Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Documentary Short - Survivors of different stripes dominate the race
In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!
Back in the days before online streaming, Best Documentary Short was the wild card of every year's Oscar pool -- without seeing the nominees, which are usually equivalent in terms of profile (low) and previous recognition (little to none), there's no way of knowing which one would win. These days I do get to see the nominees beforehand, and you know what? There's still no way of knowing which one will win -- this is surely the most evenly matched race of the night, consisting of at least three highly different survival stories (and one of heartbreaking demise). There's not one nominee that can be discounted here.
The nominees are...
"CaveDigger" (Jeffrey Karoff)
"Light-hearted" isn't exactly the word, since there's a wry melancholy to the entire enterprise, but the least solemn of the nominees in terms of subject matter is this engaging portrait of earth sculptor Ra Paulette, whose astonishingly intricate, hand-carved dwellings in the sandstone cliffs of New Mexico -- lending new meaning to the term "man-cave" -- really have to be seen to be believed. Much of the film of simply an awestruck showcase of Paulette's process and output, but where it gets interesting is in its examination of his brittle relationship with commissioning clients, and the ensuing conflict between artistic impulse and business obligation. It's a dilemma that should be familiar to any kind of artist, and it lends extra weight to what otherwise seems like an entertainingly offbeat episode of "Grand Designs." There's probably not enough emotional pull in first-time director Karoff's film for the win, but it's a welcome change of pace in the category.
"Facing Fear" (Jason Cohen)
One nominee that should really land an emotional gut-punch -- and yet felt to me too packaged and too rigidly structured to get there -- is this study of reformed prejudice and forgiveness in contemporary Los Angeles. Cohen's film relates a fairly remarkable story: 25 years after being brutally beaten in the street by a gang of homophobic white supremacists, a formerly homeless gay man coincidentally comes face-to-face with his remorseful attacker at L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance -- for which this film plays as something of a PSA. Their gradual making of amends is touching, but Cohen imposes a portentous narrative style -- separating the principals as they tell their stories in parallel -- that is a little much for this slender 22-minute film (the shortest of the nominees) to sustain. Still, its issues will register with a number of voters.