Most moviegoers don’t pay short films any attention, except perhaps when filling out their Oscar ballots, which surely explains why ShortsHD seizes the opportunity of its annual theatrical Academy-nominated shorts programs to tubthump so heavily for the format itself, interjecting soundbites from brevity-inclined storytellers like Matthew Modine and 2013 winner Shawn Christensen (“Curfew”) between the live-action contenders. But such self-promotion can’t disguise the fact that, with one exception — Xavier LeGrand’s “Just Before Losing Everything” — this global sampling indicates a middling crop this year, representing the promise of what these filmmakers might do in the future over excellence in the present.
After sitting through a handful of polite remarks from filmmakers who have either made shorts or simply agreed to be interviewed (“12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen shares thoughts on the artistic process), audiences start their journey with Danish nominee “Helium,” a terminal-illness fable directed by Anders Walter, back with a more Oscar-baity offering after being short-listed a year earlier for the similarly sentimental “9 Meters.” Hewing a bit too closely to past nominees “At Night” and “Wish 143,” “Helium” concerns the unique connection between a sick child named Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbaek) and unlikely friend Enzo (Casper Crump), an above-and-beyond hospital orderly who breaks into a closed ward to tell the boy fantastical stories about a floating world where he’ll go after dying.
While Enzo’s tales don’t impress us quite as easily as they do Alfred, his descriptions are nicely illustrated via solid vfx work, and beautifully scored by the helmer’s twin brother, Rasmus. While the message is unabashedly mawkish — “Yes, Virginia, there is a heaven, and it’s filled with CG airships” — Walter’s short wastes no time in establishing memorable characters and demonstrates keen directing instincts missing in many first-time features. The director may be playing to the Academy’s soft spot, but it could well pay off by earning him some work in Hollywood.
A slick, carefully calibrated one-off with similar calling-card potential, Mark Gill’s “The Voorman Problem” originated as a segment in “Cloud Atlas” author David Mitchell’s novel “number9dream.” Whereas another director might have boiled the same concept down to a one-minute TV commercial, Gill lets the episode breathe, setting the tone with tango music and pacing what follows like a scene from a full-length feature, building to a nice, glib twist. It’s well done as “Twilight Zone”-style offerings go — a tense, darkly comedic two-hander between a psychiatrist (Martin Freeman) and an eccentric mental patient (Tom Hollander) who believes he’s God. Gill originally approached Kevin Spacey for one of the roles, which is curious, considering the vaguely “K-Pax”-like plot, but his work with these two actors shows real promise and satisfies a goal too few shorts accomplish, which is to leave us wanting more.
French short “Just Before Losing Everything” takes the prize in the high-tension department, however. This truly astonishing piece of storytelling offers early clues that something is amiss, while withholding traditional exposition as long as possible. Gradually, through a sequence of naturalistically observed scenes, we come to understand that working-class mother Miriam (Lea Drucker) has pulled her kids out of school and is staging a getaway, though we don’t yet know from what, our involvement growing increasingly breathless with each reveal.
Adapting techniques from such world-class masters as Michael Haneke and the Dardenne brothers to form his own style, director Legrand (an actor who appeared in “Au revoir les enfants” as a child) trusts in audiences to unpack scenes rich in subtext, holding on charged moments within which he relies on his lead actress to generate the suspense. At first, Miriam’s panic could pass for paranoia as she skittishly hides out at her supermarket job, but further details — including bruise marks glimpsed when she changes into her work uniform — reveal the domestic horror from which she’s trying to escape. In France, the short received a standalone theatrical release, and of the five nominees, it’s the only one substantial enough to justify that treatment.
Academy voters may feel the same way about “That Wasn’t Me,” an unnerving look at the issue of child soldiers in Africa that won Spain’s Goya last year and arrives with political backing from various NGOs. While somewhat familiar in style and a bit heavy-handed in tone, the short surprises by shifting from a white-centric p.o.v. — in which understandably nervous Spanish aid workers (played by Alejandra Lorente and Gustavo Salmeron) are kidnapped and threatened by an African warlord (Babou Cham) and his child army — to that of brainwashed young Kaney (Juan Tojaka), who gets the rare opportunity to escape his situation and re-evaluate his actions as an adult (Mariano Nguema). Shot in just four days by writer-director Esteban Crespo, the film packs a lot of excitement into its 25-minute running time, including a spectacular military raid boosted with CG explosions. Although the story is presented as the personal testimony of a reformed child soldier, there’s a generic, slightly pulpy quality to the end product, which draws attention to an important issue without necessarily revealing anything new about it.
While frothier than the others, Finnish director Selma Vilhunen’s “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” embodies the sort of amusing distraction that might actually convince audiences to watch more short films. An entertaining comedic piece in which an overwhelmed mother (Joanna Haartti) tries to rush her disorganized family out the door for a friend’s wedding, this seven-minute laffer blends a suitably goofy cast with some inspired camera angles and cutting, building to one big joke at the end. The only female director in the mix, Vilhunen challenges certain prevailing ideas about who really gets the work done by poking fun at a harried woman struggling to keep her family on track with no help from her oblivious husband. It’s slight, but it’s fun — a none-too-serious reminder that the Academy could stand to lighten up and embrace more comedies in all of its categories, including best picture.