Deciphering the shorts: A guide to this year’s Oscar nominees

Deciphering the shorts: A guide to this year’s Oscar nominees

Making your way through the Oscar-nominated shorts, you can start to wonder just who this work is intended for, anyway. The self-evident answer is, if you’re watching them, then they’re for you. While it’s easier than it used to be to see the Academy’s anointed candidates, they still have to be sought out rather than stumbled upon, either in their limited theatrical run kicking off February 10, or on iTunes starting on the 21st. But the question’s actually also a legitimate and complicated one. We consume more short-form content than ever online and are theoretically more receptive to it, but the world of short films, from which the Oscar selections have been skimmed, remains a largely self-contained one of festivals and shorts programs. Of the many shorts that screen at festivals every year and the even more that were created but didn’t get in, few get to make any sort of impact on wider audiences. Or, to bring this back around to the Kodak Theatre on February 26, the shorts categories tend to mystify even industry members when it comes to the office Oscar pool.

There’s something old-fashioned about the type of short films showcased in this (and most) year’s Academy nominees. They’re representative of the short as calling card, as the polished final product of production programs or national art grants. While most if not all film schools culminate in the making of a short, these days it’s neither required nor the most straightforward way to draw industry attention to one’s bright and shining talents; people do just as well working on ads or music videos, seeking out YouTube stardom, or skipping straight to shooting a feature on the cheap. A decent short can bounce around festivals for a year or two before the filmmaker puts it up online, lets it go, or finds another platform for it, and those platforms are incredibly limited: the rare arthouse that still shows a short before the main feature, or a collection that someone releases on DVD. Most live or die in a vacuum, shown to select audiences who are interested in and able to trek to festivals or special screening events.

This helps explain why the animated shorts are by far the most entertaining and lively of the categories, as well as the one with the best chance of generating a spark of recognition. The short-as-calling-card model still makes sense in the medium of animation, which is time-consuming and expensive, and also provides a way for larger studios to show off new talents or techniques. This year’s Pixar candidate, La Luna, is written and directed by Enrico Casarosa, a storyboard artist on Up and Ratatouille, and it’ll screen before Brave when the studio’s latest hits theaters in June. The short follows a boy and his father and grandfather as they sail out into the ocean in order to carry out the family business of sweeping shooting stars off the surface of the moon. Yes, it lays on the whimsy, but the Little Prince-esque imagery is awfully pretty. The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore goes even heavier on the fancifulness, with its Buster Keaton-like hero getting whipped away from his New Orleans home by a giant storm. The film, which has also been incarnated as an iPad app, was co-directed by animation-world vets William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, and is bringing some helpful attention to their company Moonbot Studios, which they cofounded in 2009. 

Wild Life, directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, uses painterly visuals to tell the meandering and eventually unhappy story of a silly but charming Englishman in the early 1900s who buys land in Canada, is unprepared for the harsh conditions, and dies. Fellow Canuck Patrick Doyon’s Dimanche uses stylized doodles to look at a family’s Sunday routine through the eyes of a young boy—it’s a wafer-thin effort that has a few clever touches, like a stuffed bear head on a wall that’s revealed to actually be part of a complete and alive bear standing outside. The most visually varied, and my personal favorite, is Grant Orchard’s A Morning Stroll, which tells the same odd story of a New Yorker passing a live chicken on the sidewalk, in three eras through three different styles: silent-film squiggle, a contemporary take in which a character’s distracted by a smartphone app, and a dystopia in which the protagonist’s a zombie. The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore may be the frontrunner to win at the Oscars in this year of nostalgia, but A Morning Stroll’s the most fun.

The live-action shorts are focused on telling an elaborate joke or an even more elaborate lesson. The standout and my guess for favorite to win is The Shore, which also has the most impressive pedigree—it was written and directed by Hotel Rwanda’s Terry George, and its cast includes Ciarán Hinds and Kerry Condon. Hinds plays a man returning to Belfast after 25 years in America, with Condon as his daughter, and while the setup suggests this is going to be a lesson film about the legacy of The Troubles, it turns out to revolve instead around an epic bit of slapstick involving a horse, a prosthetic arm, and a potential dole inspector. Also from Ireland, Peter McDonald’s Pentecost puts palpable effort into setting up its creaky central gag in which a priest talks to his group of altar boys as if they were a soccer team. (“Go out there and have the mass of your lives!”)

Andrew Bowler’s Time Freak essentially runs with the idea behind the party section of Primer and tries, with some success, to make an ongoing joke out of it. The overly cute Norwegian short Tuba Atlantic, from Hallvar Witzø, looks at the unlikely friendship that forms between a dying man and the enthusiastic girl sent to be his “Angel Of Death” because the hospital won’t let him go home alone. Raju, a Student Academy Award-winner directed by Max Zähle, is the most dramatic of the five, with the intriguing setting of a Calcutta orphanage from which a German couple is set to adopt a young boy, though the story spirals quickly into melodrama and too-easy ugliness about Western privilege.

Even with a scenario involving an endangered child, Raju has little in terms of grimness to compete with the documentary short nominees. This category has tends to be the most difficult to catch up with, possibly because the films are on the longer side (this year’s range from 25-40 minutes), or because of their uniform earnestness. I can’t speak to Rebecca Cammisa’s God Is The Bigger Elvis, about actress-turned-nun Dolores Hart (who starred opposite the King in 1957’s Loving You), which isn’t being screened thanks to licensing issues. What remains is James Spione’s Incident In New Baghdad, about the July 2007 slaying of civilians and journalists by U.S. attack helicopters; Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Saving Face, about acid attacks on women in Pakistan; Lucy Walker’s The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom, about the 2011 tsunami and its aftermath in Japan; and Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday’s The Barber Of Birmingham, about an unheralded foot soldier in the Civil Rights movement.

Compared to its compatriots, The Barber Of Birmingham is practically lighthearted, a portrait of a man who fought his way through incredibly difficult times and lived to see the inauguration of President Obama. It’s a pleasant reminder of the many people who played an important role in that era, though their names aren’t renowned. Still, it feels like a film that was conceived of first, the characters filled in later. Incident In New Baghdad is based around an interview with U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord, who was at the awful 2007 event, and whose heartfelt testimony is, unfortunately, all too familiar in terms of films that have emerged on the topic. The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom is the highest-profile nominee in this category—it picked up two prizes at Sundance last month, Moby did the soundtrack, director Walker was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar last year for Waste Land, and it’s about a recent and horrible disaster. The film’s footage of the tsunami is striking and frightening, but the parallel it poses with Japan’s love of cherry blossoms and how they serve as a symbol of resilience and the fleeting nature of life feels gratingly forced. I much prefer Saving Face, which, while it follows a standard documentary structure, allows more empathy and room to its subjects, women who’ve been shockingly disfigured, usually by their husbands, and who are trying to work together to restore their lives and past new legislation to punish their attackers.

If you don’t catch these in the theater or end up buying them piecemeal on iTunes (in the case of the latter I’d point to A Morning Stroll and The Shore as particularly worth seeking out), some of the docs will trickle down to TV, and the rest will likely drift about in short-film limbo, potential future Academy Award-nominated DVD extras on some feature yet to be made. (For the record, and for your Oscar pool consideration, my guesses are that The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore, The Shore, and The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom are most likely to take the prizes in their respective categories come February 26.) 

Which brings us back to the initial question of who this work intended for. Whatever purer artistic dreams their creators may have, aren’t most ambitious films made with at least a sliver of thought to the Academy? It’s a rare filmmaker who hasn’t spared a moment to imagine the speech he or she would give while clutching that gold figurine. So instead of using that segment of the broadcast to take a bathroom break, consider giving the winners your attention. They generally don’t get much.

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