Let’s face it. The three categories that tend to throw the most people off in their office Oscar pools are the ones involving movies they don’t often get a chance to see in advance: The shorts.
Thanks to Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International, ComingSoon.net’s Oscar Warrior has had a chance to watch The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2010, consisting of the animated and live-action shorts, which as in past years have been conveniently playing in select theaters since February 19. We’ve also attended a special presentation by The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City of all five Oscar-nominated short docs, and below you can read our thoughts on all of them.
We’ll start with the animated short films, a category that’s been around since 1931. The nominees in this category tend to be the most readily accessible, many of them having been made available online even before their theatrical run as part of this series.
Ireland offers “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty” from director Nicky Phelan and writer/actress Kathleen O’Rourke who provides the voice of a creaky old woman with frightening Bride of Frankenstein hair who practically scares her granddaughter to death with her cynical version of the classic fairy tale. That story is recreated using classic 2D animation that’s quite a contrast to the 3D animation which isn’t nearly as impressive. The overused idea of putting a twist on a fairy tale isn’t that original and this version isn’t particularly funny or entertaining, so it’s probably one of the weaker offerings in the category. (It’s also the shortest at 6 minutes.)
From France, there’s “French Roast” by Fabrice O. Joubert, which shows what happens when a well-to-do businessman at a coffee shop forgets his wallet, leading to all sorts of funny situations. This is also a fairly simple bit of animated storytelling, and the animation seems primitive compared to some of the other offerings, particularly since it all takes place in one location. Like the above, it’s nice enough and it might get a smile or two, but it’s quickly forgettable.
On the other hand, “The Lady and the Reaper” from Spain’s Javier Recio Gracia starts out rather somber as it shows a widow pining after her late husband, a scene that’s reminiscent of the wordless montage from Up in fact, before morphing into a zany battle between the grim reaper trying to take the woman’s soul and a hotshot surgeon trying to save her life, the latter against her wishes. As far as the 3D CG animated films in competition, this one certainly has the most depth and style, and like “French Roast,” it shows what can be done with animation and without the use of dialogue or narration. The clever use of music and FX show a master animator at work here, and unlike the above two, it’s much more obvious why this one deserves an Oscar nomination. (In some ways, it reminded us a bit of last year’s “This Way Up.”)
Likewise, the animated short “Logorama” from Argentina has gotten a lot of attention online, because it’s essentially what might come out of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich teaming up to make a cartoon which squeezes in as much product placement as humanly possible. Essentially, the 16 minutes of jaw-dropping entertainment uses just about every product logo and well-known product mascot to create the type of summer popcorn fare moviegoers tend to love. Frankly, I was shocked they were able to get away with using the likes of Ronald McDonald, Mr. Peanut, the Michelin Man and the M&Ms in this way without getting into trouble with their respective trademark holders. It’s extremely inventive and creative but one wonders whether the harsh language and violence might be too much for Oscar voters or whether they’ll find the R-rated aspect of the short to be refreshing.
Although Pixar is surprisingly absent this year, another multiple past winner in this category, filmmaker Nick Park, has a new installment of his popular characters Wallace and Gromit with the 30-minute “A Matter of Loaf and Death.” Both previous shorts won in this category previously, while Park’s Wallace and Gromit feature film won in the feature animation category, so he’s obviously well-loved by the Academy. This one has the duo becoming bakers and Wallace falling in love with a woman he saves from a bike accident, only to discover that there’s more to her than meets the eye. Park’s Claymation work is always clever and entertaining but after a number of shorts and the feature film, it also seems rather samey and not nearly as inventive.
It’s been some time since a humorous animated film has won in this category, but this one is likely to go in that direction, since the three humorous shorts are the strongest. The “Wallace and Gromit” offering might seem like the most logical winner based on all of Nick Park’s previous wins and the Academy’s obvious love for all things made of clay, but the originality of “Logorama” on every level is hard to ignore and “A Matter of Loaf and Death” doesn’t seem as strong as Park’s earlier work. Then again, “The Lady and the Reaper” is a far safer pick than the other two shorts, because it follows a more traditional path in terms of its animation and storytelling, and we think that will allow it to pull off a surprise win.
Next, the live-action shorts, which seems like a weaker group of offerings than past years:
The India-based film “Kavi” by Greg Helvey is about a boy working in a brick kiln, essentially a slave, who has dreams of going to school and playing cricket, and must try to find a way out of his situation. Live-action shorts involving kids are fairly common while India is been a very common setting for Oscar-nominated movies and is even more pronounced in the consciousness of the Academy following the sweep by Slumdog Millionaire last year. It’s a film with a very distinctive muted look, but the acting and editing isn’t great and the story seems to be fairly trite compared to other shorts we’ve seen nominated in the past.
Ireland has often been represented in this category over the years but “The Door” by Juanita Wilson takes place in the less than common setting of Chernobyl after the 1986 nuclear disaster, opening with a scene of a man sneaking around a very familiar setting for those who played the first “Call of Duty” game. It then turns into a stark and somber dramatic tale about how the families were evacuated from the area and told to leave all their belongings behind, and shows what happens to the man’s young daughter for disobeying. It’s a really strong offering in terms of dramatic shorts, one that certainly leaves more of an impression than some of the others.
“Miracle Fish” by Australia’s Luke Doolan is another short involving a young boy, this one being one who is picked on at school and who wakes up from a nap in the nurse’s office to find himself seemingly all alone in the school only to encounter a disturbed man with a rifle. The young actor playing the lead isn’t particularly charismatic, similar to “Kavi,” and the story just takes far too long to get going, so it’s not a movie that makes that much of an impression compared to something like “The Door.” I can almost guarantee this one doesn’t stand much of a chance at winning Oscar voters’ hearts.
“The New Tenants” by Denmark’s Joachim Back is adapted from a screenplay by that country’s most prolific screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (who was also involved with the 1998 live action short winner “Election Night”), and it features a lot of his distinctively sharp dialogue as it shows two squabbling guys who have just moved into a new place where they encounter all sorts of odd characters, including a few played by well-known character actors like Vincent D’Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan. It’s certainly original, but all the characters in this short are generally unlikable and much of it comes across like an actors’ workshop piece, feeling like a lot of “blah blah blah” without anyone really saying anything. After a few incongruous incidents, it ends with one of the most bizarre finales for any short complete with a recipe for cinnamon rolls running over it. It just doesn’t really work as a stand-alone piece, which certainly will hinder it with Oscar voters.
The Swedish short “Instead of Abracadabra” by Patrik Eklund is a quirky and inventive tale about a guy way too old to be living at home who wants to be a magician, although he’s not very good, leading to all sorts of funny situations whenever he does a performance. Simon J. Berger is absolutely hilarious in the main role especially as he tries to impress his pretty neighbor–think “Napoleon Dynamite” here–and it’s easy to enjoy for its simple premise and sense of humor. That said, literally the entire 20 minutes is stranger than that ending of “The New Tenants,” which might put off voters who aren’t familiar with Scandinavian dry humor, but it is very funny and Berger’s character is one you might easily find yourself wanting to see in a full movie.
This is a tough category because humorous shorts have always done well in this category, which probably gives “Abracadabra” an advantage to win, but it’s hard not to be impressed with the somber but effective “The Door,” which shows strong cinematic storytelling at work. Flipping a coin, we think that voters will enjoy the light humor of “Abracadabra” enough to forgive its “Swedishness.”
This year’s Documentary Shorts category has five films, each of them running roughly 35 to 45 minutes offering even more variety in topics than last year’s offerings:
“China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province” by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill is one of two HBO docs nominated in this category, and it’s extremely timely and relevant considering recent events in Haiti and Chile. It tells the story of a small impoverished area of mainland China which was hit by a devastating earthquake. Hit hardest were a number of school buildings that were razed to the ground killing all the children inside and leaving their parents devastated. The documentary begins shortly after the earthquake and follows the parents as they cope with the loss, for some of their only child, and demand an investigation into the shoddy construction of the school buildings and the government corruption that led to the death of their children. It’s a fairly primitive documentary compared to the others that mainly takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to following the parents on their quest for justice, and that often involves a lot of crying and shouting, but overall, leaves things rather open-ended and without resolution.
“The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner” by Daniel Junge follows the journey of the former Washington governor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease shortly after leaving office, and who chooses to advocate doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, a cause that puts him into direct conflict with the Catholic Church and others. The doc literally follows Gardner’s campaign as he tries often vainly to stand up and speak before people about this issue, but it often seems like a losing battle since the Church has seemingly an army of individuals at their disposal to protest against Gardner’s proposal. It’s not the strongest doc of the bunch, mainly because Gardner is not the most charismatic main character due to his debilitating illness, and the topic of assisted suicide is fairly divisive, which certainly might hurt it among older Oscar voters.
“The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” by Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert is pretty much exactly what its title says, documenting the closing of the General Motors plant in Moraine, Ohio, told through the words of employees, many who worked on the line for dozens of years and who suddenly find themselves uncertain about their future. The filmmakers capture the employees entering and leaving the factory in the weeks leading up to the closure, as well as candid interviews with them off-site, and it’s an incredible powerful and moving film, as you watch real people coming to terms with the unknown that follows being laid-off. In this case, it’s an entire town that will be affected by it, and as you watch the weeks leading up to the plant closing pass, you might wonder whether they’ll actually get the cameras inside the enormous factory. Indeed, they capture the very last day as the very last truck rolls through the factory and each employee does their job for the last time, and you really feel the waves of sorrow they’re experiencing. Very few movies have that affect on you.
“Music by Prudence” is Roger Ross Williams’ doc about the wheelchair-bound South African girl who sings in a band made up of other disabled children. While it might not seem like the most immediate subject matter for showbiz types, it’s a lot lighter than the other movies as it shows how the groups uses their joyous music to fight against the way the disabled are viewed and treated in South Africa. It has a great main character in the upbeat Prudence and some lively local music, and the whole thing is surprisingly quite uplifting even if it deals with the relatively dark matter of prejudice and overcoming obstacles.
“Rabbit a la Berlin” from director Bartosz Konopka was recently picked up for release by Icarus Films, and it’s the strangest of the bunch, documenting the previously untold plight of wild rabbits that were trapped in between the walls that separated East Berlin from West. Having not lived in or visited Berlin before the wall came down, I cannot tell you whether what we see in this documentary is real or just an elaborate hoax, but it’s such an odd and inadvertently comical movie, done in a way that makes you wonder if you’re watching a mockumentary of sorts. One certainly can’t imagine how anyone could have possibly found footage of rabbits from the ’50s and ’60s, so one might assume they filmed rabbits in black and white and then cut it into archival footage of the Berlin Wall before fooling the nomination committee into thinking this was a real documentary. Of course, that’s probably not the case, but that’s just how strange this movie is. (There was a lot of awkward laughter at the MOMA screening but that might have been because everyone just sat through over three hours of documentaries.)
We think that the race in this category is between “The Last Truck” and “Music by Prudence” and while the former has a timeliness and resonance that Americans can easily understand, it’s also quite manipulative in terms of its emotions, which might be its downfall. By comparison, “Prudence” is joyous and inspirational, featuring an extremely likeable main character who might not be as easy to relate to, but certainly, the guilt factor will play a part in Academy voters wanting to support the movie and bring attention to the plight of the disabled.
The Academy Awards are announced on March 7 on ABC, and you can still catch The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2010 at least for a few more days in select cities; they’re also available On Demand and ITunes, and you can learn more about their availability here. You can also read some of our earlier thoughts on the Oscars race here.