Tom Hollander and Martin Freeman in "The Voorman Problem."

The Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts Remind Us of the Value of Brief Cinema

Five mini-movies for the price of one feature.

Every year when I watch the Oscar-nominated short films, I’m reminded of what a shame it is that short films aren’t more widely available, that there seems to be no viable interest in distribution of these mini-movies into multiplexes.

Lord knows there are any number of feature films that would have been greatly improved when trimmed down to a lean hour or less, instead of filled with padding around the best bits to reach the requisite minimum 90-minute running time of the typical movie. It’s better to have a tray of tasty appetizers than a so-so entrée.

This crop of nominees is an enjoyable group. Only one left an overly saccharine aftertaste, but even it had its charms.

The best, a French film called Just Before Losing Everything (30 minutes), tells the harrowing story of woman executing her plan to escape her abusive husband with their children. Her co-workers at a department store become her co-conspirators as she settles her affairs. When her husband unexpectedly appears on the scene, she is forced to face him directly one last time. It plays with the tension of a great thriller. My stomach was in knots during the climax, when she and her kids try desperately to stay hidden as they make a final break for it.

It’s a great reminder that genuine cinematic thrills don’t require CGI or spectacular stunts or exploding balls of fire. Just Before Losing Everything is a more satisfyingly tense experience than many a Hollywood action blockbuster.

Filling the spot of the sort of issue-oriented work that the Academy tends to favor is the Spanish film That Wasn’t Me (25 minutes). It depicts the horrors of children pressed into service as soldiers in warring African armies, through the experience of two doctors who are taken prisoner. Though I found it a bit overwrought in its plotting that’s apparently intended to maximize the misery, it may be an accurate reflection of how handing a kid a gun and getting him to fight requires stripping him of his humanity. Thankfully it ends on a note of forgiveness and redemption.

There are two full-on comedic efforts: The Voorman Problem (13 minutes) from Britain and Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (7 minutes) from Finland. In Voorman, Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, TV’s Sherlock) is a psychiatrist asked to evaluate the sanity of an inmate who believes himself to be a God — and just might be. In Everything, a family makes a disastrous attempt to get to a wedding on time after waking up late. Both feature a couple of great gags and twist endings.

It’s only the heart-tugging Helium (23 minutes) that disappointed. The Danish film is the story of a dying boy and a hospital janitor who comforts him by telling him fantastical tales of how he’ll pass on to a wonderful place called Helium after death. Once he’s there he’ll live in a house held up far up in the sky by a balloon like those on the airships he admires. Helium has a few nice visual flourishes, but they don’t quite balance out the overly schmaltzy story.

So there you go: 98 minutes of your time and you get to see five movies instead of just one. That’s a bargain.