Each Year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Science votes for the world’s best in filmmaking. Feature length films dominate the awards ceremony for most of us but the categories for short films also produce some gems, including the documentary category. Following are the five nominees for the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Films.
“Cavedigger” is a fascinating look into the life of a man with a unique career – he digs caves out of sandstone mountains and turns these caverns into sculptured-from-rock homes for his clients. Ra Paulette is a man that follows his own dreams to create cathedral-like dwellings. The carefully sculptured abodes are works of art and Ra does all his work alone with simple hand tools – and, occasionally, one of his dogs. This is an interesting look into an interesting life.
“Facing Fear” is an earnestly told document on the lives of two people, a bully and his victim from years ago, and how they make amends and join together to promote tolerance. While the intentions of the film are admirable, it never draws me in. Of course we need to be tolerant of others, regardless of color, sex (and sexual preference) or religion. The film makes this point repeatedly, bordering on monotonous.
“Karama Has No Walls”
“Karama Has No Walls” is very much like a compressed, mini version of the Oscar nominated documentary, “The Square.” Yemen takes the place of Egypt in this film shown through the eye (and cameras) of two young Yemeni photojournalists who covered the peaceful protest in 2011 that turned deadly. There is sincerity to the film but the scope of the issues raised are far greater than the film has time to tell.
“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Ryan”
“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Ryan” is a sad, heartbreaking and moving look into the waning days of a prison inmate, George “Jack” Hall, a man who has spent most of his adult life in prison for murder. Jack is 82-years old and dying. Fortunately for him, the Iowa state penal system had initiated a hospice program for its prisoners, finance by private donations and prison inmate involvement. The film shows the care and compassion of the inmate volunteers who act as Jack’s caretakers during his last days. I was very moved by their dedication in seeing the dying man suffer as little as possible. This is the best of the doc shorts selected for Oscar consideration and deserves to be seen.
“The Lady in Number 6”
“The Lady in Number 6” is a beautiful story about the world’s oldest living pianist and the oldest survivor of the Holocaust. 109-year old Alice Herz Sommers is a breath of fresh air for her neighbors, and for us, as her story of survival and hope is told. Alice is a remarkable woman who should be bitter about what happened to herself and her family under Nazi persecution. Instead, she shines like a beacon of life and I hope she lives another 109 years. The world could use it.
Four of the five short documentary nominees are from the USA (or in one case, Canada/USa/UK) and it is the foreign short which I find the weakest. That's not to say Yemen's "Karama Has No Walls" isn't of interest. Sara Ishaq's documentary about the Change Square protests in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh focuses on the tragedies of armed conflict between peaceful protestors and 'thugs,' snipers and the security guards who stood with them, making a case that these martyrs did not die in vain. The on-the-ground camerawork during the mayhem is hair raising, the aftermath heartbreaking, but the documentary relies too heavily on textual information delivered against black backgrounds and never gives us a real sense of who these 'thugs' are. It's like a less focused version of "The Square." B-
Jeffrey Karoff's "Cavedigger” celebrates the work of Ra Paulette, a man who creates cathedral-like works of art carving out sandstone caves in northern New Mexico. I'm surprised Werner Herzog didn't get to this guy first. Ra only uses hand tools and what he does is not only magnificent, but nothing like you've ever seen before. But over time he becomes discontent working for others who cut off his vision due to time and budgetary constraints. His wife bears the burden when he sets out to create his magnum opus on his own land. Karoff should certainly succeed in drawing more attention to these wonderful works, but he also leaves us with too many questions - why hasn't Ra ever applied for a grant, for example, instead of charging laborer rates and living hand to mouth? B
Truth is truly stranger than fiction in Jason Cohen's "Facing Fear." We meet Matthew Boger, a gay man who recounts how he was thrown out of his home at the age of thirteen by his mother who regarded his sexual orientation as a horrific sin. The young man migrated to L.A., hustling on the streets, until the night he ran into a group of fourteen Nazi punks. He was punched and kicked until a mohawked Tim Zoad delivered the boot to the face that would knock him out. Zoad was so haunted by the experience, he eventually turned himself around. Twenty-six years later, Matthew's the manager of L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance. Guess who gets booked as a speaker? While these two men's relationship is fascinating in and of itself, what really amazes is Boger's eloquent forgiveness of his mother. B
Meet Alice Herz Sommer, at 109, the world's oldest Holocaust survivor in “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.” Here is a portrait of an eternal optimist, a woman who believes that beauty can be found anywhere and whose love of music spirited her and her son Rafi through internment in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp set up by Nazis as propaganda for the outside world. Director Malcolm Clarke uses stills, cutaways and other devices to go back in time and tell the story of a young girl who met Mahler and considered Kafka a family friend. She achieved her dream as a concert pianist married to a renowned violinist, but when the black shadow of Nazi Germany darkened her door, Alice kept looking towards the light. We hear from a neighbor who delights in the classical music which wafts from Alice's north London apartment every day beginning at 10 a.m. and from two close friends, also Holocaust survivors (one was forced to play for Mengele). Sommer is an incredible subject, but by the end of this documentary her obsession with music as depicted here starts to come across as an awfully blinkered view of life. B
“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” from fledgling director Edgar Barens is the most fully realized piece of work. As stated within, this is about an unusual hospice program at Iowa State Penitentiary, one which we are assured is not paid for by tax payers, but by donations and the volunteer work of other prison inmates. But without even raising the questions one is left to wonder about the humanity in keeping a rehabilitated, decorated war veteran in prison during his remaining days and how this program, and the prison health care we see which precede it, appear so successful when elder care options in this country are so lacking. The longest of the short documentaries also works as a character sketch of Hall, a man awarded the Africa, European and POW Campaign medals who returned home to cope with the horrors he'd faced by drowning them in alcohol. PFC Hall also explains that after having been taught to kill and kill efficiently, he had to learn to suppress the urge stateside. After a drug-addicted son committed suicide, Hall overheard his former dealer bragging and the urge couldn't be denied, resulting in a life sentence for murder. The hospice program features sunny, private rooms, decorated for the individual who will occupy it, and allows family to visit inside prison walls. We hear from several of the inmate orderlies, whose caring for this man is touching - their affection is palpable. The program's director, Marilyn Sales, is also full of compassion, determined that those in her care retain their dignity. State law requires that the deceased be finger printed - 'They may come in with ink on their fingers,' she says, 'but they ain't going out that way.' Barens documents an inspiring model which should be studied for the population at large. A-
This year all five Short Live Action nominees come from a single continent - Europe with Spain, France, Denmark, Finland and England offering comedy, suspense, fantasy and horror and there's not a dud in the lineup.
Spain's "Aquel No Era Yo" ("That Wasn't Me") from writer/director Esteban Crespo delves into the tragedy of children kidnapped to become soldiers in Africa. Teniente (Alito Rodgers Jr.) is driving a Spanish couple there for humanitarian aide work through dangerous territory when they are stopped at a road block by armed 10 year-olds. As the driver shows one his Safe Conduct document, Juanjo (Gustavo Salmerón) tries to charm Kaney with football stickers. But the gate isn't opened fast enough and the General (Babou Cham) arrives and takes them all hostage. What follows is horrifying and yet Paula (Alejandra Lorrente) finds the humanity to save a boy she knows has been brainwashed. It is an adult Kaney we hear telling the story in a classroom setting, Paula watching from the audience. Crespo makes a powerful and complex statement in this riveting short. B+
French writer/director Xavier Legrand makes his filmmaking debut with "Avant Que De Tout Perdre" ("Just before Losing Everything") and it's a knockout. The film begins mysteriously as a teacher stops Julien (Miljan Chatelain) walking in the opposite direction from school. He explains he's been sent to get cigarettes for dad, but instead climbs beneath a bridge and plays. But Legrand keeps us guessing as to where he's going - another car stops and honks and Julien scrambles up and climbs in. Miriam (Léa Drucker, "The Man of My Life") drives to a bus stop where a teenaged pair are making out. The girl reluctantly gets into the car. They arrive at Miriam's place of work - a supermarket - and only gradually do we realize that she is settling details in order to escape from an abusive husband. When Antoine (Denis Ménochet, the farmer in "Inglourious Basterds") arrives, the staff goes on high alert to ensure Miriam and her kids can get away. Or do they? This short has a mysterious sterility that almost makes it play like science fiction and evokes films from Michael Haeneke's "Cache" to "Martha Marcy May Marlene." This is the filmmaker who's next work I'm most eagerly anticipating. A
Directors Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson bring us "Helium" from Denmark in which a hospital janitor (Casper Crump) takes notice of a sick young boy concerned because everyone tells him he is going to heaven. The janitor discovers a shared interest in airships and invents an alternative to heaven called Helium. When the young boy's health worsens and he is transferred to intensive care, the janitor is fired for accessing the restricted area, but a sympathetic nurse (Marijana Jankovic) helps the man get back to Alfred (Pelle Falk Krustbæk) to leave a new red balloon dog that will signal the ship to Helium. This one could have become mawkish, but the filmmakers keep it grounded with just enough harsh reality to make it float. Special effects are just good enough to transport us into the janitor's fairy tale and the film's last shot is touching. If there's a problem here, it is that young Alfred suffers from Ali McGraw disease, the young boy's rosy cheeks belying serious illness. B
From Finland comes Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)," the shortest of the shorts, a quick little comedy. Sini (Joanna Haartti) must reach over her slumbering husband Jokke (Santtu Karvonen) to turn off the alarm and when she sees the time panic sets in - they and their two children are late for a wedding. While Jokke takes his time in the bathroom, she rushes around, trying to find the gift and get herself and her two children ready. Everything goes hilariously awry, right up to the film's final punch line. Director Selma Vilhunen pays affectionate homage to the modern mom while also pointedly noting that the more we stress, the more likely things will go wrong. B
The most star studded entry comes from England. "The Voorman Problem" is adapted from "Cloud Atlas" author David Mitchell's 'number9dream' by cowriter (with BaldwinLi)/director Mark Gill. Doctor Williams ("The Hobbit's" Martin Freeman) is summoned by Governor Bentley (Simon Griffiths) to tackle a prisoner problem - Voorman (Tom Hollander, "Pirates of the Caribbean") not only thinks he's God, he has the entire prison convinced. Williams interviews the restrained Voorman, trying to trick him up with logic. Voorman accepts the challenge by telling him he will make Belgium disappear. That night Williams recounts the story for is wife, who asks if Belgium is a cheese. After pulling out an atlas, Williams is distraught, but his next interview will have even more dire results. This clever short is part 'inmates running the asylum,' part dance with the 'devil' and Hollander's arch performance seems informed by James Spader. B
“Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?”
“Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” is a light and funny slice of life of family life. The alarm did not go off in the Ketonen family home and mom awakes with the terrible realization that they will be late for a family wedding. Scurrying like crazy to get to the church on time, many comic moments ensue – like dad letting their young daughters dress themselves. The filmmaker maintains an even, frenetic slapstick comedy note from start to finish.
“Helium” is a charming and sentimental story about a kindly hospital janitor, Enzo (Casper Crump), who eases a dying boy, Alfred’s (Pelle Falk Krusbaek), pain and fears with his stories about another world call Helium - a place where sick kids go to get their strength back. What could have been schmarmy treacle is a story of hopefulness and kindness. I get all verklempt
just thinking about it.
“That Wasn’t Me”
“That Wasn’t Me” is yet another earnest look into the violence of rebellion in an unnamed African country. Its images of child-soldiers forced to kill, sometimes their own wounded comrades, are harsh. The subject has been done before and better but it does show the fragmentation of that world. The film ends in a hopeful coda of redemption.
“Just Before Losing Everything”
“Just Before Losing Everything” is a biting treatise on spousal abuse and a woman’s need to save herself and her children. We root for Miriam (a terrific performance by Lea Drucker) as her story unfolds. raising many questions about what is going on when she rousts her children, throwing clothes in a plastic trash bag and drives away. The filmmakers answer the questions one by one but leave the ending cloaked in ambiguity. This ambiguity left me with a feeling of melancholy for not knowing what happened to Miriam.
“The Voorman Problem”
“The Voorman Problem” is a high profile live action short with Martin Freeman, as a prison psychiatrist, and Tom Hollander, as an inmate who has convinced other that he is a god. It is a clever but brief look into changing identity and the power of a god. The star give their characters identity and the punch line is a good laugh, but one that is expected.
Whether feature length or short, animated films have entertained countless millions from every continent since the early days of Walt Disney and other animators. The Academy has selected the following five animations shorts for Oscar consideration.
“Feral” is a study of a young boy who grew up in the wild without contact to humans. A lone hunter finds the boy among wolves and brings him into our “civilized” world. The boy copes with his strange new environment the only way he knows, with his hands and teeth. The graceful flow of the animation makes the slight story a bit more.
“Possessions” is a surreal Japanese anime about a fixit man seeking shelter from a storm in an abandoned house. It is not a world he expects but it is one where can ply his repair trade. Visually stunning and amusing, there is a hint of the psychedelic in the use of brilliant colors and magical images.
“Get a Horse!”
“Get a Horse!” is a modern reboot of the old black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons from the 1930s. It looks just like those vintage ‘toons but there is a bit of modern subversion infused in the simple tale of Mickey and Minnie getting a ride on a hay wagon populated by farmyard animal musicians. It is a treat to watch the cleverness of the writing and the visual dexterity and imagination of the animators. Walt Disney is credited for voicing Mickey. I vote this the best of the Oscar shorts for animation.
This is a gorgeous looking techno anime set in a robotic world. Mr. Hublot takes in a stray robot dog but in this world a mechanical dog grows just like a real one, but to greater proportions. The story follows Mr. Hublot as he must deal with increasingly growing pet. It is a very imaginative and charming little story about a man and his dog.
“Room on the Broom”
“Room on the Broom” is the most ambitious of all the nominated animation shorts with its all star cast from British film and television. It is a simple but charming story, narrated by Simon Pegg in rhyme, about a kindly witch (Gillian Anderson), and her not so kindly cat (Rob Brydon), who gives a ride on her broom to a dog (Martin Clunes), a bird (Sally Hawkins) and a frog (David Walliams) who have done her a kindness. When a mean old dragon (Timothy Spall) is thrown into the mix, the witch’s menagerie must work together save the day. This is light and entertaining an a good one for kids.
Daniel Sousa's “Feral” tells a wild child tale with the look of a flickering, neutrally toned watercolor. A hunter takes a boy whose grown up with wolves into the town and attempts to domesticate him with a bath and school. The film is lovely to look at (the only splotches of color appear as chalk drawings on the schoolyard ground, a nice touch), but the story overly familiar. B-
Japanese director Shuhei Morita makes a strong case for recycling in the imaginative “Possessions.” A burly man traveling through the woods during a storm finds an abandoned home for shelter. There he finds the broken down remains of a household, but something magical happens. A 'frog' made of broken paper umbrellas rejoices when the man repairs others, but then they all disappear. In the next room the man marvels at fabric panels, sewing them together and is spoken to by the Geisha on a wall. But a dragon appears, terrifying him. The next morning as sun streams in, the man sees the image of a dragon in a pile of rubble - was it all a dream? The animation appears to be a combination of hand drawn, layered backgrounds and CGI which isn't all that fluid, but the imagination at work and Morita's message are strong. B+
'Simpsons' and 'Airbender' animation vet Lauren MacMullan was asked to come up with something to revive Mickey Mouse for television and instead she came up with “Get a Horse!” which was theatrically released with Disney's "Frozen." This stunning technical achievement is a combination of sentimentality for the early days of Mickey and indeed, the film begins in that style, hand drawn in black and white with Walt Disney's own voice pulled from the archives to perform Mickey, and modern computer generated animation. When Mickey spies Minnie aloft a horse drawn cart laden with friends like Clarabelle the Cow playing music (udder bagpipes!), he joins them just as Peg-Leg Pete drives up and eyes Minnie himself. Mickey puts Clarabelle into Pete's eyeline and he retaliates by swinging Mickey by his tail until he busts right out of the screen! On the other side, Mickey is a CGI creation in color and the screen is now shown in a longer shot which reveals its framing theater curtains. A cellphone toting Horace appears with milk duds which Mickey uses to shoot at Pete after he answers their call on an old candlestick phone. Soon the action is revolving from past to future, Mickey tilting the screen up and down and twirling it like a zoetrope. This one's just delightful. A
From Luxembourg comes Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares's “Mr. Hublot,” a kind of steampunk Wallace and Grommit. Mr. Hublot is a mechanical man with clockwork counters running in his forehead who lives in a charming attic apartment. He spies a robot dog terrified by a storm, huddling in a cardboard box and does nothing, but when the garbage collectors take it the next morning, he heads off to save it. With its feedings of nuts, bolts and oil, the dog soon outgrows Mr. Hublot's chic abode (it was a puppy!), but if Mr. Hublot's solution seems chilling at first, fear not. This photorealistic entry is a real charmer but I'm not sure if it's got what it takes to beat Disney. A-
Max Lang and Jan Lachauer's “Room on the Broom” is a charming British half hour television special reminescent of Lang's 2011 nominee 'The Gruffalo.' With a starry vocal cast including Gillian Armstrong as the witch, Timothy Spall as a dragon and Supporting Actress nominee Sally Hawkins as a bird (Simon Pegg narrates), the story involves a series of animals who ask if they may tag along with the witch and her cat. The cat ("The Trip's" Rob Brydon") is never thrilled with the idea, but the witch adds a dog, bird and toad and while the added weight causes mishaps, the additional animals help overcome the dragon with a Musicians of Bremen finale. The animation isn't this short's biggest draw, its CGI character renderings looking like hardened plasticine, but the rhyming narrative is great for kids and adults will find themselves smiling along. B
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