Movies, Reviews

Oscar Shorts 2014: Live Action

For those of you new within the past year to this blog, one of my personal traditions is to watch & review the Oscar-nominated short films each year (2012, 2013). There’s a local theater in Seattle (the Harvard Exit, now–it use to be at the Varsity) that plays both the animated and live-action shorts before the Academy Awards each year, and I’ve found that having at least two categories in which I’ve seen every single nominee is a lovely experience. So, without further ado, the live-action short films of the Oscars for 2014! Animated films coming next week.

1. Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)

Starting right off the bat, we have what was decidedly the darkest tale of the bunch. Aquel No Era Yo is a short film from Spain that tells the story of a Spanish couple captured by soldiers in a child militia, where one of them is murdered and the other raped before she escapes, taking one of the child-soldiers with her. The whole story is told in retrospect by that child soldier (he’s the “me” referred to in the title), now grown and attending University in Spain, where he’s sharing his experiences with a lecture hall full of people. It’s a brutal film that pulls no punches, which makes it both hard to watch and hard to forget.

With such a dramatic subject matter, coupled with fabulous acting (particularly from the kids) and some gorgeous camera work, it’s easy to see why this film was nominated. However, I came out of it feeling distinctly irritated with the lopsidedness of the story line. Every year, there’s a film about atrocities happening in the third world, but they all still focus on the trials of a Western observer of those atrocities, and this film was no different. The depiction of the child militia was horrifying and gripping, but it gave no insight into the conditions that gave rise to it; we get to see a lot of black boys brutalizing and being brutalized, but we don’t get to learn what they believe they’re fighting for; we see the Spanish woman rescuing the child soldier, but we don’t get to learn anything about his life either before or after that rescue. In fact, the film doesn’t even make it clear where in Africa it’s set–I Googled it later, and even the official website just says “an African country” (though the film was inspired by a quote from a former child soldier from Sierra Leone). Despite its ambition, this film doesn’t say anything new–just feeds into a lot of existing stereotypes.

Also, to those of you with triggers: there is a mostly uncensored rape scene in this film, plus on-screen murder.

2. Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)

Despite the considerably higher-stakes subject matter in the above film, Avant Que De Tout Perdre (France) gets my personal award for most intense film in this list. It drops you directly into the most harrowing morning of this family’s life, as Miriam and her two children attempt to get their paperwork together and flee the city before her physically abusive husband Gaelle realizes they have disappeared. The film happens almost in real time, so you feel the anxiety building for you at the same rate that it builds for the characters. At the end of it, I was as afraid of Gaelle as everybody on screen was, so that by the time he finally appeared, his seemingly normal appearance took on a fearsome quality that I felt was really effective.

However, I do think this film suffers from too little information in the beginning. Had I known what the basic theme was beforehand I would have enjoyed it more, I think; as it was, it took me nearly ten minutes to figure out what they were running from. At one point I legitimately considered the possibility that this was a family with magical powers who were rushing to do their duty elsewhere (that might seem silly, but last year there was a film about time travel, so anything is possible). Once I’d sorted out the plot, it became infinitely more intense. I think it’s a real testament to the storytelling prowess of Xavier Legrand that he was able to so fully capture the anxiety of this family and transfer it to the audience, with so little back story. Avant Que De Tout Perdre is essentially a slice-of-life story, but the slice it focuses on is terrifying and all too commonplace. This is the one that most deserves the Oscar, in my opinion.

3. Helium

This was my favorite of the nominated films this year, by sheer virtue of its adorableness. Helium (Denmark) focuses on a terminally ill boy, Alfred, and the new hospital janitor Enzo, who befriends him. Albert says that he doesn’t want to die because he thinks Heaven sounds boring, and so Enzo invents an alternate Heaven for him, called ‘Helium,’ where he will live on a floating island and get to play soccer all day, and ride in zeppelins. Their bond grows stronger as Albert’s condition deteriorates, and Enzo ultimately gets fired for unprofessionalism, but not before his stories restore hope to the sick ward.

Despite its incredibly sappy story line and blatant use of terminal illness to increase gravitas, Helium wins all the awards in my book for being affecting as hell. The world that Enzo invents for Albert is so perfectly suited to him that it’s easy to forget about the questionable ethical implications of a janitor sneaking into a sick child’s room without his parents’ permission. Plus, his stories are rendered beautifully, if somewhat cartoonishly, through a series of imaginative special effects dream sequences that allow us a glimpse into Albert’s rich inner life, where he isn’t confined to his bed. It even managed to have a happy ending, despite inevitably ending with Albert’s death. Basically this movie won me over with the cute factor, despite its many flaws. All together now: awwww.

4. Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)

In the face of all the serious subjects of the above films (child militias, domestic abuse, terminal illness in children), you might think that this film is horribly out of place, and you would be right. Every year, one oddly short, comedic film weasels its way in among all the dramatic Oscar-bait-y ones, and this year Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa (Finland) is that film. It follows the frantic morning routine of a small family as they desperately prepare to attend a wedding, hindered by a million different things going wrong. They wake up late; their clothes get dirty; they lose the wedding present; they miss the bus–one thing after another, with an almost Three Stooges-esque piling-on of slapstick situations until you’re giggling despite yourself.

Suffice it to say that this is a very silly little film. It hasn’t any depth or substance whatsoever. It was, however, a breath of fresh air after the deadly seriousness of the other films, and it made me smile quite a lot. Its main selling point was in the flawless facial expressions of its leading actress, Joanna Haartti, who somehow manages to look both intensely irritated and amused throughout the film. In the end, I found myself thinking that this was a family I’d love to hang out with, because they can really roll with the punches. Aside from that, though, not much is on offer here.

5. The Voorman Problem

Last but not least, we come to the film that taught me I can recognize Martin Freeman by the back of his head, which is what The Voorman Problem (UK) opens on. The problem is this: Voorman, an inmate, believes himself to be god, and he has convinced all the other inmates to worship him thusly. Martin Freeman (ahem, I mean Doctor Williams, but let’s be honest, who really cares what the character’s name is) is a psychiatrist charged with declaring Voorman legally insane so that the prison can foist him off on the asylum instead. It turns out, however, that Voorman actually is god, and a total dick besides, and he just fucks with Martin’s head a bunch. Belgium is involved.

The Voorman Problem is pretty clearly one of those films that believes itself to be deep and philosophical, capable of shaking the very foundations of the human experience, when in fact it’s so shallow it requires a “no diving” sign. I’m sure there are people whose minds would be blown by the existential implications of this story, but they are the same people who think “what if I’m actually in a coma, and this is ALL A DREAM???” is an interesting philosophical question. If you’ve given any thought at all to the curiosities of existence, this is not a movie that is going to impress you. That said, it still stars Martin Freeman, playing the usual character, and it’s pretty entertaining, so it’s not a waste of time either. I wouldn’t call it Oscar-worthy, but maybe it was slim pickings this year. Oh well.

Live in living color,
M.M. Jordahl

“I acted in a couple friends’ short films and thought I was gonna be really good and mysterious and sexy. And I was just terrible and self-aware.” -Max Winkler

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