2014 Oscars: Good films, in small packages

A look at the 2014 Oscar-nominated short films

'The Voorman Problem'

Still from Oscar-nominated short film, "The Voorman Problem." (theoscarshorts.shorts.tv. / January 31, 2014)

For too long moviegoers have had little exposure to the short films nominated each year for an Oscar, certainly not in the weeks prior to the ceremony. The awards for shorts — defined as shorter than 40 minutes and divided into three categories: live action, documentary and animation — have been little more than a black hole of random guesses for viewers filling out their ballots at home.

Much of that has changed in the last decade or so as cinemas carve out time for the contenders. Starting this weekend you can catch up with the 2014 Oscar-nominated shorts at the Music Box Theatre (which is handling the documentaries, divided into two programs that are roughly 90 minutes each) and the Landmark Century Centre Cinema (where you'll find the live action and animation slate).

I sat down to screen the offerings this week. Here's a look at some of the films on tap.

Documentary

"Prison Terminal": This one is from local filmmaker Edgar Barens, about prison hospice. It focuses specifically on 82-year-old Jack Hall, serving out a life sentence for murder at the maximum security Iowa State Penitentiary. Barens couldn't have found a better subject to follow; Hall is a bundle of contradictions and slowly it becomes clear how his crime came about.

A veteran of World War II (he was a prisoner of war who apparently suffered brutally), he came home after his military service with what we would clearly identify today as PTSD. He was an all-right guy, according to one of his sons, except when he drank. His youngest child became hooked on drugs and eventually committed suicide at 14. "One day, this dope dealer was bragging about how he made his money," Hall says into the camera. "He didn't make no more." He pauses. Looks away. And then back. "I stopped him." Another pause. "So I got life up here."

Barens, who teaches in the college of social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, shot the film while living on prison grounds in the doctors' residence. The film will also air on HBO March 31.

"Cavedigger": Ornate but minimalist might be the best way to describe Ra Paulette's caves, which he carves out of sandstone cliffs and outcroppings in New Mexico. The man puts windows and skylights in these caves, with their cream-colored walls and undulating floor plans.

Paulette isn't an engineer, nor an architect. He's just a bearded middle-aged guy who calls himself "a digger of caves and a piler of rocks." He uses only hand tools — nothing is mechanized or battery operated; just a pick ax, a scraper, a shovel and a wheelbarrow — and the results look like an otherworldly cross between the cantina in "Star Wars" and a the inside of Cheesecake Factory if it were flooded with light and white-washed into a state of zen. Paulette works alone, with only his dog as companion, the latter sitting there calmly, watching as his master digs into the dirt. Paulette is mellow, deeply philosophical and stubborn — a quintessential individualist who doesn't want anyone bugging him or ruining his efforts with their demands. Visually, of all the documentaries nominated, this one made the strongest impression.

Live Action

"The Voorman Problem": Starring Martin Freeman ("The Hobbit" and "Sherlock") as a psychiatrist called to a British prison to assess an inmate, played by Tom Hollander ("Rev") who believes he is God and that he created the world just nine days ago. "Evidence suggests the world is somewhat older than nine days," says Freeman's shrink. "I know," comes the retort. "I created the evidence too."

Adapted from a portion of the novel "number9dream," the film has the most beguiling mix of tones — both smirkingly funny and legitimately creepy sci-fi, starting the moment Freeman rings the buzzer at the prison's outer door, only to be met with unsettling and unidentifiable sounds. The plot is laid out quickly and efficiently and doesn't overstay its welcome.

"Just Before Losing Everything": This French film follows a mother and her two children (one a preteen boy, the other a teenage girl) for just a few hours as they attempt to quietly get the hell out of town. "I don't know what to do," the woman tells a co-worker at the large retailer where they are both employed. "I must get out quick." The reason for their escape soon emerges in bits and pieces, hints and casual mentions of violence, and then in the person of a heavy-lidded man who is husband and father to this freaked-out family.

This is a naturalistic, almost documentary-seeming look at a tense afternoon, and the film generates real heart-racing tension as it circles the big question: Will they make a clean get-away?

Animation

"Mr. Hublot": Photorealistic with a quasi-Pixar look, this animated short exists in a visual world that could comfortably live side-by-side that of Martin Scorsese's "Hugo." A strange, mute little moleman — actually he's more of a Humpty Dumpty in a leather trench coat and goggles; it's all very intricate and steampunk — becomes friends with a mechanical faceless dog-like thing that has been abandoned in the street.

"Feral": Almost impressionistic in the way it is drawn, the story opens on a winter landscape as a pack of wolves chase down and snare their prey, eating hungrily. A boy emerges from the shadows and howls into the wind, only to growl at the human interloper who arrives to save this feral child from the wilderness. He is taken in and turned into a proper young man by his new caretaker, but his teeth-baring ways are not completely in the past, and he is locked up with the animals. The story, which is wordless, has an almost a mythical quality it.

For screening info go to landmarktheatres.com and musicboxtheatre.com. For more about the films go to theoscarshorts.shorts.tv.

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews

Tom Hanks Day

Coming up on its 11th year, the International Tom Hanks Day — a jokey celebration of Hanks' work started by a group of Midwestern college friends — is looking to raise a few bucks on Kickstarter for its April event in Chicago. (They are almost halfway to their $9,000 goal, with a deadline of March 2). Go to Kickstarter.com and search "Tom Hanks Day."

Big pharma, big profits

Did the pharmaceutical industry play a role in keeping drugs out of the hands of Africans with AIDS and HIV? "Fire in the Blood" takes a look at how business practices — meant to protect patents and profits, but not necessarily human lives in Third World nations — led to an estimated 10 million people dying because they could not get access to necessarily medications. It screens Saturday and Thursday at the Siskel. Director Dylan Mohan Gray will take questions via Skype after Thursday's screening. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/fire-blood.

If the van's a-rockin'...

Director Billy Federighi will be at Tuesday's screening of his 2012 comedy "Adventures in the Sin Bin," about a young guy who loans his van to friends looking for a convenient-yet-private place to have sex. Co-starring Chicago native Jeff Garlin. It screens as part of the Midwest Independent Film Festival's monthly events at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. Go to midwestfilm.com.

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