Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Live Action

Finland's comic homage to mothers and a Kafkaesque tale from Britain highlight this year's Oscar-nominated live-action shorts.

Two of this year’s Oscar-nominated live-action shorts are standouts for their welcome brevity and sheer entertainment value: Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? by Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari, and The Voorman Problem by Mark Gill and Baldwin Li.

In the first, a seven-minute film set in a cluttered home, a Finnish wife and mother must awaken her family and get them dressed for a wedding they are to attend that day. For wives and moms the world over, the question posed by the title is rhetorical, although this mom is obviously overwhelmed. When her two daughters are unable to find their party dresses, she discovers them in the wash. Her husband finds his suit on his own, but then soils it; it is “Mom” who suggests he change the shirt and opt for a red tie. As for the girls, they arrive at a delightful solution for not having their party dresses, a testament to the sense of freedom Mom inspires in them. This sweet, humorous homage to the head of the household is also a well-written and directed short subject.

In The Voorman Problem, a Kafkaesque story unfolds at a prison where all of the inmates believe that Voorman (Tom Hollander), one of their number, is God. Dr. Williams (Martin Freeman), a psychiatrist, is called in by the warden to declare Voorman insane. The diagnosis allows him to be transferred to an asylum, which would forestall a prison riot. The doctor asks what crime Voorman committed, and the warden replies that all the prison records were burned; he knows nothing about the inmates. Williams thinks Voorman is delusional, even after the sardonic prisoner provides him with rather convincing proof of his omnipotence—at some cost to, of all people, the Belgians (who recently did without a government for more than a year). The psychiatrist ignores the evidence and gets his comeuppance. A somewhat predictable plot is nevertheless cleverly realized by the British filmmakers; while the short maintains a darkly atmospheric tone, there are also wonderful touches of humor.

An equally terrifying tale of a different sort is Just Before Losing Everything, by Xavier Legrand (who appeared in Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants) and Alexandre Gavras. In their nail-biting 29-minute French film, a mother (Léa Drucker) suddenly decides that she and her two children can no longer live with her abusive husband. Miriam takes her son and daughter to work with her in order to wait for her sister who is coming to their aid. While she completes the required paperwork in the presence of her sympathetic co-workers, Miriam also changes from her retail store uniform into her street clothes. The bruises on her body tell a story of longstanding violence, although Miriam is reluctant to press charges. This socially conscious plot is undermined by the filmmakers, who mine it for thrills. Also, one wonders: What is it that Miriam loses? The French title, Avant Que de Tout Perdre, which appears to be accurately translated, perversely questions Miriam’s decision rather than underlining her courage.

Helium, by Anders Walter and former Oscar short subject winner Kim Magnusson (with Anders Thomas Jensen for 1999’s Election Night), is a melancholy tale about a dying boy, although the filmmakers’ motives may have been to inspire or comfort people in these circumstances. This 23-minute film from Denmark features excellent performances by the co-stars, the child and the adult hospital worker who eases his demise. Named for an invented paradise, Helium is visually stunning, but because it continually shifts from the boy’s point-of-view to that of the adult, the film dilutes the emotional impact of its subject matter.

An equally ineffective encounter between child and adult is portrayed in Esteban Crespo’s That Wasn’t Me. This 24-minute film from Spain is about two doctors in an unnamed African country who become prisoners of a despotic guerrilla leader. It is difficult to know whether the filmmaker intends to portray the tragic consequences of such work or the evils of child soldiering, as the doctors and their driver are taken at gunpoint by adolescent boys in the guerrilla army. The film is more a treatment for a TV docudrama than a short subject.