It used to be that the chances of seeing the Oscar-nominated short films—both live action and animated—were somewhere between slim and nil. In recent years, however, the films have become more and more available, usually showcased in collected form like the ones that open this Friday at The Carolina. The films are in two sets of five nominees each: Live action is represented by The Confession, The Crush, God of Love, Na Wewe and Wish 143; animation is covered by Day & Night, Let’s Pollute, The Gruffalo, Madagascar: A Journey Diary and The Lost Thing. It’s a solid package of entertainment, though by the very nature of a compilation, it’s on the uneven side.
The live-action short film hasn’t been a staple of the movies since the 1940s, but the form has remained the traditional calling card and training ground for filmmakers ever since. However, advances in video technology have made it possible for just about anybody to turn out a decent-looking feature, making the short film something of an endangered species. That’s too bad. And it’s too bad for more reasons than the demise of a particular art form, because there’s a difference between being technically and financially able to make a feature and being creatively capable to tackle a project of that length. (Try judging a film festival and you’ll see what I mean.) It’s a good deal more of an accomplishment to turn out a finely crafted 20-minute film than a mediocre two-hour one. At least four of the five entries here attest to that.
The first film in the set is a British entry, The Confession, and it’s also one of the weaker ones. It tells the story of a young boy, Sam (Lewis Howlett), who is worried that he can’t be a “proper Catholic” if he doesn’t have anything to confess at his first confession. When a friend (Joe Eales) of his comes up with a plan to get Sam a proper sin, it leads to tragedy. The problem with the film—apart from its unrelenting grimness—is that it wants to be more than it is, straining for a profundity that comes across simply contrived and a little bit cynical. The remaining four entries work better.
The Crush is from Ireland, and while it’s essentially a one-joke affair, it has the wit to keep it short, so that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. That can’t quite be said of the American entry God of Love, which is also essentially a one-joke film, but it skirts the problem with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and an eclectic and savvy musical track, including a very clever use of the old Billy Rose-Lee David standard “Tonight You Belong to Me.” The French film Na Wewe provides an unusual, humanist and curiously humorous take on the topic of genocide, involving an incident with a stopped bus and the attempt of a Hutu militia to sort out who is Hutu and who is Tutsi among the passengers.
Best of the lot for me is a bittersweet comedy, Wish 143, an entry from Northern Ireland about a young man (Oliver Arundale) dying of cancer whose only wish is not to die without ever having had sex. It’s a wish that, as you might guess, is outside the realm of the UK version of the “Make a Wish” foundation’s mandate, and which doesn’t sit all that well with his priest (Jim Carter), either. How this plays out is both funny and sad, and it’s also how Wish 143 actually attains that profundity that The Confession aimed for and didn’t quite hit.
The animated shorts are more of a mixed bag. The biggest surprise—for me at least—was how slight and almost average the Pixar entry Day & Night was. It’s not that the work is bad, and it’s not for lack of a worthy theme. It’s simply that Day & Night is nothing special—and nothing special isn’t what one expects from that particular source. More charming—and blessed with a first-rate voice cast including Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt and Robbie Coltrane—is the BBC’s The Gruffalo, though it’s hardly going to surprise anyone whether or not they’re familiar with the children’s book.
Let’s Pollute is an amusing but slight little film that satirically purports to endorse polluting and conspicuous consumption in the style of an old instructional film. It’s the sort of film that crops up about once a year and offers nothing really fresh—either in content or execution. Still, I preferred it to the French film Madagascar: A Journey Diary. It’s a terrific-looking film—some of the 3D animation is absolutely stunning—but the story, to the degree there is one, is meandering and largely without point.
Best of all is the Australian The Lost Thing. This is an extremely stylish work done in a sort of steampunk mode. The story recalls the old Phil Harris novelty song “The Thing,” which recounts the travails of a man who fishes a box out of the sea and discovers an indescribable “thing” that no one wants and the possession of which makes him a pariah. In the film, a boy finds himself playing with an unlikely—and frankly rather unlovely—companion that seems to be part machine and part sea monster on the beach. At day’s end, no one comes for it and so he takes it home with him, much to his parents’ dismay. The film cleverly follows his attempts to find a place for it. It’s a winner all the way through.