Animated and live-action short films typically get about as much attention as soft-spoken and fact-based political discourse, until it’s time to fill out an Oscar ballot. Lucky for us, Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater (filmstreams.org) is continuing their glorious annual tradition by screening the tiny nuggets of awesome that were nominated this year. The magnificent art house also gives you the chance to play the role of snooty Oscar voter, albeit without the wealth or associated drug habit, by collecting ballots and choosing a local set of “winners.” And that’s exactly what I’m going to do now!
Live-Action Short Films
Written and directed by Peter McDonald
In a stunning move, none of the nominees are chest-clutching melodramatic. Take, for example, this little tale of an Irish altar boy (Scott Graham) in 1977 who accidentally smacks a priest in the face with that funky Catholic incense mace. Although one could argue this unintended altar boy retaliation is well deserved, his father disagrees and bans him from watching soccer until he redeems himself. There’s not a wealth of revelatory depth here, as the cheeky finish evokes only a snicker, but it’s sufficiently charming.
Grade = B-
Written by Florian Kuhn and written/directed by Max Zähle
Easily the most emotionally complex and harrowing entry, this German film follows a couple (Wotan Wilke Möhring and (Julia Richter) skirting adoption challenges to acquire what they believe to be an Indian orphan. But when the boy disappears the next day, the new parents plummet down a haunting rabbit hole with nary a cheshire cat in sight. Möhring and Richter give surprisingly nuanced performances for such a brief runtime, and the ending is an emotional junk kick. Quality stuff.
Grade = A
Written and directed by Terry George
The Academy must have made out with the blarney stone, as this is the second Irish flick nominated. When Joe (Ciarán Hinds) returns to the emerald isle from America, which is where he escaped to during “the troubles” 25 years earlier, he and his daughter (Kerry Condon) attempt to mend fences with his old blood brother (Conleth Hill) and his old flame (Maggie Cronin). The biggest letdown isn’t the tired “prodigal son” premise but the ease with which everything gets resolved. The stage is set for a climactic emotional showdown and a tickle-fight breaks out. That said, Hinds is stoically engaging, and the lush Irish landscape is always luckily charming.
Grade = B-
Written and directed by Andrew Bowler
Much like last year’s winner in this category, the adorable and hilarious God of Love, this lithe little ditty is nothing but a good time. When a dude (John Conor Brooke) stumbles upon a time machine made by his roommate (Michael Nathanson), endearing shenanigans ensue. Essentially “George Constanza with a time machine,” this neurotic adventure surprisingly proves that Academy members have at least a passing sense of humor. It’s the sort of short that makes me hope a guy like Bowler gets a bigger shot soon.
Grade = A-
Written by Linn-Jeanethe Kyed
Directed by Hallvar Witzø
Given just six days to live, Oskar (Edvard Haegstad) and his at-home caretaker (Ingrid Viken) must confront mortality while murdering seagulls with a machine gun. The backdrop is a strained relationship with Oskar’s brother that may be remedied by blowing a tuba in Norway that is powerful enough to be heard in America. Sure, it’s slightly cloying, but it’s also sporadically quite genuine and infrequently hilarious. Uneven as it may be, I wouldn’t boot it from this party.
Grade = B
Although my personal favorite is Time Freak, look for Raju to seize the day…or at least the naked gold dude.
Animated Short Film
Directed by Patrick Doyon
This hand-drawn black and white piece hails from Canada, where I hope it makes more sense. For this humble viewer, while the exaggerated and cartoony style was appealing, the surreal plot of a boy who flattens coins on a train track while a bear that was mounted on a wall comes to life and runs around wasn’t whimsical but mildly annoying. While I’m the first to praise the gleeful ability of animated shorts to poo-poo the logistics and logic of live-action, this was at best only semi-pleasing gibberish.
Grade = C-
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Directed by Brandon Oldenburg and written/directed by William Joyce
Now this is more like it! This celebration of imagination, specifically via the written word, this phenomenal flick follows a writer who is sucked up by a hurricane and deposited in a world of living books. The creators cite an admiration for old MGM musicals and silent films, and it shows in the graceful animated physics and sentimental storytelling. Employing a variety of animated techniques and deploying a Toy Story 3-esque ending, this was simply magnificent.
Grade = A
Written/directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby
Ireland got two live-action shorts and Canada bagged two animated ones, this is the rather depressing tale of a proper Englishman in 1909 who tries to be a Canadian cowboy—I’ll wait until you’re done giggling at that last term. Composed in a painted style, the film shoots for poignant but winds up cold. Comparing the main character’s fate to that of a comet isn’t poetic, just confusing. And the whole thing just sputters and thuds along. At least it looks really pretty…
Grade = C+
A Morning Stroll
Written/directed by Grant Orchard
A New Yorker walks past a chicken that enters an apartment. Then the same scene plays out in the near and distant future, the latter featuring a zombie. The best part? The title card says “based on a true story.” I can only hope the zombie was real. Told with varying animated styles, there’s some kind of commentary on the devolution of modern culture happening here, but the chicken metaphor wholly eludes me and I’m not afraid to admit it. I remain, however, afraid of zombies.
Grade = B-
Written and directed by Enrico Casarosa
They may not have even been nominated for their first truly bad film (Cars 2), but Pixar should still snag a trophy this year. Their longest short is also their best. This coming-of-age tale about a boy finding his own path between his father and grandfather as they, um, clean the moon is lusciously animated and magically written, not to mention accompanied by a lyrical score. Hands down the most all-around perfect entry, this almost makes up for the return of Tow Mater.
Grade = A
Because Pixar’s awards shelf has got to be getting full, I’d love to see The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore win out, I just can’t bet against La Luna shining bright come Oscar night.