What started out as a viable category for the whole world—way back when movies included a short film and/or a cartoon prior to the feature—became a mystifyingly esoteric set of Oscar nominations for the average moviegoer when that practice fell by the wayside half a century ago. Every year, as we watched the Academy Awards on TV, we waited impatiently as people we never heard of received awards for short films and cartoons we never saw and were unlikely to ever see. That’s changed in recent years—at least for moviegoers who care enough to check out the short-film nominees—as these films have recently been packaged as compilation films and shown in actual theaters.
This year, five live-action shorts and five animated shorts have been tapped for Oscar glory—with three animated documentary shorts added to the mix. The documentarires, however, are not part of the basic package currently screening at The Carolina, and I don’t yet know how they will be handled. (Check the showtimes for The Carolina for clarification.) As usual, the collection is a mixed bag—that’s the nature of any such complilation. But it’s all worth a look—and in a couple of instances, the films are worth a lot more than that.
The first live-action short is Peter McDonald’s Pentecost, a clever, engaging Irish comedy about a wayward altar boy. It’s not particularly deep—actually, it’s not deep at all—but it’s fun and it serves as a nice calling card for actor-turned-filmmaker McDonald. Next up is Raju, a German film by another first-timer, Max Zähle. This one’s a drama about a German couple adopting a child from an orphanage in India. It’s nicely made, but it feels too much like it’s straining to be serious, and in that effort it becomes predictable right down to its non-ending ending. It’s not that it’s a bad little film, it’s that it’s one of those films that seems so very calculated to snag an award.
If the name Terry George is familiar, that might be because he made Hotel Rwanda back in 2004, but hasn’t exactly made anything of note since. His 2011 feature Whole Lotta Soul appears to be languishing in want of a distributor, so it’s slightly ironic that his short film The Shore is up for an Oscar. For me, this story about a Belfast man (Ciarán Hinds) coming home to his Ulster roots to maybe patch up wrongs from 30 years ago is the best of the lot. It has humor,warmth, some clever turns, ad is wonderfully well acted throughout. Also, the Belfast setting—in a film where “the Troubles” are only backstory—makes for an unusual break, and the locations are used to good effect, too.
On a significantly lower plane is Andrew Bowler’s Time Freak, a story about a man who invents a time machine—with less than desirable results. It’s not bad, but neither is it anything special. At the same time, the Norwegian film Tuba Atlantic from first-time director Hallvar Witzø is something special. It’s the deliciously quirky tale of an old man who has been given (literally) six days to live. He spends those days in his usual nonconformist ways and tries to contact his estranged brother in America in a very unusual way—all the while dealing with a girl who’s been sent to help him deal with his death. The humor is decidedly quirky and on its own peculiar wavelength.
The animated films strike me as being a little lower in quality, though one of them is good enough that it made sitting through all of them worthwhile. And, no, I’m not referring to the highly anticipated Pixar entry, but to a film from Louisiana by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. In some ways this is the perfect animated film for the same year that gave us Hugo and The Artist, because it also wears its cinema-history influences on its sleeve. In this case, there’s a good bit of Buster Keaton—specifically Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)—and some Wizard of Oz (1939), plus a dose of those Warner Bros. cartoons where inanimate objects come to life—all wrapped around Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing love of books. Books, in fact, could here be said to take on the import of Georges Méliès’ films in Hugo. It’s altogether remarkable. The scene where Morris saves the “life” of a book by reading it is unforgettable.
The Pixar offering, Enrico Casarosa’s La Luna, is undeniably visually sumptuous, and the Pixar label will carry a lot of weight, but I guessed the payoff by the half-way mark and was left with a kind of “So what?” by the time it was over. I actually preferred the odd—if ultimately one-joke—A Morning Stroll for sheer novelty value. The other two—Dimanche (Sunday) and Wild Life—are both from the National Film Board of Canada, and both left me cold. You may feel differently, and I do suggest you see them all for yourself.