Oscar Nominated Short Films…anyone that has ever done an office Oscar pool is familiar with these categories. These are the nominees with names of films you’ve never heard of and if you’re like me you usually pick the one that sounds the most Oscar-y or the one with the craziest title. For the past few years, the Academy has been packaging these films and presenting them in theaters or for download online to give audiences a chance to see these and maybe make more than a blind guess.
Below are my mini reviews of the five documentary short film nominees for 2014.
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
A documentary that looks at the life of the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life may have a fascinating central character but sadly lacks the kind of narrative tenacity that her journey warrants. 109 year old Alice Herz Sommer’s (who passed away just a few weeks ago) survival tale may be extraordinary and inspiring but this documentary is not. I was never quite sure what director Malcolm Clarke was going for because in 40 rather long minutes the focus shifts several times. Adding in several other subjects with characters of their own makes it feel like Clarke either didn’t have enough material in Herz Sommer (highly unlikely) or just couldn’t settle on a point of view. Though it may win points for sentimentality thanks to Herz Sommer’s genuine lust for life, the sum of its parts isn’t enough to make the kind of lasting impression intended.
Karama Has No Walls
Featuring first hand video of the 2011 uprising in Yemen, Karama Has No Walls feels more assembled than researched. Though the video from two brave souls puts the audience front and center in a graphic, bloody war zone there never came a time when I felt a connection to the subject or understood the trajectory of what led to the senseless attacks on a mostly peaceful protest. For the last decade there have been countless documentaries on the atrocities of war that have been selected for Oscar nomination by The Academy and at this point they are wearing a bit thin. I look for documentaries that educate/illuminate and I’ll admit that war documentaries face an uphill battle with me.
The weakest of the lot, Facing Fear comes across like a segment from a network news show like 48 Hours or Dateline. When a former neo-Nazi meets a victim of one of his hate crimes merely by chance, the two have the opportunity to explore what brought them to this point in their lives. Now, I don’t deny that there isn’t some meat to this story and perhaps in better hands it could have worked out to be an interesting exploration on the power of forgiveness. The problem is that the two men aren’t good subjects, with interview segments that seem overly rehearsed it winds up robbing the audience of feeling the one emotion that documentaries should never shy away from: honesty.
If I had to select my favorite entry of the five nominees it would be CaveDigger which follows eccentric artist Ra Paulette as he carves out extraordinary designs in the sandstone caves of New Mexico. Director Jeffrey Karoff wisely lets Paulette drive the narrative without much intrusion so we feel like we’re getting an unfiltered look at his art and what compels him to keep pushing his projects further and further. Interviews with Paulette’s friends and exasperated clients are humorous, revealing people that have a high opinion of his creativity even though they recognize there is a little bit of madness in the man. However, it’s in sequences involving Paulette and his wife in their humble home that gives you a glimpse of what life is like at the end of the day for a passionate artist.
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
In 2013 Showtime rolled out an extraordinary series called Time of Death. Though the limited series mainly followed the final months of a terminally ill mother of three, each episode also looked at the last days of a variety of others. Watching Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall I couldn’t help but wonder if this would have fit in Time of Death better than standing on its own. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the film ends with Hall’s death but how we get there is a moving and mostly interesting look at a prison system that has made a space for convicts to receive hospice care from other prisoners and hospital staff. Jack Hall isn’t the most sympathetic of subjects, which only serves to make the gentle care he receives from the convicted killers serving as hospice workers all the more impactful.