2014 Oscar Nominated Shorts — Live Action: Why so serious?

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“2014 Oscar Nominated Shorts — Live Action” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:35, two and a half stars out of four.

Where the animation shorts category at the Academy Awards seems to allow in sorts of candidates, the live-action shorts category always seemed like a bit of a racket. It seems like filmmakers have figured out that the Academy voters love self-serious melodramas, ideally about a child in peril or third-world strife (a third-world child in peril — cha-ching!) I know there are tons of interesting and innovative short films being made out there — I just wish I could see more of them in the Academy Final Five every year.

This year’s crop, which begins screening Friday at Sundance Cinemas, is no exception, although there a couple of really good ones in there, include two which I might actually dare categorize as “funny.”

The first of those is Mark Gill’s “The Voorman Problem,” a wickedly dry British comedy starring Martin Freeman of “Sherlock” as a prison psychiatrist with a difficult case — an inmate (Tom Hollander) who thinks he’s God, and is awfully good at convincing other inmates of it as well. The parrying between Freeman and Hollander is a lot of fun, and while it does seem like a lot more could be done with the concept, the ending has a grim twist worthy of an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

“Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” meanwhile, is a short but hilarious Finnish film about a harried mother trying to get her lazy husband and kids dressed and out the door for a wedding. They make it to the church, but waiting for them is another twist ending, albeit one that cleverly reminds us not to get too wrapped up in schedules and appointments, and stop and enjoy the little things once in a while.

The standout of the five films, however, is the tense French drama “Just Before Losing Everything,” as a mother (Lea Drucker) makes plans to escape her abusive husband. Much of the 30-minute film takes place at the megastore where the woman works, as she enlists her co-workers to help her dodge the suspicious husband and get her and her kids to safety. The film builds suspense out of utterly mundane details, such as a scene in which checkout lines beep like racing heartbeats.

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“That Wasn’t Me” is a harrowing tale of third-world strife, as a pair of Spanish doctors are kidnapped by revolutionaries, many of them child soldiers. The film is told from the perspective of one of the children, cutting back and forth between the war and his present-day recounting of his crimes before an audience. Using this point of view, and daring us to understand or even empathize with the soldier, is an an intriguing choice, but the film eventually lapses into action-movie cliches and a far-too-pat ending.

The final film, “Helium,” visits a ward for terminally ill children, where an attendant weaves a story of a fantastical land called Helium for one dying boy. The movie is visually lovely, but the film suffers from an overload of whimsy that dampens the emotional undercurrent of the story.

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