literally and psychologically.
So how is it? It’s a fascinating study of the importance of willful optimism — some may call it denial — in the face of the most unimaginable horrors.
UPDATE: Herz-Sommer died on Feb. 23. She was 110.
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