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The Oscar shorts return 

There's an international flavor to the short films nominated for Academy Awards this year, with no American entries in live-action and only two in animation (one of which is by Disney). Despite some predictable qualities to some of this year's nominees, there's also work that features more inventiveness in a brief running time than most features exhibit in two hours.

The consensus favorite among the live-action shorts is Helium, which carries the time-honored premise of a hospital worker entertaining a dying child with tales of a fantasy land. Writer-director Anders Walter and producer Kim Magnusson find a visually creative take on the subject that doesn't overplay the sentiment.

The Voorman Problem offers a very British take on a segment of a work by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell about a prisoner (Tom Hollander) who claims to be God, and the prison psychiatrist (Martin Freeman of The Hobbit and Sherlock) sent to evaluate him. It's amusing enough, but feels like the opening act to a longer film—a sketch not unlike a John Collier short story, with some intriguing story possibilities hinted at that we don't get to see.

A fascinating short that condenses a feature's worth of narrative into less than a half hour is Just Before Losing Everything. Writer-director Xavier Legrand finds Hitchockian suspense in everyday life in this tense tale of a supermarket worker (Léa Drucker) trying to flee her abusive husband with her children. Legrand gets a great deal of mileage out of gradually revealing information and ratcheting up the tension by showing much of the action from the perspective of Drucker's supportive co-workers.

I wasn't nearly as captivated by It Wasn't Me (the official title given out, though the title on screen is actually That Wasn't Me), a brutal and unpleasant tale of doctors who encounter a group of child soldiers. The film achieves the look of a big-budget action picture in some scenes, but while it speaks to a troubling real-world issue, it often feels little removed from a torture-porn horror film. This is a case where a longer running time might let the story breathe more, but this case felt like we barely got to know characters before they were violently murdered or maimed, making it difficult to develop an emotional stake in the story.

The shortest of the shorts is the Finnish number Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, a tale of a young family trying to make it to a wedding, which wouldn't feel out of place as a subplot on a TV show such as Modern Family. There's not a lot of substance, though it is amusing.

The animated program isn't as strong as in previous years. The Japanese short Possessions is a slight but amusing fairy tale about a fix-it man versus some possessed objects, enlivened by 3-D animation that gives it the look of a manga comic come to life.

Likewise, the British Room on the Broom, the longest of the shorts at nearly 30 minutes, is a straight-up adaptation of a children's book. A friendly witch finds herself overextending the capacity of her wooden ride to a number of friendly animals. One of the two most kid-friendly shorts, it's recommended for younger children, though adults might start to tune out.

Another kid-friendly short is one you might have already seen: Get a Horse, a retro-style Mickey Mouse animation played before the mega-hit Frozen. Here, Mickey's black-and-white adventure is interrupted when his rival Pete punches him through the movie screen. This plays with the mixture of old and new styles in a way, and it might be the first time a movie audience has been in hysterics over a Mickey Mouse cartoon since the convicts in the 1942 Preston Sturges classic, Sullivan's Travels.

Get a Horse looks to be an audience favorite, but my personal preference is the French Mr. Hublot. The character's name recalls Jacques Tati's hapless pantomime protagonist, and Tati's Playtime is evoked by this tale of a steampunk-looking being in a metal city that takes in a stray robo-dog. I wanted to spend a little more time in this world of polished landscapes and zoom-lens goggles.

A dark horse favorite, probably too grim to win, is Feral, the tale of a wild child dragged to civilization. Director and animator Daniel Sousa, who teaches animation at the Rhode Island School of Design, gives his tale an evocative look that has the effect of woodcut illustrations. While it might not be a crowd-pleaser, it's the most haunting of the shorts this year in live action or animation.

Zack Smith writes about books, theater and television for the INDY and other outlets. Tweet @thezacksmith.

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This article appeared in print with the headline "The shorts of the red carpet." Click here for reviews of the documentary shorts.


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