Behold Oscar's shorts

Little ones

Get a Horse: Look back in wonder — and also dismay.
  • Get a Horse: Look back in wonder — and also dismay.

Another Oscar season, another opportunity to wonder aloud why it is that, in this age of supposedly dwindling attention spans, there has not been an explosion of interest in the short-film form. Tired of formulaic features that have to hit their five-act beats or ride their dramatic arcs or cover their four quadrants or whatever it is they’re doing besides showing and telling a good story? Then why not head over to the Ken this weekend to sample the more varied fare on display in this year’s Oscar-nominated short films?

There probably isn’t much point in trying to pick a winner from among the animated offerings, since I haven’t had a chance to see Get a Horse, Disney’s nod to its storied past. (Hey, Mickey!) The Academy may have ignored Saving Mr. Banks, but that concerned Disney the man. What Disney made? That’s the sacred mouse. And besides, 2013’s Pixar short (The Blue Umbrella) was almost as dull and derivative as 2013’s Pixar movie (Monsters University). What’s the Academy gonna do, experiment?

So, surveying the films for which it will have been an honor just to be nominated...

Mr. Hublot wordlessly tells the story of a man, nearly-but-maybe-not-quite-as-mechanical as the steampunk world he inhabits, who allows the incessant, whimpering yaps of a stray (mechanical) pup to overcome his obsessive devotion to neatness and control. (Stray? Doesn’t this world’s robot Bob Barker remind folks to remove the lug nuts on their pets in order to prevent such unwanted contraptions?) The many locks on even the door that leads to his balcony tell you right up front about Hublot’s attitude toward the chaotic world at large. Speaking of large, the grateful and entirely sweet-natured beastie grows apace, which is enough to make you wonder why they bothered to render the world as mechanical in the first place, since machines don’t usually grow when you feed, er, fuel them. Oh, that’s right: for the payoff at the end, a bit of Holy God did the just misdirection that doesn’t quite pay off, given how much it costs. The whole thing is rendered in hypersharp CGI, which makes it the visual opposite of...

Feral, the (similarly wordless) story of a wild boy’s adventures in civilization. Everything here is handmade (or at least looks like it), and the forms are full of shadow and suggestion — a minimum of detail to make room for a maximum of mood. A child’s scrawlings on playground cement provide some of the only color, and it’s for the best: any more would only distract from the flow and shift of the images. The story is rough in several senses: violence of various kinds abounds (wolves devouring their prey, schoolkids mocking an outcast, etc.), and it seems in no hurry to explain itself or lead the viewer to any particular vision. Not everything has to have a point, though, especially when it’s this brief and evocative — which makes it the affective opposite of...

Room on the Broom, a children’s book about flight that is weighted down by its source material. This is one that should have been wordless. I can imagine a child enjoying the book, but no kid needs to hear insipid rhymes telling him (at roughly one-quarter speed) what he’s already seeing enacted onscreen. It’s even worse when it tells him what he is clearly not seeing (a bird’s “ear-splitting shriek” is actually a mild caw, etc.). The story, which concerns a witch who accidentally wakes a hungry dragon, is not nearly as interesting as it might sound. Instead, it goes hard to repeated scenarios, enacted with all deliberation and without nearly enough charm to make this feel like anything but a slog. Perhaps the fact that it debuted as a TV special explains the runtime-on-the-rack feeling, which makes it the structural opposite of...

Possessions, my favorite among the animated also-rans. Sure, its mix of 2-D and 3-D is showy and weirdly unintegrated in places (the hero’s feet never quite seem to touch the ground as he walks through the woods). But it’s also gorgeous, and even the lack of integration feels like a theatrical element, a limitation of the form that gets played for effect. The story verges on folkloric: a fix-it man takes refuge in an abandoned shed during a storm; once inside, he has a series of encounters with the ensouled(!) artifacts inside. Each is more alarming than the last, but our buff handyman is unfazed, and even eager for the experience. And — blessed relief — despite the technical bravado, no single effect or scene gets dragged out past the boring point. Showy without showing off, neither pointless nor pointed — a solid short.

The live-action slate features a trio of heartrending horrors: It Wasn’t Me (child soldiers in Africa), Helium (terminally ill child), and Just Before Losing Everything (wife beating). The last takes the most artful approach, focusing on the mundane complications involved in pulling out of a bad situation before it gets any worse — and without interference from the man who shares your life. The kids have to be taken out of school, the boss has to be informed...oh, and it’d be nice to have a place to land and a little money to get by. So many details; the important thing is not to panic — which is easier said than done. Lea Drucker is excellent as the wife who finds herself relying on her coworkers at the department store to save her from destruction. The look and feel of the film are completely grounded and natural, which makes it the tonal opposite of...

Helium, the story of a hospital orderly who learns that a dying boy fears heaven will be boring. So he sets out to craft a heaven more to the boy’s liking, one full of airships, floating houses, and the kind of air that makes a sick boy well enough to play soccer. Eventually, the sadness of his endeavor threatens to overwhelm him. “I’m telling him lies,” he laments to a sympathetic nurse. “No,” she replies, “You’re giving him hope.” So he presses on toward the end, which, when it comes, is either bold or outrageous, or maybe both. Kindness is the main thing here, which makes it the thematic opposite of...

It Wasn’t Me, a grueling, open-eyed look at brutality. A husband-and-wife team of Spanish doctors get apprehended by a local militia and accused of “stealing” the general’s army of child soldiers. What follows is harrowing and awful and over-the-top, it’s unblinking camera providing only the occasional cut to the present day for respite. In that present, one of the formerly gun-toting children is telling his story to a group of students. It’s what the film has to offer by way of hope: the story can be told. Maybe then it will gain meaning. That’s the only thing separating it from the bleak worldview behind...

The Voorman Problem, which plays like more of an unusually good-looking and star-powered sketch than a short film. Martin Freeman — aka Bilbo Baggins, aka John Watson on the BBC’s Sherlock — plays a head doctor called in to examine the psyche of a prisoner (a superior Tom Hollander) who has convinced his fellows (and himself, apparently) that he is a god. Though the film is adapted from a section of David Mitchell’s novel number9dream, it might just as well have been an angry comedian’s riff on the creationist notion that God created the fossil record just to mess with us about the real age of Earth. Director Mark Gill wisely chooses to end things before they spin out of control, and his chosen method is blackly comic and not a little nasty. Between the tragic force of the first three and the star wattage on display here, it’s hard to believe that anyone noticed...

Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, a sweet and gentle take on familial chaos. As in every sitcom (and, admittedly, much of real life), Mom is called upon to do the heavy lifting when it comes to getting somewhere in something approaching good order and on time. But if Mom is herself a bit scattered — well then, there’s nothing for it but to keep smiling and take the will for the deed. The main thing is love, anyway. I’ll probably end up rooting for this one just because it’s such an underdog.

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