Though only three of them are actually dark, this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated live-action shorts (now playing at Bijou Metro feels disproportionately heavy. There’s one bit of likable fluff (the Finnish “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?”) involving a flustered family in a morning rush; there’s also a bit of humor in Mark Gill’s “The Voorman Problem,” which stars Martin Freeman as a doctor asked to examine a prisoner who claims he’s a god. The god, actually; Voorman (an excellent, slippery Tom Hollander) claims to be keeping the whole world going and offers to get rid of Belgium to prove his claims. Sleek and deft and very, very British, “The Voorman Problem” — which is based on an excerpt from David Mitchell’s novel number9dream — is the charmer of the bunch.
Denmark’s “Helium” aims to hit a couple of different emotional buttons, but never quite finds its mark. The story of a janitor and the sick little boy he befriends is dotted with surprisingly lovely effects, and its last scene offers a nice, gentle twist, but the concept feels too familiar and too forcefully sweet-sad.
There’s no other way to put it: “That Wasn’t Me,” by Spanish director Esteban Crespo, is agonizing viewing, and not just because of the atrocities Crespo so effectively captures onscreen. The story of two Spanish aid workers of some sort who go to an unnamed African country in an attempt to help child soldiers, “That Wasn’t Me” leaks good intentions but is a deeply troubling bundle of stereotypes. If Crespo wanted to tell a story about the horrible experiences of child soldiers, he might have done so without weaving in a tired white-savior storyline.
The absolute standout of the live-action shorts is the awkwardly titled “Just Before Losing Everything,” from French director Xavier Legrand. Taut, simple and impossibly tense, Legrand’s film follows Miriam (Léa Drucker) as she collects her two children and tries to work out how to escape her abusive husband. Though the film is just 30 minutes long, Legrand delicately lets the pieces fall into place slowly, gradually, in what feels almost like real-time. Miriam takes the kids to her job at a giant supermarket, where colleagues and superiors are variously helpful, baffled and cruel; the story of what actually happened to her comes out in an offhand line from her son, and in the bruises everyone sees but no one mentions. Whether it wins the Oscar or not, “Just Before Losing Everything” is a powerful debut for Legrand, who hopefully has features in his future.
The quirky, slightly spooky Japanese “Possessions” follows a handyman who has a peculiar run-in with the cast-off items in a forest shrine. “Room on the Broom,” based on the children’s book by Julia Donaldson, takes a stately pace through an unabashedly endearing story dotted with celebrity voices.
Daniel Sousa’s gorgeous, shadowy, wordless “Feral” follows a wild boy as he’s taken from his woodland home into a city, where clothing and cruel children are much harder to live with than wolves and wind. “Feral” is full of dark, stylized, fairy tale-like images.
But I keep coming back to “Mr. Hublot,” which takes place in a gloriously detailed steampunky future, where even flowers are made from scrap metal (and have settings for night and day). Mr. Hublot is a strange character with more than a touch of OCD; he spends his days straightening his picture frames and doing something incomprehensible with computer-like number machines. Across the street, a little robot dog barks and shivers. When an incident compels Mr. Hublot to force himself outside, the little dog comes into his life — and doesn’t stay little for long. The sweetness of the film’s story is balanced by the precisely imagined world, which I wanted more time to explore.