Academy Award nominees for Best Live Action Short Film deal with spiritual topics, and two of them involve priests. Has some sort of theological bias affected the nominating branch's members or is this another sign, following the strong showing at this year's Sundance Film Festival, of an increased interest in religious topics by filmmakers?
At any rate, these nominees as well as the five 2011 candidates for Best Animated Short Film are now available for public consideration in Los Angeles, New York and other select cities. In some cities, the Best Documentary Short Film finalists are also being shown, the first time this has been done prior to Oscar night (February 27 this year). All the nominees will be available for viewing on iTunes and cable's Movies on Demand beginning February 22.
I had the opportunity to screen the honored Live Action and Animated shorts in advance. All are worth seeing, but here are my more specific reactions to each of them:
LIVE ACTION SHORT FILMS:
The Confession: This is a sly, disturbing morality tale from the UK, and a study in Catholic guilt to the nth degree. It starts out innocently as two young boys prepare to make their first confession with their classmates. One is having difficulty identifying a sin for which he feels true remorse — which is necessary for absolution, according to Catholic practice — but things change dramatically in the wake of a prank the boys play that has unexpectedly tragic consequences. Dark stuff, but the film is extremely well-directed by Tanel Toom and beautifully photographed by Davide Cinzi.
Wish 143: The tonal antithesis of The Confession if also steeped in questions of morality, this is my personal favorite of the five. When a terminally-ill teenager is asked by the British equivalent of the Make a Wish Foundation what he would like to do before he dies, he knocks them for a loop when he responds that he wants to lose his virginity. A delicate subject is handled not only humorously but gracefully here primarily thanks to screenwriter Tom Bidwell and a great cast. The priest character, played by recognizable actor Jim Carter, is particularly indicative of the short's balance of laughs and compassion. When the young patient, attempting to convince the good Father that he deserves a night with a prostitute, states bluntly "I've got cancer, Father," the priest replies, "I don't care if you've got stigmata!"
God of Love: A decidedly tongue-in-cheek exploration of love and divine intervention. A lounge singer (played by Luke Matheny, who also wrote and directed) pines for the drummer in his band, but she only has eyes for his best friend and guitarist. Help mysteriously arrives via a box full of darts that have the magical effect of making those struck with them fall in love with the first person they see. Amusing, and well-shot in black and white, if a bit slight and amateurish for Academy Award contention in my opinion.
Na Wewe: The title of this selection from Belgium is pronounced "No wayway" and means "You too" in Kurundi. It sets up a tense showdown between travelers journeying in a bus through civil war-torn, 1990's Burundi and a group of rebels that stops them. The armed rebels, intent on distinguishing between Hutus and Tutsis on the bus (when most of the travelers are neither), somewhat learn a lesson in the futility of making such ethnic/tribal distinctions. If the film's ending is perhaps overly optimistic, even comical, this is still a worthy 19 minutes that may well win the Oscar in this category.
The Crush: While it isn't unusual for school children to develop romantic feelings for their teachers, it is rare for such situations to grow as intense as they do in this well-written, sweet and sour short from Ireland. Eight-year old Ardal, crushing on his newly-engaged teacher, challenges her fiancee to a duel to the death with pistols. To say much more would likely ruin the satisfying payoff.
ANIMATED SHORT FILMS:
Day & Night: Pixar has become not only an annual fixture in the Best Picture and Best Animated Feature categories in recent years, but among the nominated shorts as well. Day & Night, which played theatrically before Toy Story 3 last summer, similarly serves as the latter's "date" to the Oscars this year. A bit more artsy or experimental than usual Pixar fare, it's an enjoyable visual parable about prejudice that, if nothing else, is much better than the corny, cloying short involving baby-creating clouds (or something like that) that preceded last year's Up.
The Gruffalo: Beautifully animated if overlong and too slowly paced for a child-oriented tale (based on the book by Julia Donaldson). It benefits substantially from a great voice cast of name British actors, including this year's Best Supporting Actress nominee Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech) as well as John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson and Robbie Coltrane. Given the star power involved and its visual accomplishment, German co-directors Jakob Schuh and Max Lange will likely take home the Academy Award.
The Lost Thing: I'm hoping, though, that this imaginative, haunting short from Australia will emerge triumphant. A young man discovers a bell-laden, mechanical-crustacean hybrid with tentacles on the beach. While it serves as an odd pet for a time, he commits himself to finding a suitable home for it with other "lost things." Charmingly designed, the film can potentially be interpreted as a commentary on immigration, environmental displacement, adolescence or any number of other issues. Definitely my favorite among the animated shorts.
Let's Pollute: Speaking of environmental meltdown, this American production takes a sprightly approach to the subject in the guise of an 1950's-60's educational movie for elementary school kids. Amusingly animated, it becomes irritatingly heavy-handed and preachy at only 6 minutes in length. History, though, may yet prove it prescient.
Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage: A French-made travelogue through the title country that bears no relation to the DreamWorks series that stars Ben Stiller as a talking lion. Here, the filmmakers employ an arresting, unpredictable mix of animation styles. Although it doesn't really have a plot or a point, it may persuade more viewers to actually visit Madagascar than Stiller & Co. have done.
Visit Shorts International for more information. Click here to watch clips from all the nominated shorts.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.