Each year the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences nominates five animated and five live-action short films as the best of the previous 12 months. But they’re not necessarily the best, of course — just the best (in theory) of those shorts that, per Academy rules, received a commercial run for at least three consecutive days in a movie theater somewhere in Los Angeles County or won an award at one of 75 qualifying film festivals without ever receiving previous exposure on TV, home video, or the Internet.
So there’s plenty of worthy work that doesn’t make the cut, or can’t afford to, or made the mistake of bum-rushing YouTube. That high barrier to entry means a given year’s slate can be surprisingly lackluster, as it is with the 2014 nominees for best live-action short, unspooling with their animated cousins at the Kendall Square starting Friday.
All five start from intriguing premises; all feature slick production values and game performances. And all but one falters when it comes to follow-through or locating the right tone. “The Voorman Problem” has a great comic idea — a mental patient (Tom Hollander) who’s convinced he’s God may actually be right — but runs out of gas after one inspired gag involving the existence of Belgium. Similarly, Finland’s “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” has a bright setup (chaotic Helsinki family tries to get to a wedding; everything goes wrong) that builds to a shrug.
“Helium,” from Denmark, is a sweet but predictable tale of a terminally ill boy and the misfit janitor who regales him with tales of the magical kingdom of the title; beautiful CGI visuals fight narrative schmaltz to a draw. And “That Wasn’t Me,” a Spanish-made short about a pair of NGO doctors coming to grief in an African war zone, stirs a number of hot-button issues — child soldiers, naive Western aid workers, battlefield rape — into a tasteless, pointless mulligan stew.
Only one live-action short succeeds as a movie, but it’s a beauty: “Just Before Losing Everything,” from the French writer-director Xavier Legrand. Unfolding at a suburban superstore in what feels like real time, it follows one of the cashiers, Miriam (Lea Drucker), as she and her two children prepare to flee an abusive, possibly homicidal husband. The film establishes a unique sense of place, casts Miriam’s co-workers as touchingly sympathetic conspirators, and is a nerve-shreddingly tense 30 minutes long. Depending on what you see, the ambiguous final image is either a relief or a punch to the gut. In short, a keeper.
The slate of animated nominees tells a happier and more consistent story, with only one entry — the overlong and drearily whimsical “Room on the Broom,” for small kiddies only — failing to make an impression. Stronger nominees include “Mr. Hublot,” an engaging steampunk fable about a clockwork man and his adorable robo-dog from Luxembourg’s Laurent Witz, and Shuehei Morita’s “Possessions,” a striking Japanese folk tale with glints of Hayao Miyazaki’s visual overkill.
The best two in this category come at the art of animation from opposite quarters, aesthetic and commercial. “Feral” is a stunning short by Daniel Sousa, a filmmaker who is based in Pawtucket, R.I., and teaches at RISD, that tells the story of a 19th-century “wild child” in impressionistic swaths of black-and-white imagery; while some computer work is involved, “Feral” is mostly penciled and painted by humans, and it has the feel of a handcrafted fever dream.
If you’ve taken your kids to see “Frozen,” you’ve probably seen the fifth nominee. “Get a Horse!” is the latest from the resurgent Walt Disney Animation Studios — they won this category last year with “Paperman” — and it’s both a tribute to Disney’s animation past and the work of a singular visionary, animator Lauren MacMullan. What begins as a faux-1920s Mickey Mouse short — complete with repurposed vocals by Walt himself — bursts delightfully through the screen, “Sherlock Jr” style, into full-color CGI, and then back again, and then forth again, each time raising the stakes with delightful meta-mayhem. I’d be happy to see either “Feral” or “Get a Horse!” win on March 2; if one testifies to the art of animation and the other to its ongoing entertainment value, both are vital, and that’s what counts.
The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated
At: Kendall Square
Running time: 62 minutes