“Brevity is the soul of wit” is a saying that’s been attributed to many, though ostensibly it was William Shakespeare who coined it, in Hamlet.

Regardless of its true origins, the quote could be used to describe the efforts of shorts filmmakers, who attempt to tell complete stories in much-shorter timespan than their feature-film counterparts. To qualify for Academy Award consideration, they are either constricted to 40 minutes or fewer (for animated and live-action shorts nominees), or 50 minutes or fewer (for documentary shorts) – half that of conventional, long-form filmic storytelling.

And outside of cable television and film festivals, even the best shorts rarely see the light of day … or the dimmed lights of a movie theater. Luckily, Shorts International, with help from distributor Magnolia Pictures, is currently showcasing a series of programs that feature the full slate of animated, documentary and live-action short works that are up for Oscars in their respective categories this year.

As always, the three programs (four, if you count the two parts of the documentary one as full programs) are a mixed bag at best. But it is fascinating to see these works, which in many cases rival if not exceed their feature-length competition in terms of quality filmmaking and storytelling.

Arguably, the weakest grouping of the bunch is the live-action program, which hits a few expected and heavy-handed few expected notes with Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me), a Spanish-language drama about foreign aid workers who attempt to intervene in the lives of African child soldiers, and Helium, a Danish drama-fantasy following a terminally ill child and the sympathetic hospital worker that tries to comfort him with magical tales.

While the French thriller Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) is enthralling – it follows an abused woman who is trying to get away from a dangerous, violent spouse — the nebulous, ambiguous ending will frustrate some viewers. And the Finnish comedy Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) may be amusing, but it’s strictly a one-joke story about a frustrated, would-be wedding guest.


But on the plus side, the live-action program does feature The Voorman Problem, a tricky little comic mystery starring Martin Freeman (TV’s Sherlock, the Hobbit movies) as a prison shrink trying to determine whether a prisoner (Tom Hollander, from About Time) is clinically insane or whether he’s who or what he claims to be. (Not to spoil anything, but the title character has a bit of a God complex.)


It’s not too surprising that Get a Horse!, a delightfully inventive, fourth-wall-breaking Mickey Mouse cartoon that played in front of Disney’s animated smash hit Frozen, is among the best of the animated shorts. But the other nominees do rival it for sheer invention and even in terms of their diverse, though no less quality, animation styles.

The French fantasy Mr. Hublot puts a Steampunk stamp on the familiar man-and-his-dog tale, while both Feral and Possessions are uniquely original survival stories. Even Room on the Broom, the least of this quality bunch, has its moments.

Mr Hublot - Short Animated Film

Due to the length – combined they take up more than three hours — the exceptional documentary program is split into two parts: Facing Fear, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life and Karama Has No Walls make up one mini-program; CaveDigger and Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall are combined in the other.

The stories featured in the former grouping – respectively, they tell the tales of a hate-crime victim who confronts an attacker decades later, a Holocaust survivor who lives through her music and those who survived a Yemen massacre – are all fascinating.


Elsewhere, the visually arresting CaveDigger might be the biggest surprise of the documentaries, as it takes a look at an “environmental artist” who creates landscapes inside sandstone caves. And Prison Terminal shows us the final days of a former war hero now facing his mortality behind bars. All of these could easily be expanded to feature length – or be turned into feature films – though they would never best these particular storytelling efforts.