Two great reasons to see The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2014: Live Action - one dark and funny and wickedly existential, the other a nail-biter of a domestic drama, filled with dread.
The former stars Martin Freeman, alias Bilbo Baggins, alias Dr. John Watson (opposite that Caldecott Bumbershoot fellow in PBS's Sherlock). In the British short "The Voorman Problem," Freeman plays a psychologist dispatched to interview a prisoner who claims he is God. The warden needs certification to put him away. Problem? His fellow inmates have come to believe that the straitjacketed Voorman (Tom Hollander) is indeed who he claims to be.
The other exceptional entry among the five Academy Award nominees in the short-fiction field hails from France. "Just Before Losing Everything," from actor-turned-director Xavier Legrand, offers an impossibly suspenseful 30 minutes of uncertainty and menace, as a woman (Léa Drucker) plots to flee her violent, abusive spouse, taking her young son (Miljan Chatelain) and teenage daughter (Mathilde Auneveux) along. The day begins in typical fashion, with the kids heading to school and the wife to her job at a large chain store; it ends in anything but typical ways. Taking a cue from Michael Haneke, Legrand closes with an ambiguous final shot. Pay close attention to the cars in the traffic circle, and think about where this story may continue to go.
"Helium," from Denmark, is an accomplished but sentimental story of a boy with a terminal illness and a newly hired hospital worker who comforts the dying child with stories of an afterlife, based on the boy's obsession with blimps and balloons. Cut to scenes of floating islands and crystal particles that light up at night.
From Finland, Selma Vilhunen's one-joke (but extremely satisfying joke) "Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?" follows a husband and wife as they wake up late for a wedding, running through a series of comic mishaps as they try to make it to the church on time, pip-squeaks in tow. Never mind the dysfunctional family, this one is discombobulated. Hugely so.
Spanish director Esteban Crespo bites off more than he can chew in "That Wasn't Me," a grim, gratuitous story about three European social workers caught up in an African conflict, where kids with automatic weapons are being trained to fight, and kill, by a charismatic, sociopathic revolutionary. The sense of fear and finality experienced by the Spanish couple (Gustavo Salmerón, Alejandra Lorente) and their friend feels real enough, but the story's past/present narrative device and redemptive climax do not.
The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2014: Live Action *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Esteban Crespo ("That Wasn't Me"), Xavier Legrand ("Just Before Losing Everything"), Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson ("Helium"), Mark Gill ("The Voorman Problem"), and Selma Vilhunen ("Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?"). Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, nudity, profanity, adult themes) Playing at: Ritz Bourse and The Colonial, Phoenixville