How to Win Big in the “Little” Categories at the Oscars

Go with Gravity, Gatsby, Disney and the Holocaust

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In Oscar pools, the big winners are those who can chose the little winners — the films that snag the statuettes in the short-film and technical categories. Any year has its share of upsets, but Gravity seems the clear leader in Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects. The wondrous space epic is nearly guaranteed to cop the top number of Oscars this year. Add Director and maybe Original Score to its tally and you’ve got seven or eight — a nice haul for a movie that probably won’t win Best Picture.

Some Oscar savants think Gravity will also take Production Design, which is spectacular but may be considered an aspect of the picture’s visual effects. I’ll go with the more terrestrial glamour and glitz of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, whose designer and costumer Catherine Martin (Mrs. B.L.) won for Moulin Rouge! and was nominated for two other Baztastic melodramas, William Shakespeare‘s Romeo + Juliet and Australia. Expect Production Design and Costumes to go to Gatsby.

(READ: Why 12 Years a Slave Will Win Best Picture)

Short films — cartoons, dramas and newsreels — used to be an essential part of every movie show. They were included among Oscar categories because as many people saw them as watched the feature attractions. Now that theaters offer only trailers and in-house commercials (except for the animated vignettes that Pixar and Disney add to their features), the Academy’s short subjects are beneficiaries of affirmative action. Hatched by foreign and indie filmmakers, they are seen in seconds-long snippets by hundred of millions of viewers on Oscar night, then dissolve into obscurity. Their chief practical function is to break ties on Oscar ballots. Well, that’s why we’re here…

Best Animated Short Film
Feral, directed by Daniel Sousa
Get a Horse!, Lauren MacMullen
Mr. Hublot, Laurent Witz
Possessions, Shuhei Morita
Room on the Broom, Max Lang and Jan Lachauer

In this varied quintet — which can be seen in certain art houses and on Video On Demand — the class act is the French Mr. Hublot, about a clockwork man with obsessive-compulsive habits whose solitary life is interrupted when he saves a Robot Pet he hears barking and mewling outside his barred window. The designs of Stéphane Halleux suggest the elaborate graphic constructions of such cinematic wonderments as Brazil, Delicatessen and Hugo. And beneath the steampunk décor beats a tender, mechanical heart in Mr. Hublot’s holiday.

Feral, a five-year project from a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, sketches the haunting fable of a wild child, raised by wolves, who is brought to a nearby village and dressed up but never domesticated. In the Japanese Possessions, a samurai spends an evening in a hut whose inanimate objects come to magical, menacing life; call it Miyazaki Lite. Room on the Broom, based on the children’s book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, enlists a starry vocal cast (Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon and Best Actress nominee Sally Hawkins) in the story of a witch and her animal friends; it’s pretty and genial but perfunctorily realized.

The favorite is the one movie people will have seen — anyone who attended Frozen, since Get a Horse! played with that Disney smash. Beginning in homage to Walt’s earliest cartoons, MacMullen’s movie bursts into 3-D chaotic cacophony; it’s as if Warners-MGM ani-maniac Tex Avery had commandeered the Disney studio and transformed the assembly line into anarchy. I wish Get a Horse! paraded the old Avery inspiration. For all its cleverness, it never seized me. But it will probably win here, giving Disney its first double animated triumph: short subject and feature.

Best Live-Action Short Film
Aquel No Era Yo / That Wasn’t Me, directed by Esteban Crespo
Avant que de tout perdre / Just Before Losing Everything, Xavier Legrand
Helium, Anders Walter
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? / Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, Selma Vilhunen
The Voorman Problem, Mark Gill

From Spain, France, Denmark, Finland and the U.K., respectively, come this mixed bag of moods and styles (also available on VOD). The easiest to assimilate, and to shrug off, is The Voorman Problem, based on a story by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell. A psychiatrist (Martin Freeman, aka Dr. Watson and Bilbo) comes to an asylum to interview a patient (Tom Hollander, the Candide character in Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop) who thinks — rather, knows — he is God. Helium goes a bit heavy on the hokum as a hospital janitor tries to convince a dying boy he’s going to a magical land. Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? could be scored to the frantic strains of Stephen Sondheim’s “Getting Married Today” from Company: a woman awakens near noon and realizes she has only minutes to get herself, her husband and her two kids dressed for a wedding she’s forgotten about. Energetic; dismissible.

That Wasn’t Me, set in an African country riven by war, takes the premise of the 2011 Live-Action Short nominee Na Wewe — white visitors are interrogated and intimidated by brute guerrillas — and adds kids. The soldiers are children, brainwashed to murder by their adult leader. The film is violent and terrifying, with a wrenching coda, yet it can’t compare to the threat of violence — of a sadistic man stalking his wife through the supermarket where she works — in Just Before Losing Everything. Debut director Legrand has made a minimalist horror movie in the fashion of Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, Amour); it imparts shivers that are hard to shake. In your Oscar pool, you’ll win by betting something on Losing Everything.

Best Documentary Short Subject
Cavedigger, directed by Jeffrey Karoff
Facing Fear, Jason Cohen
Karama Has No Walls, Sara Ishaq
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Malcolm Clarke
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, Edgar Barens

Often the big question in this category is: Does the synopsis make you weep? Prison Terminal, for example, is about a dying inmate in the maximum-security Iowa State Penitentiary and the fellow prisoners who serve as the his loving hospice group. Karama Has No Walls, which might be shown with the Doc Feature nominee The Square, focuses on Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising, whose tragic aftermath resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people. Facing Fear details the meeting of a gay man and the neo-Nazi who, 25 years earlier, beat him up. Even Cavedigger, a portrait of the environmental artist Ra Paulette as he sculpts New Mexico sandstone into gorgeous cathedrals, has a political angle: Paulette exasperates his wealthy patrons with his boho stubbornness as much as he awes them with his work.

Cavedigger may be the most accomplished of the nominees, but The Lady in Number 6 is the favorite. Attribute that partly to the movie’s subject: Alice Herz-Sommer, at 109 the oldest known Holocaust survivor — or, as cynical Academy handicappers would define the synopsis, “Oscar gold!” — but because of Herz-Sommer’s tale of outliving the death camps by playing classical piano for her Nazi captors. “Music saved my life and music saves me still,” she says with a vigorous optimism undiluted by age or circumstance. “I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”

Director Clarke, who won an Oscar in this category 25 years ago with his cancer-boy inspirational You Don’t Have to Die, doesn’t have to push the sentiment; Herz-Sommer could fill a feature-length film with her radiance. She added a poignant touch of publicity to her movie’s chances when she died this Feb. 23, in the final week of Oscar voting.