It used to be next to impossible to see the various films nominated every year in the Oscar's three short film categories (animated, live action and documentary) a.k.a. that point in the telecast when you go to the bathroom/grab another beer/channel surf to check out what else is on. In recent years though, the distribution companies Magnolia and ShortsHD have banded together to ensure that these movies get a wider release, both in theaters and through new avenues like video on demand. Screenings of the 2012 nominees start in select cities Friday and will continue to open around the country (and overseas) over the next month. And beginning February 21st -- five days before Oscar night -- the films will also be available for purchase on iTunes. (Visit the official website to find more information on when and where the shorts may be playing near you.) Here's our take on all of the nominated short films, as well as the ones we think should and will win.
Just as you can expect to see Meryl Streep's name among the Best Actress candidates every Oscars cycle, so too does this category always include at least one short cartoon from the National Film Board of Canada. Dimanche is the first (and weakest) of two NFBC nominees this year and its sense of humor is thoroughly Canadian... which is to say, really strange. Every Sunday -- or Dimanche for all the Québécois in the audience -- a young kid heads out to the train tracks that run by his house and places a coin on the rails for fun. (Hey, there's not a lot to do in rural Canada.) On this particular Dimanche, the train rattles through town as usual, but a number of peculiar events precede and follow its arrival. While the simple, comic strip like animation style carries a certain degree of charm, the offbeat humor mostly falls flat and the final punchline lacks... well, punch.
Overall Grade: C+
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Hands down the best short I saw in any of the three categories, this inventive, lovely film blends several animation styles (2D, stop-motion and CGI) to tell its story of a book-loving nerd who is transported via a Wizard of Oz-style tornado to a magical land where novels and non-fiction tomes literally come alive. Taking up residence at the local library, he spends his days surrounded by the printed word and injects color into the lives of the land's human residents by matching the right person with the right book. While the film occasionally skirts the edge of excessive sentimentality, directors William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg are able to keep it on track, hitting the right heartwarming yet humorous tone throughout. And call me a softy, but the final scene made me tear up a little.
Overall Grade: A
Along with the National Film Board of Canada, Pixar is another perennial nominee in this group and since Cars 2 was (deservedly) snubbed for a Best Animated Feature nod, La Luna is their sole hope at adding another trophy to their already-crowded shelf of Oscars. And this short certainly goes for voters' jugulars, telling the whimsical story of a wide-eyed little boy who accompanies his father and grandfather on their nightly job of... sweeping the moon's surface free of shining shooting stars. Warms your heart, doesn't it? If not, director Enrico Casarosa isn't going to let up until your heart is suitably warmed, piling on shots of the adorable tyke gazing in wonder at the moon magic occurring around him, while a sweeping orchestral score -- written by Michael Giacchino, who generally writes more inventive than this -- plays over the action. (I kept feeling as though I were watching Cinema Paradiso as directed by a young Steven Spielberg.) It's all very cute, but ultimately too calculated to resonate.
Overall Grade: B-
A Morning Stroll
Here's a bit of an odd bird. While ambling along a New York City sidewalk one morning in 1959, a guy crosses paths with a chicken out for its own morning stroll. This situation repeats itself twice more in 50-year intervals, first in 2009 when a hipster tries to snap a shot of the chicken on his iPhone before he's distracted by a new app and then again in zombie-infested 2059 when the poor chick is pursued by one of the walking dead. Weird? Yup. Pointless? Kinda. Funny? Most definitely.
Overall Grade: B
Also hailing from our friends in the Great White North, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby's film chronicles a little-known (in this country anyway) slice of early 20th century Canadian history. At that time, young Englishmen came to Canada in droves seeking to make their reputations (and their fortunes) by staking a claim along the country's still unsettled frontier. The film follows one bloke who purchases a small plot of land in the wilderness and writes boastful letters home about his grand life, which in actuality is the exact opposite of grand. The film suffers a bit from an overwrought metaphor involving a comet, but they story is compelling and the painted animation style quite beautiful.
Overall Grade: B+
Deserves to Win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Will Win: La Luna
Live Action Shorts
Maybe you have to be a true soccer (excuse me... football) fan to appreciate the supposed charms of this Irish comedy, in which a pre-teen altar boy, Damian, is blocked from watching an important match for his beloved Liverpool squad after causing an embarrassing incident at Sunday mass. But with an important Catholic dignitary in town to lead the next service, the congregation needs all hands on deck, so Damian is offered a chance at redemption. If he gets through mass without a single slip-up, he'll be allowed to watch the game. Fail a second time and he'll be lucky if he's ever let out of his room. High stakes for the kid perhaps, but dullsville for those of us watching. The only burning question I was left with after this 11-minute doodle drew to a close is why the Academy thought it was worth nominating in the first place.
Overall Grade: D
Signs that the short you're watching is going to be unbearably depressing: 1) It's about a childless couple traveling to India to adopt an orphan; 2) Said orphan is a sweet little boy obviously thrilled to have a home; 3) The movie hails from Germany. Sure enough, barely five minutes have elapsed before things turn grim; while at a market one day, the child disappears and, in the process of trying to find him, the couple learns a disturbing secret about the orphanage where he lived. The filmmakers deserve credit for shining a light on a very real issue concerning overseas adoptions, but Raju ultimately feels like a PSA disguised as a narrative film.
Overall Grade: C
The short film category gets an infusion of star power with this gentle coming-home drama from Ireland, directed by and starring a pair of Belfast natives turned Hollywood players, Terry George (writer/director of Hotel Rwanda) and Ciarán Hinds (whose lengthy list of credits includes Rome, the last Harry Potter movie and the upcoming John Carter). Hinds plays a refugee who fled Ireland many years ago during "The Troubles," leaving behind his fiancée and best friend, who subsequently married. Now, returning to the Emerald Isle after twenty five years with his grown daughter in tow, he wants to try and mend fences with the loved ones he abandoned. Hinds is marvelous as always and the filmmakers thankfully add a healthy dose of humor to a melodramatic scenario. Of all the nominated live action shorts, this one feels the most completely realized and that, combined with the high-profile names involved, make it the odds-on favorite to win. At the same time though, considering the prestige Hinds and George bring to the film, it's a shame that The Shore isn't more challenging, provocative and altogether memorable.
Overall Grade: B+
Andrew Bowler's time-travel themed comedy is basically an 11-minute set-up for a single punchline, but as punchlines go it's pretty funny. A fusion of Groundhog Day and Shane Carruth's cult indie Primer, Time Freak revolves around an eccentric inventor that has cracked the secret of time travel, but before he can journey back to Ancient Rome (his favorite historical era) he uses his machine to try and repair a series of bad judgments he made the previous day. While not at all awards-worthy, it does indicate that Bolwer might be a good candidate to direct a few of those SNL Digital Shorts. Someone get a copy of Time Freak to Andy Samberg, stat.
Overall Grade: B-
Informed that he has six days left to live, an elderly Norwegian man spends his remaining time on this Earth finding creative ways to kill the swarms of seagulls hovering over his remote coastal home, ridiculing a young Christian fundamentalist that's been dispatched by her church to act as his "Angel of Death" (that's not as grim a job as it sounds) and trying to contact his estranged brother in New Jersey via an enormous tuba that faces the Atlantic. Calling the film's sense of humor droll would be an understatement -- it's so dry, it goes down like an unbuttered slice of toast. But there are modest pleasures to be had here as well (particularly the main character's seagull killing schemes, which range from a falling icebox to a machine gun) and the ending is touching in a distinctly odd, distinctly Scandinavian way.
Overall Grade: B
Deserves to Win: The Shore
Will Win: The Shore
(Note: One short, God Is The Bigger Elvis, was not available for review and may not be included in the program due to licensing issues.)
The Barber of Birmingham
Since 1955, Albama-born barber James Armstrong has served on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, joining the historic 1965 "Blood Sunday" march from Selma to Montgomery and campaigning endlessly for African-American voting rights. Filmed around the time of the 2008 election, The Barber of Birmingham features Armstrong and his customers reminiscing about the bad old days while also looking forward to casting their votes for the candidate who would become America's first black president. It's important, timely subject matter, but unfortunately the film handles it in a perfunctory way, mostly rehashing history that's been covered to more memorable effect in other documentaries and fiction features.
Overall Grade: C+
Incident in New Baghdad
In July 2007, two American army helicopters opened fire above the streets of Baghdad, killing two Reuters correspondents and wounding two children sitting inside an unmarked van. Footage of the incident was later posted on WikiLeaks and attracted worldwide attention and condemnation. Director James Spione effectively explores the event and its aftermath through that leaked footage, news reports and the testimony of a U.S. soldier who was on the ground and had his opinion of the war profoundly changed by what he witnessed. Although it ends somewhat abruptly, Incident in New Baghdad tackles its subject with sensitivity and a journalistic eye towards the facts of the case. It's the clear standout in this year's crop of nominees.
Overall Grade: B+
Acid attacks against women are a regular occurrence in Pakistan, a sobering fact that Saving Face brings some much-needed attention to via the stories of two wives who had their lives (and faces) destroyed by their respective husbands. Directors Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy also follow a Pakistani-born, England-educated plastic surgeon, who has returned to his native country to offer his services to these women and other victims of acid attacks. Even at 40 minutes, the film almost has too much material for a short -- expanding to feature length would allow the filmmakers to pursue ideas and lines of inquiry that are glossed over here. Saving Face is also an example of a documentary where the subject matter proves more impressive than its formal filmmaking elements. But it's also impossible not to be moved by the tragedies that befell these women, as well as their subsequent triumphs.
Overall Grade: B
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
Lucy Walker's film about the tsunami that devastated Japan last year boasts one of the most chilling opening sequences I've seen in some time. For roughly five minutes, we watch home video footage shot from the hill of a small coastal town showing a wave of black water sweeping through the streets, carrying away houses, cars and even people. There's no way to put a happy face on this tragedy and, to her credit, Walker doesn't attempt that. On the other hand, she does rely heavily (too heavily for my taste) on the arrival of cherry blossom season as a metaphor for the country's rebirth and revival. Lingering shots of cherry blossoms swaying in the breeze are interspersed between interviews with survivors of the tsunami as they discuss the horrors they witnessed and their hopes that lie ahead. That juxtaposition, while striking, ultimately feels too much like a sympathy card.
Overall Grade: C
Deserves to Win: Incident in New Baghdad
Will Win: Saving Face
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