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Short-film nominees for Oscar a fine group

By BARRY PARIS | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (MCT) | Published: February 10, 2014

How to beat this horrendous arctic cold spell?

Just slip into your shorts - the live-action and animated ones nominated for the upcoming Academy Awards. It's a particularly good crop in both categories. What I love most is the unpredictable international smorgasbord, and these 2014 short subjects - miniature movie morsels between 6 and 26 minutes long - are tastier than usual. In the animation department, they range from fairy-tale fantasy to flights of futuristic fancy:

"Room on the Broom" (directed by Max Lang and Jan Lachauer; UK; 25 minutes): The Least Wicked Witch of the East or West has a sweet disposition and joie de vivre unusual for her profession. She's a happy, user-friendly kind of witch, but she keeps losing things in mid-air and having to retrieve them, aided by her faithful feline companion (a ginger Bando) and various critters on the ground, who all ask the same question: Is there room for them on the broom, too? It's an old model, with dubious aerodynamics - increasingly crowded and problematic. Favorite detail: When the cat reaches into a haystack, searching for her lost hair-ribbon, he pulls out a needle instead.

"Mr. Hublot" (Laurent Witz; Luxembourg/France; 11 minutes): The hero is described as "a withdrawn, idiosyncratic character with OCD." This agoraphobic man-of-the-future - made of (spare) mechanical parts, wears quadrifocal corrective lenses and an odometer on his forehead with constantly running numbers, like an electric meter. The invasive arrival of Robot Pet, a stray mechanized dog, disturbs his terrifically drawn dystopia.

"Get a Horse!" (Lauren MacMullen; USA; 6 minutes): Walt Disney checks in from the beyond in this state-of-the-CGI-art homage to early Mickey Mouse. Mick, Minnie, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow are having a jolly hay wagon ride when interrupted and menaced by Peg-Leg Pete. Suddenly, the violent Punch & Judy action (not so politically correct these days) spills over from its 1928 vintage black-and-white 2-D screen into 3-D color - and the movie theater itself! - as the characters struggle to get back into their old frame. It's a delightfully surreal exercise, running in some theaters as an opening appetizer to the Disney animated feature "Frozen."

"Possessions" (Shuhei Morita; Japan; 14 minutes): It's a dark and stormy night in 18th-century Japan, where a lost traveler takes refuge in a long-abandoned shrine full of discarded objects - broken umbrellas, remnants of ancient kimonos - which suddenly come swirling to life, threatening him with their ancient resentments. A Japanese legend has it that, after 100 years, old physical possessions attain souls and demand to be remembered. The weary traveler sets about mending them - and himself - in this deliriously didactic dreamscape.

"Feral" (Daniel Sousa; USA; 13 minutes): A wild boy in the woods is discovered and "rescued" by a hunter, who takes him back to civilization. Much alienated in the new environment, he tries to adapt with his animal skills in this morality tale - drawn in soft-edged, impressionistic style - that owes much to Francois Truffaut's "The Wild Child."

In the live-action department:

"The Voorman Problem" (Mark Gill; UK; 13 minutes): Supercilious Dr. Williams has been summoned by the authorities to determine the sanity or insanity of a dangerous prisoner who claims to be God. Their colloquy is illuminating but inconclusive, with the straitjacketed prisoner proposing an experiment: Would the doctor believe his divine identity if he made Belgium disappear? A sample of the fabulous dialogue in this little black-comic masterpiece: "How long have you believed yourself to be a god?" the psychiatrist asks. "I might ask you the same," he replies.

"Just Before Losing Everything" (Xavier Legrand; France; 30 minutes): Miriam is desperate to get herself and her two kids out of town in a hurry. We don’t know why. Her panic mounts - as do the terror and danger - in this intensely realistic, edge-of-your-seat rendering of an all-too-common international crime.

"That Wasn't Me" (Esteban Crespo; Spain; 24 minutes): An even worse international crime is chronicled in the grim, devastating story of Paula and Kaney - Spanish doctor and African boy - whose paths cross at the violent intersection of a civil war employing child soldiers. Mindless brutality and bloodlust combine in basic macho theory and practice: The way to get respect is with a gun. The way to get ultimate respect, and prove your manhood, is to kill somebody with it.

"Helium" (Anders Walter; Denmark; 23 minutes): A much sweeter path-crossing takes the form of a dying boy and a feckless hospital janitor meeting late on the road from here to eternity. Is the man feeding him lies or giving him true hope? You be the judge of a beautifully depicted idea.

"Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?" (Selma Vilhunen; Finland; 7 minutes): Finnish moms aren't much different from American (or any other) moms. Sini wakes up in a panic, having overslept for a wedding. Her husband, Jokke, is a joke when getting himself and their two daughters dressed (they put on their Halloween costumes). The wedding gift is missing. There's a fine Finnish-ing touch. A nice bonus with the animated program is the inclusion of four runners-up "qualifying" (but un-nominated) shorts - of which "A la Francaise," created by a team of students from the French animation school Supinfocom, is to die for: It's an afternoon in Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, the aristocrats in sumptuous, eye-dazzling costumes cavorting to classical music. One odd thing: They're all chickens - a hilariously perfect rendering of vanity and intrigue-most-fowl in the Sun King's court.

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