With the Oscars airing tonight, the categories that always seem to lead to a lot of head-scratching in office Oscar pools are the three shorts categories. Even with the Shorts HD Oscar Nominated Shorts program, which gives viewers a chance to see all the shorts in theaters and in other formats, it's often hard to figure out how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might decide which of the shorts deserve the Oscar. With that in mind, ComingSoon.net reviewer Joshua Starnes sat down and watched all 15 Oscar shorts to give you some idea what they're about in case you haven't had a chance to watch them yourself:
There are 24 categories for which awards are given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the main ceremony, not counting the technical or student Oscars. I'm sure everyone reading this has some opinion on the major categories: director, picture, actor, and screenplay. A smaller percentage will even delve deeply into the technical side, maybe even to the point of being able to explain to their friends what a sound designer does, or who the likely winner is for the sound mixing category when filling out the office pool.
At the obscure end of the line, where only the voters themselves can speak intelligently, are the shorts categories—live action, documentary and animated. And now you can, too, because we've watched them for you so you don't have to.
The animated selections are where shorts truly live and breathe. The strength of a short is in its forcing filmmakers to think truly cinematically, to understand how to deliver character and tone through images without being confusing. Among the three categories, no genre is as capable of doing just that as the Animation one.
There is such a thing as 'too short' however and at less than 90 seconds, the shortest nominee among this year's Oscar group is just long enough to show off its creator's skill, but too short to show anything else.
"Head over Heels"
The other stop motion short on display is the lovely "Head Over Heels" following an elderly couple dealing with the husband suddenly becoming lighter than air. Visually superb, the cleverness of the concept is also its undoing as it takes quite a long time, relatively speaking, to explain exactly what is going on, by which time it's all over. If you're going to do a short, confusion is your eternal enemy and that is certainly true here.
"Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare'"
The rest of our nominees are all traditional 2D animation (more or less) making this the first year in some time that no entirely CGI film has made it to the finals. But who cares when you can spend 8 minutes with Maggie Simpson desperately trying to save a caterpillar. Big on humor, but a little light on feeling, it took every major "Simpsons" producer of the past 6 years to write it and it shows -- it's better than anything the show has done in more than a decade.
"Adam and Dog"
The final two animated films are the real treasures, not just for this category but for all of the shorts. These are the two best Oscar-nominated shorts period, telling their stories with incredible brevity and wit, entirely through image and losing nothing in the process. "Adam and Dog" doesn't even have a real score to fall back on as it retells the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man through the eyes of Man's original best friend, and even manages to give the familiar story a happy ending.
When it comes to animation, Disney is always the 800 lb. gorilla in the room and that's no exception in the shorts department. There may not be a Pixar short this year, but who needs it when you've got "Paperman," a fable about an office clerk who meets the girl of his dreams one day and when he sees her again decides to make the paperwork which rules his life work for him for a change. Utterly, utterly charming, "Paperman" is not only the best of all the shorts, but among the best films made all year.
The Live Action category exists in its way in a borderland to the realm of pure cinema the animated shorts are coming from, as they have to create more than just a mood and certainly benefit from development of dialogue in a way animation doesn't need to. More than that, they are calling cards for the directors of the future and as such should be paid attention to. It's also a form that is generally the hardest to finance in the US and as such tends to be dominated by foreign films. This year is no different.
Director/star Shawn Christensen's dramedy short stands out for two reasons—it's the only English language entrant and it's the 'weakest.' There is a tremendous amount of skill on view and the young actress paired with Christensen is fantastic. Unfortunately, for a short, it is not always tightly paced, tends to drag when it comes off its hyper tone and suffers from a weak ending.
"Death of a Shadow"
On almost the opposite end of the spectrum is Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele's Jean Jeunet-like fable, reminiscent of nothing so much as a short version of "City of Lost Children." The depth of understanding of how film works is breathtaking, giving a complete view of Matthias ("Rust & Bone") Schoenaert's character and the rules of the world he lives in, in just a few minutes.
"Asad" can't quite compete with "Shadow" on pure visual terms--few of the shorts this year can--but it has something "Shadow" doesn't. This tale of a wannabe Somali pirate and the world he lives in is both inspiring and terrifying and in its way just a fantastic as "Shadow." It would be the hands-down winner if it weren't for performances, which flutter back and forth between naturalistic and stilted.
"Henry" on the other hand, can hold its own with "Shadow" in terms of both storytelling skill and visual panache as an elderly pianist wakes up in a hospital ward and continually finds out all is not what it seems. The only reason this isn't going to be the winner is because there happens to be another major film about an elderly piano teacher with Alzheimer's nominated for a bunch of awards this year. What are the odds of that?
And that makes "Buzkashi Boys" somewhat the winner by default, though that should take nothing from the story of a pair of Afghan village boys who hope to one day be stars of the local tribal sport Buzkashi. One of the longer entrants this year, it benefits from both excellent performances, well-developed and nuanced characterization and an ability to tell a film as easily through images as words. By turns touching, devastating and uplifting, it is everything a great short should be.
The documentary shorts category is probably the toughest of the short categories and the easiest of the documentary categories. Documentaries as a habit do not benefit from being forced towards the realm of pure cinematic storytelling the way narrative films do. Which isn't to say you can't see a documentary short which works--just the opposite, since we see them all the time on the news. What an excellent short then has to do is to better that style, supplying depth while still clinging to brevity.
The same as with "Curfew" in the Live Action section, "Kings Point" is an excellently-made documentary, which is hampered only by not being in the same league as the rest of the competition. Some of that is the nature of the subject, following the lives of a group of friends at a retirement home. Ironically, the real problem is the short length. "Kings Point" has much to offer, too much for a short subject and would actually be stronger as a full length film.
Actually it's a toss-up which is the weaker doc--and I use 'weak' purely in comparison to the other films in the category--"Kings Point" or "Redemption." A meditation on the unfortunate twists and turns life can take; "Redemption" follows a group of New Yorkers who have fallen between the cracks and begun collecting and reselling cans to make money to live on, which is manifestly not the same as making a living. A nice little documentary which gives a face to the problem of homelessness, its one big drawback is the New York problem and the lack of universality to anyone who doesn't live there.
What "Redemption" touches on with a little heavy handedness, "Inocente" dives head first into with wit and charm. Following the travails of a burgeoning young high school art start who also happens to be homeless, "Inocente" tugs on your heart strings particularly as you learn how she became homeless in the first place, and how she refuses to let it stop her.
"Mondays at Racine"
If "Inocente" tugs on your heart strings, "Mondays at Racine" nearly pulls them from the rafters, and it is that emotional element which gives this doc a slight leg up as it follows a group of cancer patients focusing their fear on their lost hair, which they cover up with the wigs they get from the Racine Beauty Salon.
Did I say it's the emotional element which wins? That's why "Open Heart" is on top as the filmmakers have found something to top elderly cancer patients – destitute African children in need of heart surgery. That sounds a little cold-blooded, more than "Heart" deserves as it is not only the best story told with the best skill out of the five, it is also the one that will do what all good docs should do: make you want to get off the couch and do something.