For the last few years now, the Motion Picture Academy has released their Oscar nominated shorts for general movie audiences a few weeks before the awards ceremony. 2013 is no exception with the short form animated, live action and documentary films being released wide this weekend. And to ensure an even great audience, the Academy will make the shorts available on iTunes and VOD starting February 19th. (Find out how to see them here: http://bit.ly/wrPvnv)
So, are the films worth a look? The short answer? Absolutely. The five animated ones are particularly exceptional this year. And just as I’ve done before (http://exm.nr/LMGnlm), here are my mini-reviews of this year’s nominees:
“Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare”
“The Simpsons” expanded from their long-running TV series to a feature length movie in 2007. And now they’ve got an Oscar-nominated short under their belts too. This one stars Little Maggie, the pacifier-sucking baby, who finds herself placed in a daycare center where she runs afoul of a bratty baby who likes killing butterflies. When she discovers a caterpillar about to turn, it becomes her mission to save the wiggle worm from the violent youth. This adventure is full of societal zings, but it also has a sweetness to it that is rare in the Fox series. I was quite moved, actually, and I hope the franchise continues to explore new territory in the world of short-form animation.
The animator Pes is a visual satirist, and in this pithy stop-motion short he makes some fresh guac out of unusual objects - a grenade, a Christmas light, a baseball, etc. They all contribute to a cheeky yet appetizing concoction that plays with our expectations and our taste buds. It made me laugh numerous times in just two minutes and boy, did I have a craving for Mexican afterwards!
“Head Over Heels”
It’s not unusual for an old married couple to grow farther and farther apart, but in this dissertation on dysfuntion, Walter and Madge are so distant they’re not even on the same plane in their house. She’s walking around on the ground floor while he lives his parallel life up on the ceiling. This British export finds witty ways to comment on the disintegration of communication with our couple sharing the frame and yet not relating. I’m not sure how they shot all this exactly, but it’s a stop-motion wonder that will have you laughing and re-examining your relationship with your significant other as well.
My favorite, and the one I think will take the Oscar, is a Disney cell-animated effort about a young man who has an instant connection with a comely young lady while waiting for the train one morning. He then spends the rest of the seven-minute short trying to get her attention from his downtown office space via paper airplanes. The near misses are a delight and this breezy romantic comedy has a sweeping passion to it that’s rare even in features. And it’s done in black and white too, so it has a retro feel to it that makes it seem all the more like an instant classic.
“Adam and Dog”
If any short can beat “Paperman” it’s this one, a true underdog about…well, a dog. Adam discovers a playful pooch in his Garden of Eden and they soon become inseparable. Filmmaker Minkyu Lee creates the miraculous here, with amazing life-life movement in all of his cell-animated animals, and two human leads. (Yes, Eve shows up halfway through). His backgrounds are characters too, as the lush offerings of the environment are brought to full realization in every frame. And the dog character here could give Uggie from “The Artist” a run for his Milk-bones. He’s more charming and delightful than most human actors ever are on screen.
Four of the five nominated films in the live action short category this year are intense dramas. There isn’t anything that comes close to the sunny optimism of the winning short “God of Love” from two years ago (http://bit.ly/Z1N3ru). Still, they’re all entertaining, even if they are dark and moody. Here’s my mini-review of each mini-film:
This is a bleak but riveting film about it a Somalian boy named Asad who is feeling the pull to become a pirate versus the honest fisherman vocation he had hoped for. It’s a tough film to watch, made all the more harsh and realistic by its superb location work and all Somali refugee cast. Still, you do care for the boy’s dilemma and there is some cheeky wit around the periphery, particularly at the end. And director Bryan Buckley, who is one of the greatest TV commercial directors of all time, has made a film a million miles away from that world that shows his directing talent to be one with no limitations.
Similar in many ways to “Asad”, this coming-of-age saga concerns two boys in Afghanistan who long to escape the doldrums of their lives in their third world cities. These Kabul youth rush off to watch a Buzkashi match, the Afghan sport of brutal horse polo with a dead goat, and dream of a better life. Director Sam French has filmed a harsh and unflinching tale, full of quiet despair and striking location work all over Kabul. His film will make you feel deep empathy for the boys’ plights, despite their affections for such an awful sporting event.
The title character here is an elderly concert pianist who believes that his musician wife has disappeared. His memories of her keep colliding with his search and flashbacks of his past keep interfering with the present. There are times this film plays like a psychological thriller, but Montrealer filmmaker Yan England is after something deeper here. This is about the devastation of aging and it reminded me of the similarly themed Best Picture nominee “Amour”. Both are frank and tragic dissertations on love and loss.
“Death of a Shadow”
Director Tom Van Avermaet’s tale is a surreal one about Nathan, a soldier who died in WWII and is now being held captive by a sinister collector of death shadows. He’s tasked with capturing the deceased in their last throes and he’s just two shy of the quota that will get him another shot at life. Is the collector the devil? Perhaps so. But much is left to the imagination here with no Rod Serling-esque explanations. In fact, it’s all rather blind until the very end. This thriller is an unsettling journey, shot with burnished browns and yes, sinister shadows throughout every scene. It’s period noir, full of dread and sadness, and could very well sustain a feature length thriller.
My favorite of the bunch is the most accessible, and thus is likely to win the Oscar. “Curfew” concerns Richie, a ne’er-do-well slacker who is in the midst of slashing his wrists when he gets a phone call from his estranged sister begging him to watch her daughter Sophia for a few hours. Richie cleans himself up and jumps at the chance to connect with his niece, even though he hasn’t seen her since she was a baby. She turns out to be quite a handful and their odd couple pairing gives their nocturnal bonding session a darkly comic tug-o-war. Writer/director/star Shawn Christensen is a triple-threat here and you can expect to hear a lot from this big talent in the coming years.
One of the nice embellishments of the shorts presentations this year is that they're hosted by past Oscar winners in the shorts categories. “God of Love” writer/director/star Luke Matheny hosts the live action ones, telling pithy anecdotes about life after winning his award. And animators William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, who directed last year’s cartoon winner “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” (http://exm.nr/LMGnlm), regale us with their tales of pitching features to studios and how it’s much easier to get them to okay a short film.
That’s my take on these worthy competitors that you should seek out before the Oscars. And with the shorts premiering on iTunes and VOD on February 19th, there’s really no reason any movie buff should, ahem, give these films short shrift.