February 12, 2012

MOVIES: 2011 Oscar-nominated shorts (live-action/animated)

It's been seven or eight years now, I think, that these theatrical programs of the nominated shorts have been playing, and you start to see certain themes and patterns that the Academy voters apparently like, especially in the live-action films.

This year's "Irish fable about the morality of childhood," for instance, is "Pentecost," in which a young altar boy makes an embarrassing mistake and is given a chance to redeem himself during a particularly important Mass. I thought the movie trivialized religion in a mildly offensive way, fairly explicitly declaring the Mass to be no more important than a sporting event, and I found the protagonist's final act to be entirely unprepared and unmotivated.

The "aren't third world children adorable" slot goes this year to "Raju," about a German couple who have come to India to adopt a 4-year-old boy. Raju goes missing while shopping with his new father in a local bazaar, leading to some unsettling revelations. This is less cloyingly sweet than most of the kid-centered films in this category tend to be, but again, character motivation was problematic, particularly from the wife.

There's often a short which features big-time feature-film level talent slumming in the world of shorts; this year, director Terry George and star Ciaran Hinds bring us "The Shore." Two Irish men who were best friends in their youth meet for the first time after 25 years of estrangement. It's the most skillfully made of the group, but it's also the longest, and could have used a trim from its 30 minutes.

You can almost always count on an American entry for the broadest humor, as is true of "Time Freak," the tale of a schlub who dreams of using his time machine to visit ancient Rome, but instead gets caught up in trying to get the mundane exchanges of daily life right -- a visit to the dry cleaner, a meeeting with a potential girlfriend. Amusing, but slight; it's rather like an 11-minute version of Primer, but with coherent storytelling and a sense of humor.

Finally, the "lonely old Scandinavian prepares to die" slot is filled by Norway's "Tuba Atlantic," in which Oskar spends the last week of his life in the company of an enthusiastic young woman who is trying to earn her "Angel of Death" wings so that he can help other people at the end of their lives; he spends much of his time devising more and more ingenious ways to kill off the local seagulls. It is the best of a weak lot.

Should win: "Tuba Atlantic."
Will win: "The Shore."

The animated films this year are a stronger lot, and if you can only see one of the two programs, it's the one to see.

"Dimanche/Sunday" is the story of a small boy in a small town, being bored to pieces on a typical Sunday. Breakfast with the parents, church, dinner at Grandma's with the extended family of aunts and uncles -- none of it holds his attention, especially since he always seems to be the only child in the room. The animation is done in very simple, child-like drawings, and the sense of perspective is often exaggerated -- notice how large the trains are as they pass through town.

"A Morning Stroll" tells a simple story -- a New Yorker has a strange encounter with a chicken -- three times, each time in the animation style (or the imagined style) of a different era. The 1959 version is done in marvelous stick figures, so minimally drawn that they border on the abstract; the 2009 version is contemporary CGI. The 2059 version imagines an unhappy future, and gets a bit too gory for my taste.

"Wild Life" is set in the early 20th century, and follows the life of a young British dandy who has come to Alberta, Canada, where he fancies himself a cowboy rancher. The animation is in a style that doesn't generally interest me much, looking like oil paintings come to life, and while it is impeccably and beautifully done, it's a lot of beauty applied to a rather slight story.

"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" is about a Buster Keaton-esque young man who is swept away by a storm (very, very, VERY Wizard of Oz) to a magical land where his only company is a library of flying books. It's meant to be a tale about the joy of reading, and the ways in which books can carry us away. It's a bit surreal for my taste, though there are moments in it that I like very much.

Pixar's "La Luna," which you'll be able to see in theaters this summer preceding Brave, is the story of two janitors (of a sort) working the night shift with their young apprentice, who learns to do the job in his own way while still being respectful to his mentors. It's absolutely charming, and it is by far the best of the lot.

Should win: "La Luna."
Will Win: "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore."

Because the animated shorts don't make a full-length program, we got four additional non-nominated films from the shortlist, most of which were beautifully animated, but rather slight on story. "Nullarbor" is the story of two drivers in conflict on Australia's longest, straightest stretch of desert highway. "Amazonia" is the struggle to survive in the jungle food chain, with a punchline that doesn't quite pay off. "The Hybrid Union" gives us robots racing, for no apparent reason, through an endless desert.

Best of the also-rans was "Skylight," which is presented in the style of an old-fashioned educational film about penguins (complete with the frame occasionally slipping off center and jittery sound), but ultimately proves to have more contemporary issues on its mind. The very final image takes the joke one step too far, but that's my only complaint, and I'd happily have had this among the nominees over "Wild Life" or "A Morning Stroll."

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