This is a rare chance to take in some of the Oscar-nominated short films — those little movies that most of us never see.
There was a time, of course, when short films were better known than they are today. They were once part and parcel of the movie-going bill of fare, often consisting of films with Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges (both acts had Oscar-nominated shorts, and Laurel and Hardy actually won), Charley Chase, etc. But the modern short film is a very different proposition.
More often than not, short films are now the work of aspiring feature-film directors who use the form as a kind of portfolio item, in the hopes of garnering enough attention to get a feature lined up. Roman Polanski, Ken Russell and Richard Lester all started this way.
Consequently, short films are sometimes amazingly good, especially since they’re designed to show just what a filmmaker is capable of doing. And often, they give us the director at his or her most personal, working without the net of studio support. Of course, there are times when the results are less than edifying, such that a certain uneven quality is bound to be the rule with a collection like The 2004 Oscar Shorts.
Its two most notable offerings are Floria Baxmeyer’s The Red Jacket (from Germany) and Adam Elliot’s Harvie Krumpet (from Australia), which won an Oscar for Best Animated Short. And two more different films could scarcely be imagined.
The Red Jacket is a peculiar — and peculiarly mystical — work that seems grounded in the old Julien Duvivier film Tales of Manhattan, the tale of a tailcoat as it passes from person to person. In Baxmeyer’s smaller-scale story, the jacket of the title belongs to a boy who is killed in an accident. The coat then finds its way to another boy in war-torn Sarajevo, and through a series of events, makes its journey back to the place of its origin. Ambitious, yet neat and compact, this film is the dramatic highpoint of this Oscar-shorts collection.
Harvie Krumpet, on the other hand, is a quirky, often-humorous and yet strangely melancholy claymation piece that follows the life of one character from birth forward. Narrated by Geoffrey Rush, the film is constantly engaging and frequently fanciful (even down to echoing the Busby Berkeley-inspired “Beauty and the Bath Chair” musical number from Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend).
Yet there are times when it’s impossible not to shake your head in disbelief over Oscar winners in these categories. Contrast, for instance, the success of Harvie Krumpet with the failings of the collection’s other animated short, Chris Hinton’s Nibbles. This Canadian film is done in an animation style I can only call intensely annoying, with a soundtrack that redefines grating. Blessedly, it’s only about five minutes long (though that’s easily four minutes too many).
Stefan Arsenijevic’s (A)Tozija (from Slovenia), another Sarajevo war tale, is an anecdote supposedly based on a real event. Smaller in its aims than The Red Jacket, it’s still a film with a deep-seated humanistic quality and a degree of charm.
Lionel Baillius’ Squash (the French entry) works better as writing than filmmaking, since it mostly consists of a long conversation between two men as they jockey for position during a squash game. It’s not a bad film, but it is a rather cool one, lacking the heart of the better movies encased in the program.
The total assortment is a mixed bag, to be sure. Yet this is, as I said, a rare opportunity to actually see those Oscar shorts — and as such, it’s an opportunity not to be missed.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke