Best Live-Action Short
Over the past few years the nominees in this category have become almost comically predictable. That’s not to say they aren’t good films, and a work of brilliance has now and again snuck in (2006’s Six Shooter comes to mind). Rather, it’s the overall trends that get me laughing. Since the 79th Academy Awards in 2007 there have been five Northern European comedies, three consecutive smart New York City flicks, and sixteen films featuring kids. That’s more than 50%. They’re always cute and usually either British or stricken by some horrible circumstance (third-world poverty, Chernobyl, the Holocaust, etc.) So forgive me if I’m mildly cynical about this award.
That being said, this year’s crop of nominees is definitely well above the Oscar average. One of the nominees, far and away the best of the bunch, is something I really wish I had caught before my Top 10 of 2011 last month. The rest of them are also pretty well-made and compelling, and even the obligatory adorable children have their merits.
Thankfully, only two of this year’s shorts involve cute children. The first is Pentecost, the clever and mildly anti-clerical comedy about an endearingly-accented Irish altar boy. The other, Raju, follows a German couple as they adopt a child in Calcutta. Each film practically represents a reserved slot on the line-up, yet mercifully they have their own merits. Pentecost takes soccer (football, of course) as a metaphor and stylistic basis for its portrayal of a mass so important it requires a crack team of altar boys. Raju, on the other hand, while managing to avoid a frustrating Orientalism manages to clearly strike at how the desire for family can force us into moral compromises. More than just showcases for adorable tots, these two shorts deserve their place at the Kodak.
Watch the trailer for Pentecost:
Watch the trailer for Raju:
The same cannot be said for Terry George’s 30-minute slog The Shore. The whole thing seems like a mediocre feature crammed down into half an hour of pretty Irish landscapes and unbalanced storytelling. It’s the tale of a return to homeland, Joe (Ciarán Hinds) making the trip back to his native Ireland with his American daughter (Kerry Condon). Unsurprisingly, he has a complicated past. Yet any mystery evaporates when he tells his entire story in a single stream of dialog. The remaining space is filled with a delayed reconciliation and an elongated chase scene that starts funny and lasts way too long. Brevity, as it turns out, really is the soul of wit.
Watch the trailer for The Shore:
The last two years have seen the Oscar go to a short set in New York City, and Time Freak would certainly like that trend to continue. It has the off-beat disregard for the laws of physics that brought God of Love to victory last year, and its sense of humor has just the right amount of whimsy. And, appropriately, it wastes not a single second. There are so many opportunities for a time-travel comedy to get lost in looping its own jokes. Yet unlike its protagonist, Time Freak stays on task.
Watch the trailer for Time Freak:
Yet all of the competition fades in comparison to Tuba Atlantic. First-time filmmaker Hallvar Witzø has already mastered the essentials of short film. His characters, the septuagenarian Oskar facing his last six days on earth and his unwelcome teenage caretaker Inger, are made familiar almost instantly. His typically dark Scandinavian sense of humor sends us into uproarious laughter as gulls fall from the sky, softening the blow of Oskar’s impending death by taking away its bite. The building tension combines with a magical sense of nature, aided along by the breathtaking Norwegian coast and an excellent musical score. It’s quite the promising display of young talent.
Watch the trailer for Tuba Atlantic:
Does that mean Witzø walks away with the statue? I’m not entirely sure. Pentecost is definitely out: the Academy has to be sick of the cute British kids motif by now, after three of five nominees last year fell into that category. Raju is good, but doesn’t seem quite stand-out enough to impress. Time Freak could pick it up, giving NYC a three year streak in the category, but it doesn’t seem quite showy enough. That leaves The Shore and Tuba Atlantic. It used to be common wisdom that the winner of the Student Academy Award (Witzo) never wins the Oscar, but God of Love proved that wrong last year. The Shore could take it, riding on its middle-aged-white-dude plot and good will for Ciarán Hinds and Terry George. Yet I don’t see that happening. Tuba Atlantic is simply too good, and noticeably beyond the whole field.
Will Win: Tuba Atlantic
Could Win: The Shore
Should Win: Tuba Atlantic
Best Animated Short
The Pixar category! Well, not really. It is hard, though, to separate the studio from this award if only because their nominee is usually the only one everyone gets to see in the theater. This year will likely be no different. La Luna, a breathtakingly animated work of art, will be attached to Brave next summer. It’s yet another example of how Pixar has perfected its unique brand of wordless storytelling, using little details to bring us into a magical world. This moonlit tale of tradition, family and finding yourself is the best shot at the statuette this particular studio has had in years.
Watch the trailer for La Luna:
But can they pull it off? That remains to be seen. The stiffest competition seems to be coming from Canada, or at least it should be. Patrick Doyon’s Dimanche has been written off by many as boring, which I think is entirely unfair. There isn’t much of a narrative, true, but the strength of this off-beat hand-drawn animation is in the details: freely drawn animals, intimidating high-speed trains, the tinge of a childlike and irreverent irony. The music is also excellent, probably the best score of these nominees.
Watch the trailer for Dimanche:
The best animation, on the other hand, can be found in Canada’s Wild Life. Painted images take us across the Atlantic on a Western journey to turn-of-the-century Alberta, following a young Englishman on his naïve quest for adventure. The whole prairie seems to breathe, majestic yet also extremely dangerous for the ill-equipped rancher. This genre-bending insight from Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby rises quietly to the top of the pack.
Watch the trailer for Wild Life:
Not that either Canadian short will win, of course. Pixar might take it, but so might either of the remaining two films. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore and A Morning Stroll are wildly different, but have one thing in common. While Pixar and the talented National Film Board of Canada animators combine gorgeous images and expertly arranged music with almost surprising alacrity, these two earnest shorts can’t seem to manage any sort of balance. A Morning Stroll is a cute idea that works well in its first segment, begins to lose you in its second, and by the time the zombie apocalypse shows up there’s really no saving it.
Watch the trailer for A Morning Stroll:
Those Fantastic Flying Books on the other hand seem to think “Pop Goes the Weasel” is worth repeating on loop for almost 15 minutes, without the inspired modulations of either Canadian film’s score. The anthropomorphized books also get old pretty quickly, if only because there’s no effort to give them any specificity. A Morning Stroll and Fantastic Flying Books both have their greatest strength in the simplicity of concept, and both squander it.
Watch The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Either could win. A Morning Stroll won the BAFTA and it has the same animation style as another short I thought was far too gimmicky and overlong: 2010’s winner, Logorama. Fantastic Flying Books, on the other hand, has the advantage of clutching your heartstrings without an ounce of nuance. Its self-illuminating insistence on its own inspirational potential gets only more blatant over its quarter-hour length. Canada and the NFB, on the other hand, haven’t won since 2006. Could Pixar pull it off? They haven’t had a win in this category since 2002, but for the first time they don’t have an animated feature for the Academy to prop up instead. La Luna might also be their best work, so I’m going to take the risk:
Will Win: La Luna
Could Win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Should Win: Wild Life
Don’t settle for the trailers! Got to Shorts International to find a screening near you, or buy them on iTunes. Time Freak¸ Wild Life, and Dimanche are now available.