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Oscar’s Live Action Shorts: Will Voters Want to Laugh, Cry or Cover Their Eyes?

The all-European field of nominees ranges from slapstick comedy to harrowing drama


The Oscars’ Best Live Action Short category is often dominated by European films, but this year it takes that trend to an extreme: With entries from Spain, France, Denmark, Finland and Great Britain, the field is entirely European, without even the lone American entry that often provides contrast.

The two longest entries are deathly serious, though on vastly different topics; one of the others is a tearjerker, the others humor pieces.

Judging by the Oscar winners in this category over the last decade, voters have shown that they like dark humor (“Six Shooter,” “The New Tenants,” “Curfew”), ambitious emotional stories (“The Shore,” “Toyland,” “The Mozart of Pickpockets”) and sometimes the funniest and slickest nominee (“God of Love,” “West Bank Story”). That means it’s hard to generalize about what might win this year.

For the second year in a row, voters will receive screeners of all five nominees, and every Academy member will be eligible to vote without having to attend special theatrical screenings.

But if they want to see the nominees on a big screen, they can do so alongside non-voters who like the idea of actually getting to see the contenders in what are usually the tiebreaker categories in Oscar pools.  ShortsHD and Magnolia are playing the live-action and animated shorts beginning Friday in Los Angeles, New York and 250 screens around the country, with additional bookings to come in subsequent weeks. A program of the documentary shorts will open on Feb. 14.

This is the second in TheWrap’s roundup of the three shorts categories.

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wasnt_me“Aquel No Era Yo” (“That Wasn’t Me”)
Esteban Crespo

Spanish director Crespo’s story of a horrifying incident that begins at a checkpoint in an unspecified, war-torn African country is already the most divisive of the nominees: In Contention’s Kris Tapley said it was “so affecting I had to take a breather when it was over,” while the Los Angeles Times’ Martin Tsai called it “astonishingly reprehensible” for fabricating war atrocities “for reasons it cannot articulate.”

It is certainly harrowing, a 25-minute pressure cooker that grows tense the moment two doctors are stopped by child soldiers on a dirt road, and from there escalates into moments of excruciating violence. Brief flashes to a future time aim to provide a sense of context and even healing, though it’s far from certain that viewers will be inclined toward forgiveness after the events depicted.

Movies that are tough to watch have won before, Andrea Arnold’s “Wasp” among them, and in some ways “That Wasn’t Me” hits hardest and packs the biggest punch of the nominees. But it may well remain nearly as divisive with Academy voters as it was with critics.

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lose_everything“Avant Que De Tout Perdre” (“Just Before Losing Everything”)
Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras

Even longer than “That Wasn’t Me,” and nearly as wrenching emotionally, the French-language “Just Before Losing Everything” is the quiet, step-by-step chronicle of a woman who takes her two children out of school for reasons that don’t become clear until later in the film.

Director Legrand frames his short almost as a procedural and keeps things deliberately confusing at first, but he does a masterful job of slowly revealing details and subtly ratcheting up the tension. The climax may veer into melodrama a bit too heavily, but the film touches on universal themes and fears in a way that will likely attract voters’ attention.

Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson

Danish producer Magnusson has been nominated in the category five times and won once, and his production company (and his father Tivi) was behind the 2009 winner, “The New Tenants.” Where that film was a black comedy, this is a lovely, emotional fantasy, the story of a hospital janitor who provides solace to a terminally ill boy by telling him stories of a magical land called Helium.

The short is by far the most sentimental of the nominees, and it could possibly be overshadowed by darker, tougher films. But it is truly heart-wrenching, with a lovely conclusion and a beautiful final image. It’ll most likely have viewers reaching for the box of tissue, which could be enough to make it a strong contender.

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TakeCareOfEverythingPitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa?” (“Do I Have To Take Care of Everything?”)
Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari

The only straight-out comedy in the field, this Finnish short follows a wildly disorganized, mishap-prone family of four as they frantically get ready for a wedding and face one calamity after another. As disasters pile up, it escalates into the realm of slapstick humor, with a twist toward the end that reminds you that this category includes European comedies with twist endings almost every year.

Typically, though, those shorts get nominated but don’t win – and it would take a rare year in which the voters really just want to laugh to make this a contender.

“The Voorman Problem” (photo at top)
Mark Gill and Baldwin Li

The only English-language short among the nominees (“That Wasn’t Me” is partly in English, though subtitled), this British film features the most recognizable face in the field, Martin Freeman of “The Hobbit.” He plays a psychiatrist summoned to a prison to examine Voorman, an inmate who has convinced his fellow prisoners that he is a god – and the interview turns problematic when Voorman turns out to have unusual powers of persuasion.

The film rests on conversations between Freeman and Tom Hollander (“In the Loop,” “The Invisible Woman”), who plays Voorman; they are dry, witty and quite amusing, though you could hope for a bigger payoff at the end. Still, dark humor and strong production values often carry the day in this category.