(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Awards Watch: Short Stories

For the seventh year, Shorts HD will be presenting in theaters special short film programs collecting this year's Academy Award nominated animated, live action and documentary shorts. As in the past few years, this is a great opportunity for movie fans and Oscar watchers to see these small, often overlooked gems not only on the big screen, but also before the Big Night, therefore possibly giving you a leg up in your office Oscar pool. The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013 opens today with the separate animated and live action programs, with the documentary program premiering next Friday.

Unlike in recent years when the Animated Short category has often been populated -- and won by -- cynical and/or esoteric fare (Logorama, The Lost Thing), this year's batch of toons are all accessible and lighthearted (but not light weight). And there is none of that fancy-schmancy computer animation either; two are animated via old school stop motion, while the other three are traditionally hand-drawn. And all five are dialogue-free, not as uncommon in this category as one might think.

You may have actually seen one or two of the nominees already, as Disney's Paperman and Fox's Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare" were paired theatrically with, respectively, Wreck-It-Ralph and Ice Age: Continental Drift. The former is a an almost all black-and-white tale (directed by John Kahrs) of a lovelorn office drone desperately trying to connect, via paper airplanes, with the pretty secretary in the office building directly across the street from his. It is sweet and sharply animated, in typical Disney style, however anyone who has seen the popular internet short Signs may feel a strong sense of déjà vu while viewing it.  As for the latter, it is a little ironic that, where The Simpsons Movie failed to get nominated for Best Animated Feature a few years back, little Maggie Simpson got a nod all on her own (actually, the nomination goes to director David Silverman). As the title suggests, our favorite pacifier-sucking yellow toddler finds herself in the "Ayn Rand School for Tots", where she faces off against a unibrowed brat intent on smashing her new butterfly friend. Fast-paced and lively, this one is as cute as its leading lady.

Fresh Guacamole, the only non-narrative short among the animated block, is a stop motion fiesta by the animator known only as PES, wherein viewers are treated to the preparations of the tasty title dish, but with a twist.  At a mere 105 seconds, this is by far the shortest -- and thus slightest -- of the lot, but still a mouth-watering delight.  The other stop motion entry, Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Relly's Head Over Heels, takes place in a topsy-turvy house where an old married couple live, one on the ceiling, the other on the floor. Often at odds with each other, the two eventually find a way to share a common ground in a charming resolution.

As good as all the animated nominees are this year, the final one, Adam and Dog by Minkyu Lee, stands out as the best and is my personal favorite out of all the shorts in these programs. Simply yet beautifully crafted, Adam and Dog answers the question, "what if Eve had competition for Adam's attention... and it was a dog?" Filled with subtle humor and even (gasp!) full frontal cartoon nudity, this one is my prediction for the win on Oscar Night.

Now on to more serious subjects in the Live Action category, which represent five different countries and languages yet still have a few common themes.  Three feature children in prominent roles, two take place in impoverished lands, four deal with death and all, to varying degrees, have the "twist ending" that is seemingly a surefire way to a nomination in this category.

From South Africa, Asad (Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura) has the unique distinction of having a cast made up entirely of Somalian refugees. The title character is a street smart boy who, regarding his future, is torn between the adventure of being a modern day pirate or the mundane life of a fisherman. Like a lot of shorts, this one ends just when it seems to be beginning. Sam French and Ariel Nasr's Buzkashi Boys from Afghanistan fares better with a similar story, this one about two boys (one an orphaned beggar, the other the son of a blacksmith) with dreams of glory as Buzkashi riders (a polo-like sport, but with dead goats). Poignant and tragic, Boys plays as the most true-to-life of the five nominees and is a strong contender for the final prize.

From gritty realism to stark fantasy, Belgium's Death of a Shadow (a.k.a. Dood van een Schaduw) by Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele focuses on a Mr. Rijckx, a soldier slain in World War I who is given a second chance at life by a mysterious Mephistophelean "collector", who sends him out to capture the shadows of the dying for his grim galleries. With elements of steam punk and a taste of The Twilight Zone, the end result is a bit too convoluted in the confines of a short film, yet its compelling ideas would make for an interesting feature if the story were expanded. Also dealing with the theme of death and the dying is Henry, from Canadian filmmaker Yan England. A fading concert pianist, Henry's life is thrown into turmoil at the apparent disappearance of his beloved wife. As a sort-of mini Notebook, the plot's twist and turns are somewhat predictable, yet the heartbreaking lead performance of Gérard Poirier adds heft to the emotional dénouement.

In the same darkly comic vein as such recent Live Action Short winners as The New Tenants and Six Shooter, Curfew begins with our protagonist sitting in a bathtub filling with blood from his freshly slit wrists. A phone call from his estranged sister interrupts him, and he soon finds himself babysitting -- and unexpectedly bonding with -- his precocious preteen niece. Written, directed and starring (in a Ryan Gosling-esque performance) Shawn Christensen, Curfew deftly balances on a fine line, never falling into the depths of hipsterness that, say, God of Love did. Considering the recent run of "oddball" winners in this category, plus the fact that it is the only American entry, Curfew looks to be the stand out and eventual victor.

As for the Documentary Short Subjects, only one was made available for previewing, the MTV sponsored Inocente. An aspiring young artist, Inocente is also homeless, and the documentary (co-directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine) follows her story as she tries to find herself through her highly imaginative, brightly colored art (think Keith Haring meets Jackson Pollock). Although "youngster triumphs over adversity" docs like Smile Pinki and Music by Prudence have triumphed in this category recently, Inocente falls a little short in that regard, especially compared to fellow nominee Open Heart, about a group of Rwandan children who leave their families behind to embark on a life-or-death journey seeking high-risk heart surgery in Sudan.

The remaining three nominees (all five will screen in the doc short program) deal with less grim subjects, such as a group of elderly people living in a Florida retirement home (Kings Point), New Yorkers who survive off the money they make cashing in recyclables (Redemption) and a Long Island beauty salon that services cancer victims (Mondays at Racine).

For more information about the Oscar nominated shorts programs, including trailers for all the nominated films and where there will be playing near you, visit the official website.

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