HBO’s Prison Terminal: “I’d be shocked if it doesn’t win the Oscar Documentary prize,” says our film critic John Seal.
: “I’d be shocked if it doesn’t win the Oscar Documentary prize,” says our film critic John Seal.

It’s time once again to handicap the Oscar races that most obsess Berkeleyside readers – I’m speaking, of course, of the short subjects. 2013’s crop of nominees is a strong one, and as in previous years will play as a package at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas beginning on Friday, Jan. 31.

Of the three categories, the Live Action group is (with one notable exception) particularly impressive. I’m picking former child actor Xavier Legrand’s Just Before Losing Everything – the riveting tale of a Frenchwoman (Lea Drucker) attempting to escape from her abusive husband – as the winner. Suspenseful and moving, the film suggests Legrand could easily transition to feature length productions should he so desire.

Likely runners-up include Denmark’s Helium, a touching blend of drama and fantasy about the brief happiness brought to a dying youngster by a hospital janitor, and The Voorman Problem, a mind-bender about a prisoner who insists he’s God – and proves it by making Belgium disappear. Finland’s Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, a comedy about family misunderstandings, is genuinely funny but a bit too slight (and short) to take home the prize.

Bringing up the rear is That Wasn’t Me, a clumsy, ill-considered drama about the healing and redemptive effect middle-class white Europeans have on their little brown African brothers. I found the film repulsive and can’t imagine how or why it was nominated.

In most years Disney or Pixar productions dominate the Animation category, and that looks likely to continue in 2014. Disney’s Get A Horse!, a thoroughly charming tribute to the classic cartoons of the 1930s enlivened with an impressive infusion of modern 3D animation technology, is the deserving frontrunner. There’s stiff competition, however, in the form of Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden’s Wild Child-flavored Feral, a minimalist work with the look of an animated cave painting and a magnificent Popol-Vuh-style score, and Room on the Broom, a British production about a witch and her animal companions that will charm children of all ages. Featuring an impressive array of voice talent, including Simon Pegg, David Walliams, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, and Gillian Anderson, it’s as warm and fuzzy as that chunky Christmas jumper your nan knitted for you.

Also nominated are Shuhei Morita’s bizarre Possessions, in which a Japanese wanderer takes shelter in a haunted storehouse filled with broken umbrellas, and Laurent Witz’s Mr. Hublot, a steampunk fantasy reminiscent of the works of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I didn’t find either film particularly engaging, though they certainly look great.

I’ll be shocked if HBO’s Prison Terminal (scheduled to debut on the network on March 31) doesn’t win the Documentary prize: unflinchingly recording the final days of decorated World War II veteran Jack Hall, a convicted murderer dying in a prison hospice, it’s an utterly unsentimental yet deeply affecting little masterpiece. I can’t imagine a more powerful piece of film-making – bring an extra hanky.

There are several other worthy contenders in the category, including Karama Has No Walls, an astonishing compilation of footage shot in the Yemeni city of Sana’a at the height of the Arab Spring; Facing Fear, a truth is stranger than fiction examination (by the Bay Area’s Jason Cohen) of two very different Californians and the paths that led them to meet twice in unusual circumstances; and The Lady In Number 6, an elegiac biography of the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, a 110-year old Czech woman who plays the piano every day in her London flat.

Finally, Jeffrey Karoff’s Cave Digger takes a look at a New Mexico man who…wait for it…digs caves. The film bored me to tears, which – considering the subject matter – is perhaps appropriate.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...