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Oscar shorts hit Tampa Theatre

A little goes a long way toward an Academy Award for this year's nominees.

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Tampa Theatre’s annual screening of the Oscar-nominated short films comes as a welcome relief after weeks of mindless multiplex dreck (and one “block” buster). This year’s batch of films (five animated, five live action) are all worth seeing, though I found the real gems to be on the live action side. Which is where I’ll begin …

My favorite of all the short films is France’s Just Before Losing Everything, a harrowing thriller that generates suspense without guns, bloodshed or violence of any kind. I hesitate to spoil the plot, which follows a desperate woman in the final stages of fleeing an abusive spouse, but the performances, direction, cinematography, editing and score are all superb. Just Before Losing Everything engaged me more than any recent Hollywood thriller I can name. It’s terrific.

On the other end of the spectrum is Spain’s That Wasn’t Me, an unrelenting descent into combat that works hard to disprove the notion that all war films inherently glorify violence. That Wasn’t Me features a former child soldier, now grown and addressing an auditorium full of people, telling the story of his last days in the war and the woman who got him out. It’s a graphic tale that gets more grim with each turn. I can’t say I enjoyed That Wasn’t Me, but I can’t argue with the artistry with which it was made.

Also on the grim side of the ledger is Helium, which is about a terminally ill young boy who forms a bond with a hospital janitor over an alternative afterlife story the man spins for the sick kid. Helium deals with subject matter that may be too emotionally raw for some viewers. (It drove my wife from the room quickly amidst protest that it was “too sad.”) Sad it is, but uplifting as well. Beautifully shot, edited and acted, Helium is, much like life itself, worth the pain of admission.

Hang with me people. They’re not all depressing!

Things lighten up significantly in the UK’s The Voorman Problem, which stars Sherlock’s Martin Freeman as a psychiatrist called in by a prison warden in need of some professional help. A prisoner, the titular Voorman, has convinced the other convicts that he’s a god, and if the psychiatrist just pronounces Voorman insane, the warden can transfer him to a mental hospital. But what if Voorman is a god, and a trickster one at that? The Voorman Problem offers a clever answer to the old question, “what if God was one of us?” Lock up your wife, fellas.

The last of the live action shorts is another comedy, this one the Finish production Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, which packs a solid number of belly laughs into less than seven minutes of running time. The plot is simple: A family oversleeps and finds themselves greeted by complications at every turn as they try to get ready to go to a wedding. Anyone with a family will be able to relate.

I found the animated films to be a mixed bag. They are all well-done from a technical standpoint, but I sometimes felt the filmmakers living by a “When in doubt, make it weirder” credo. Case in point is Possessions from Japan, about a samurai who gets lost in a storm before hunkering down in an abandoned hut and dreaming one crazy dream. Bordering on psychedelic at times, the animation uses a beautiful color palette to render umbrellas and fabric. (Sound odd yet?) Though brooding throughout, Possessions manages to end on a lighter note.

Also odd is France’s Mr. Hublot, which follows your average OCD apartment dweller in a detailed steampunk city who takes in a robotic dog and watches it grow to amazing size, trampling his perfectly organized home in the process. I can’t say I got much of a message from Mr. Hublot, but it’s an entertaining feast for the eyes nonetheless.

The good ol’ USA has two animated shorts in contention, the first one from an animation studio you are no doubt familiar with. Ride a Horse (riding a wave of buzz from being shown with Disney's Frozen) is a fun mix of a vintage Mickey Mouse cartoon from back in Walt’s early days with the latest in Disney computer animation. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does.

The second U.S. nominee is Feral, which trades the sharply drawn images of the other films for a muted, impressionistic style. “Feral” tells the story of a wild child found living in the woods and rescued by a man who attempts to bring the kid back to civilization. But new clothes can’t hide the animal nature of the child wearing them. I have no clue what I’m supposed to take from Feral, but I found it transfixing and unique. In the animated competition, that’s enough.

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