The OTHER Oscars: Best Short Films

In a series devoted to exploring the more esoteric categories at the Oscars, CraveOnline takes a good long gander at some of the Oscar-nominated films you may not have seen or even heard of. This week’s article is devoted to the three short film categories that were, until only recently, often hidden from public view.

The Other Oscars – Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Categories: Best Short

For about a decade now, the enterprising people over at Shorts International have been thoughtful enough to arrange theatrical releases for the Academy Award-nominated short films in all three categories (live-action short, animated short, and documentary short). For many years, the shorts remained a distant and abstract category at the Oscars, and you would be able to, only very very occasionally, catch them on home video. This lead to a personal headspace wherein I constantly (and perhaps obnoxiously) cried for short films to begin preceding feature films on a more regular basis. These days, only Pixar and Disney have the gall to include shorts. Wouldn’t it be grand if individual theaters elected to show tone-appropriate shorts before every movie?

The short film is a fascinating form, though, and a better way to flex creative muscles. As film-goers, we are now inured to the notion of “feature length,” expecting movies to generally be 90 – 135 minutes. This has led to a screenplay cult in Hollywood writers’ rooms and in critical discourse. Films, as some film students are taught, must must must fulfill very specific beats at very specific times throughout a typical screenplay. If it doesn’t hit those beats, then it’s incorrect. Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat ruined so much.

So the short form is a fantastic creative outlet for aspiring filmmakers seeking to 1) save a lot of money and 2) explore new creative venues. Some have said that making short films is difficult, as their mere length restricts stories into “setup” and “payoff” tales, all of which play like cute little jokes (punchline!). But others have been glad for the challenge, trying to find stories that don’t require 90 minutes to tell. Some stories only need 7 minutes. Throughout the 1940s, there were so many shorts, however, that the category was split into “one-reel” and “two-reel” categories.

The documentary form is especially conducive to short material. Most documentary features (as covered in last week’s The OTHER Oscars) typically take years to film, and are features culled together from sometimes hundreds of hours of material. If, however, you don’t have the time and the patience to make a tow hour documentary film, you can make a 20-minute film based on just a few interviews, and still have a great film on your resume.

Also, if you’re an aspiring animator, the short film is ideal. Just like documentaries, animated films take a long time to make, whether you’re using the slickest and most efficient CGI, or are working alone with nothing but pencils, pens, paper, cels, and a single camera. A small team of aspiring animators can invent an unusual aesthetic, explore a bizarre world, or just animate a weird character, and not have to bother with bigger stories. They can explore and expand the animated form without having to waste years of time and millions of dollars on it. Plus, most studios (and perhaps audiences) wouldn’t stand for 90 minutes of bizarro shimmering paintings or other unconventional aesthetics that are so often found in animated shorts.

The live-action and animated shorts are currently playing in theaters. The documentaries will open on a limited basis on the 14th.

To become eligible for Academy Awards, the short films, like all other categories, have some pretty stringent rules to follow.

First, they must be under 40 minutes, including the credits. They must be made as autonomous movies, and cannot be clips from other films, they cannot be made for TV, they cannot be unaired TV pilots, and they can’t be commercials.

Secondly, they must play theatrically in Los Angeles for at least a week (or at a film festival), open to the public, complete with an paid admission ticket. Since so few studios back short films, and so few theaters are loathe to show them, this is usually achieved by simply four-walling local theaters in L.A. and having them run at odd times throughout a week. I currently work at a movie theater, and have seen several shorts gain Academy qualification through an outright rental. Indeed, this year’s documentary nominee Cave Digger played at the theater where I work.

Student films are not eligible. If they’re broadcast on TV or at a museum or some other non-theatrical venue, it’s disqualified. The short films also have to be projected in certain quality; evidently you can’t just mail a VHS tape to the Academy and hope for qualification. It has to be theater-grade projection.

Nominees For Best Animated Short Subject in 2013

Get a Horse! (dir. Lauren McMullen, USA)

Get a Horse! played before Frozen, stars Mickey Mouse, and uses new CGI and 3-D effects in contrast with old-fashioned cel animation, including old vocal tracks from dead actors (including Disney himself, who is still, as of this writing, frozen himself).

Mr. Hublot (dir. Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares, France)

Mr. Hublot is a dialogue-free steampunk mood piece about a robot-like man with goggles who takes in a clunky robot dog that eventually grows (?) too large for his apartment.

Feral (dir. Daniel Sousa, Russia)

Animated with a chalk-like abstraction, Feral is about a young boy taken from his home in the woods, having been raised by wolves, and his subsequent inability to become a “civilized” human.

Possessions (dir. Shuhei Morita, Japan)

After 100 years, inanimate possessions take on souls, and begin to resent their human masters. Possessions tells the tale of a wandering repairman who stumbles into an abandoned home filled with broken things that he proceeds to repair and restore the dignity to.

Room on the Broom (dir. Jan Lachauer and Max Lang, England)

A cute, kid-friendly tale of a friendly witch who picks up a bevvy of cute animal friends, all while speaking in rhyme. Narrated by Simon Pegg, and starring Gillian Anderson and Timothy Spall.

Nominees for Best Live-Action Short Subject in 2013

Helium (dir. Anders Walter, Denmark)

A young boy dying of cancer is given a vision of the afterlife from an ambitious green-gilled orderly. It’s sappy, and manipulative.

The Voorman Problem (dir. Mark Gill, England)

A “Twilight Zone”-like homage, The Voorman Problem follows a shrink and his clash with a possibly-mad prison inmate who claims to be a god. Yes, there is a twist ending.

Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (dir. Selma Vilhunan, Finland)

A 7-minute trifle about a family preparing for a wedding, and the hectic panic therein. There’s not much to this little comedy.

That Wasn’t Me (dir. Esteban Crespo, Spain)

The most heavy-handed of this year’s shorts, That Wasn’t Me is about child soldiers, violence, rape, war, and regret, and climaxes with a grown woman shooting a young boy through the leg. It’s icky and manipulative, but may just win the award.

Just Before Losing Everything (dir. Xavier Legrand, France)

The best of the films, this 30-minute film tells the harrowing and amazing tale of a woman who, over the course of a day, must somehow leave her abusive husband without him becoming suspicious. The logistics of that act are harder than perhaps they sound.

Nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject 2014

Cavedigger (dir. Jeffrey Karoff)

Cavedigger is a fascinating look at one of the most unusual artists you will ever encounter. Ra Paulette spends extended periods burrowing through sandstone to create unusual interior spaces. Largely for his own edification. 

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (dir. Edgar Barrens)

Produced by HBO, Prison Terminal is a short about the final months in the life of a terminally ill prison inmate. Possibly one of the most uplifting films you’ll ever see. 

Karama Has No Walls (dir. Sara Ishaq)

A forwardly political film about a 2011 revolution that changed the course of Yemeni politics. Use this film to educate yourself about Yemen. 

Facing Fear (dir. Jason Cohen)

Matthew Boger had a chance to meet up with Tim Zaal to work out their differences. Boger was kicked out of his home at age 13 for being gay. Zaal was a Neo-Nazi skinhead who, at about the same time, beat Boger savagely and left him for dead. How many bygones can be in a situation like this? 

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (dir. Edgar Barens)

You know those eccentric old ladies who live in your apartment building? It turns out they have the most amazing lives and amazing stories. Alice Herz Sommer, at age 109, is perhaps the worlds oldest pianist. She is also the world’s oldest surviving Holocaust survivor. 

Slideshow: Five of the Best “Best Short Subject” Winners

Witney Seibold is the head film critic for Nerdist, and a contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. 


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