Oscar Nominated Short Films 2011
(above: Day and Night, 2010)
by Richard von Busack
JUST AS the good is the enemy of the great, the cute is the enemy of the deft. The 10 Oscar nominees for best short film and best animated shorts (now packaged for theatrical release) this year have little time, and tend to take the sweet way out.
Among the best animated shorts, two have played here previously. Both are from Pixar, and both are derived from a fab-1950s style: Geefwee Boedoe Let’s Pollute, is a UPA/Zagreb-style educational film exhorting the watcher to make the world more filthy. The brilliant Pixar Day and Night, which introduced Toy Story 3, is likely this year’s winner. The story of facing and overcoming fear of polarities goes without saying. Nice to hear it said, however.
Similarly humanistic, Bastien Dubois’ Carnet de Voyage, Madagascar uses almost every technique of animation to tell the story of his trip to Africa. The island has been popular in animation for its cute lemurs; it’s seen in a different light during Dubois’ visit for a ritual called “the turning of the dead.” Ultimately, this is, as the title says, a postcard: beautifully rendered in watercolor hues but bite-size.
The British CGI cartoon The Gruffalo is overly faithful to a children’s book. A top-drawer vocal cast (Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt, Helena Bonham Carter) enlivens the tale even as the film stretches out to nearly a half-hour an Aesopian message that Chuck Jones would have nailed down in seven minutes flat.
Most astonishing of the previously seen selections is Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann’s The Lost Thing, with its elements of Lovecraft and Gahan Wilson. It’s an ET story. A young man with a cigar-shaped head discovers a 15-foot tentacled hermit crab living in a fire-engine-red cast-iron boiler. He takes it home to an atmosphere of despair and dystopia—rows of shedlike houses disappearing into the horizon lines; walls papered with encouraging slogans from the Ministry of Mottos: “TODAY IS THE TOMORROW YOU EXPECTED YESTERDAY”). The Lost Thing has its brief moment in heaven to go with the sand-colored purgatory all around.
Of the live-action short films, four are about matters of life and death; the best one is the one that is merely about love.
Na Wewe from Belgium is clearly the front-runner, a UNESCO-approved film set in Burundi in 1994 about a massacre at a roadblock that can’t get started because of the problem of separating Tutsi from Hutu (some of the passengers are both, some are none, some are frustratingly in-between). The inspirational power of U2 saves the day.
The possible upset from the inspirational genocide shoe-in for the award is Ian Barnes’ Wish 143, which has a lot of salt in its sugar. Dying and 15, David (Samuel Peter Holland, an actor going places) is visited by the British version of the Make a Wish foundation. He knows what he wants: he wants to get laid. The newspapers pick it up (“Brave Cancer Boy Vows to Lose Virginity), but it takes the reluctant connivance of the hip priest at the hospice (veteran character actor Jim Carter) to try to make it so.
The Crush, an Irish comedy/drama, starts off shrewd and funny before going totally soft: in any case, it reiterates the principle that Celtic directors are the world’s best kid wranglers. The Estonian director Tanel Toom’s The Confession is solidly built, but everything in its tale of Christian guilt is screwed in so tight it’s like a Tales From the Crypt episode. Not a hair is out of place.
It sounds unlikely as hell, but the pleasing but not visibly pleased with itself God of Love by Luke Matheny escapes the ghetto of quirk. It takes place in a Brooklyn milieu of cabaret music. Matheny himself, a beaky, engaging character like Richard Edson in Stranger Than Paradise, stars as a singer in love with his female drummer. The satisfyingly pagan fantasy has the Olympian heavens giving him a dart that makes women, if not fall in love, at least open to the possibility of love for six hours.
The black-and-white photography, the Brubeck on the soundtrack, the enticing, unusual faces, the deft acting and invigorating editing—they all make this one’s coolness seem more original than merely salvaged and borrowed. And best of all, the story isn’t ruined through attenuation.