How do you go about predicting the likeliest winner in a category that so frequently includes among its nominees (and occasionally even hands the trophy over to) some of worst films nominated in any Oscar category? Obviously you start with, as Michael Douglas was heard to joke at the Screen Actors Guild after party, “the bottom.” And this year, rock bottom undoubtedly belongs to That Wasn’t Me, unanimously selected by Slant’s prognosticating panel as this lineup’s most obnoxiously self-satisfied case of well-heeled white-savior guilt run amok. It’s not that we dispute the basic veracity of its depiction of seemingly permanent civil war in deepest Africa, nor are any of us impervious to the tragic Beasts of No Nation plight faced by violently “recruited” child soldiers. But it quickly becomes clear that director Esteban Crespo’s dramatic investment centers around the much-degraded Spanish doctor who, after watching her boyfriend gunned down by a preteen legionnaire, straps on her Lone Survivor boots in the Congo, transmuting third-world sympathy into bloodlust. Did I Do That?’s smug final shot, which suggests Fernando Meirelles directing a prolonged Super Bowl spot for Hallmark, sets 2014’s patronizing curve.
Our residual bad faith had some of us entertaining the possibility that it might actually manage a win, but That Wasn’t Me is devoid of the snarky arrogance that defines this category’s other recent inexcusable winners, which none of this year’s quintet share. In other words, voters lately have preferred movies about privileged, overgrown children, not sermons aimed at them. Unfortunately, the most childish movie in this year’s race, Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, is also the thinnest, little more than a jokey IKEA ad for space organizers. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras’s progressively more unnerving Just Before Losing Everything, which details the tense flight of a mother from her abusive husband. The byplay between the tedious clerical errands she must finish before fleeing and the grim, mounting sense of some awful event lurking just around the corner demonstrates a level of formal control that put us in mind of the Dardennes, Michael Haneke, Andrea Arnold (whose Wasp won this category nine years ago), and Miracle Fish (which didn’t win four years ago). Like that last antecedent, Losing may lack the necessary subtext that would’ve allowed it to transcend being taken as just an acutely realized moment of crisis.
That leaves two left in play. And because we’re not used to hewing down to the most centrist candidates in this category, our panel reached a minor stalemate between Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson’s Helium and Mark Gill and Baldwin Li’s The Voorman Problem. The latter, a quick and effective little blackout sketch pitting a psychologist against a patient claiming to be God, benefits from being the only short in the lineup in unsubtitled English (for whatever reason, That Wasn’t Me “translated” its clearly English dialogue), as seven of the last 10 winners have been in English. It gives Martin Freeman, playing the shrink, arguably more to do than the whole Hobbit franchise has so far. And it’s clearly the most clever class overachiever this year, though it doesn’t ever announce itself as such in the way that Curfew and God of Love did. Its sparkling dialogue and God’s awesomely blasé nonchalance toward humanity make this O. Henry haiku the only film in the lineup I wish had gone on longer, which may unfortunately be a liability when it’s up against something as epitaphic as Helium.
Yes, more than one panelist here likened this Danish fairy tale to Patch Adams (not a compliment, unless you frequently forward BuzzFeed listicles of yawning kittens “you won’t believe” to your grandchildren). And shameless isn’t strong enough a word for the story of a dying kid and the sensitive beardo hospital orderly who fills his head with images of an afterlife called Helium, where everyone lives Little Prince-style on Zeppelin-hoisted asteroids and apparently no one sings like the Chipmunks. We’ve lost our shirts more than once betting on dead children, but even we have to admit that the short’s final shot is as evocative a way to kill off a dozen kids in the prime of their life as That Wasn’t Me’s final shot was an attempted absolution for massacring hundreds. In the absence of genuine narcissism among this year’s nominees, Helium should play extra well among the purveyors of mawkish bear hugs.
Will Win: Helium
Could Win: The Voorman Problem
Should Win: The Voorman Problem
Editor’s Note: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014, presented by ShortsHD, will open in theaters nationwide on January 31. For locations, click here.