It's Academy Awards season, and that means all you city slickers out there should head to your nearest fancy independent theater and take in 2014's five nominees for Best Live Action Short Film. A grab bag of comedy and drama, tears and...well, more tears, the shorts offer a handful of filmmaking perspectives that don't usually get the thumbs up from Hollywood bigwigs. Each nominee is preceded by a bit of banter from feature-film folk on the power of the short film. This series of never-ending cliches is moderately acceptable when coming from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, but it's near-embarrassing when similar takes start coming in from the director of What Happens in Vegas or Matthew Modine in a jean jacket. Whether the goal is to pad the length or give some creative types the chance for a nice circle-jerk, it's a sad misfire.
Luckily, the films themselves don't disappoint. The best of the five turned out to be Avant Que De Tout Perdre, French for Just Before Losing Everything. A woman (Léa Drucker) plans to flee from her husband during an otherwise nondescript workday. We're privy to all the minutiae of her decision: Gathering up her children, putting in her notice, asking for an advance on her final paycheck, organizing a ride to safety with her sister. What isn't discussed is why: Aside from a few briefly visible bruises and several offhand comments from her kids, their backstory isn't elaborated upon. Only a glimpse is offered of the husband himself. But a deep fear is palpable throughout its 29 minutes, and the ending reminded me of Michael Haneke's Caché in its quiet open-endedness. It's a nearly perfect short film, and I can't stop thinking about it.
The other standout was Helium, a Danish production on another harrowing subject: The death of a child. The main character, a Brett Gelman lookalike named Enzo, befriends a sick boy and offers him another afterlife option (the aforementioned Helium) as a stand-in for the unimpressive-sounding Heaven. It can be a little too sweet and predictable at times, but the emotions conjured up feel real. The best shorts offer a snippet of existence without too much forced clutter, and Helium's two stars (Casper Crump as Enzo and Pelle Falk Krusbæk as the boy) create fully formed people that seem to exist beyond the world of the short.
Coming up a little lame was The Voorman Problem, which also happened to star the biggest names (at least to Western audiences). Martin Freeman plays a psychiatrist called upon to examine Voorman, a prisoner who believes he is God. Surprise surprise, Voorman (Tom Hollander from In the Loop) lives up to the hype; hijinks then ensue (including the deletion of a country). It's an interesting premise, but one that probably requires more than 13 minutes of runtime. The excitement of seeing John Watson walk up to the prison doors is quickly tempered by how soon The Voorman Problem wraps up into a neat little package.
It was also tough to get behind Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn't Me), an intense but ultimately unimpressive look at child soldiers. Three Spanish aid workers are captured by an African "general" and his "men," many of whom are quite young. Their harrowing interactions are interrupted with present-day commentary from one of the children, who's grown up to become a functioning (and deeply apologetic) member of society. The violence was shocking in its abruptness, but I felt like a puppet whose strings were being openly tugged upon. Addressing a topic like this in 30 minutes or less feels sort of cheap: With no time to develop characters or any real substance, you can only touch on all the shocking bits and move on. For all its good intentions, Aquel No Era Yo just didn't quite fit the mold.
Thank god the compilation ended with Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), a little Finnish ditty about a family haphazardly rushing to prepare for a wedding. It's exactly what's needed to cleanse the palate after nearly two hours of depressing glimpses into the harsh realities of human existence (spousal abuse, death, gods in human bodies). After the Fins spend a couple of enjoyable minutes running around, forgetting things and spilling drinks on each other, everyone accepts their collective failings and hugs. It probably won't win the Oscar, but "good" doesn't have to go hand-in-hand with "depressing" or "dramatic." Anything that can make you laugh (or cry) in 7 minutes is worthy of praise.