Oscar shorts

For the last few years, Apollo Cinema have theatrically distributed mini-festivals of the Oscar nominees for Best Live Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film, and this weekend the American Cinematheque screened the 2005 touring program. For some reason, this collection doesn’t include the nominated films by Bill Plympton (Guard Dog), Mike Gabriel and Baker Bloodworth (Disney’s Lorenzo), or Gary McKendry (Everything in This Country Must). Even so, and although it has been years since I’ve watched the Oscar broadcast, these two categories do reveal unexpected pleasures.

Best Animated Short Film:

Gopher Broke (Jeff Fowler, US)

This is for all the Pixar fans, a manic computer-animated sketch about an obsessional gopher who digs a hole in a rural road in order to destabilize the passing produce trucks and snatch the stray vegetables that plummet to the ground. But before the gopher can steal the treasures, other animals grab the vegetables for themselves.

The film is a polished but straightforward exercise in quick, physical movements and slapstick timing. The gopher is comically rendered and the various 3D textures in the natural setting are colorful and detailed, but ultimately there’s nothing here that one can’t find in mainstream animated features.

Birthday Boy (Sejong Park, Australia)

This is an evocative film that follows a solitary young Korean boy around his nearly deserted village in 1951 as he plays with various toys and found objects, imagining himself as a victorious soldier. His naive heroics are subtly contrasted with his isolation and allusions to actual warfare on the eve of the Korean War–the boy plays in the wreckage of a military plane and watches a train loaded with tanks pass by. It’s understated and lovingly realized as 3D animation, and contrasts innocence and destruction through its quiet vignette. In an age of exaggeration and irony, this quiet mood piece by a student at the Australian Film Television and Radio School is a notable entry. You can view a clip, here.

Ryan (Chris Landreth, Canada)

Far and away the most innovative of the animated films presented here, Landreth’s entry is a hybrid documentary/animation piece that presents a conversation between Landreth and Ryan Larkin, an animator whose work (including the Oscar-nominated Walking) earned widespread accolades in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, however, Larkin is trapped by his own personal demons, struggling with alcoholism and panhandling on the streets of Montreal; he hasn’t produced animation in years. Landreth and Larkin thus discuss art and inspiration and an artist’s need to overcome emotional wounds and the debilitating scars left in their wake.

In addition to this interesting and vital subject, Landreth illustrates their conversation through amazingly rich 3D computer animation that depicts each person as a combination of realism and abstract design, stylized by their emotional wounds, holes, and gaps left by their troubled past. No single still from the film is adequate in portraying the three-dimensional detail of each character (a short clip is available here), and Landreth’s sound design and supplementary animation are equally inventive and thoughtful. At roughly 13 minutes in length, this is a film that should be seen many times over to fully appreciate. Luckily, the NFB is releasing a special edition DVD next month.

This is a sensitive subject that easily could have been sensationalized (and critic Chris Robinson painfully suggests it may have been on the festival circuit), but I found the film to be beautiful, imaginative, and deeply compelling.

(In addition to the above links, the excellent Animation World Network offers a handsome site featuring clips and related material of all the animated nominees.)

Best Live Action Short Film:

Two Cars, One Night (Taika Waititi and Ainsley Gardiner, New Zealand)

I wanted to like this one more than I did. Presented in lovely black-and-white, two cars are parked outside of a bar and contain the children of unseen patrons. Some antagonistic rivalry occurs between a boy in one car and the girl in the other, mostly out of boredom, which slowly shifts into a deeper attraction. Their wait is accentuated by atmospheric time lapse footage of patrons entering and exiting the bar, but the film remains bound to the children in the two vehicles. I simply wasn’t very moved by this portrait of pre-adolescent romanticism, which alternates between tedium (as the kids make faces and gesture at one another) and sentimentality (as they suddenly bond). As is typically the case, the child performances are fine, and the sense of place is strong, but it just doesn’t seem to add up to much beyond its immediate pleasures.

Little Terrorist (Ashvin Kumar, India)

This is a charming, fable-like sketch about an adolescent Muslim boy who accidentally hits his cricket ball across the militarized border between Pakistan and India; he decides to sneak in and fetch it, but is seen and chased by armed Indian guards into a nearby village, where he meets a kindly Hindu man who risks his own safety by hiding the boy from the authorities. The landscape’s rich browns and reds are sensitively captured and the Indian village is careful rendered in detail. The film’s compassionate humanism is a refreshing lens for that border region, and the whole piece has a unity of vision and simplicity that is touching.

7:35 in the Morning (Nacho Vigalondo, Spain)

Of the live action shorts presented here, this macabre, black-and-white musical was my favorite. It’s a film based on a growing realization, so I won’t give away too much of its setup, but its consistent tone, absurdist counterpoint, and note-perfect execution couldn’t have been better. It’s also deeply tinged with a human melancholy that fully captivated me, like a BÈla Tarr scene gone humorously awry.

The good news? You can decide for yourself how you feel about it by watching the entire film online, here.

Wasp (Andrea Arnold, UK)

The latest entry of UK kitchen sink realism is a genuinely provocative film about a poor, single mother (marvelously played by Nathalie Press) who clearly is too financially and emotionally ill-equipped to care of her four young children. Marginalizing their basic needs for an entire day while she attempts to seduce an old friend at a local bar, the film oscillates between her shameful neglect and her own emotional vulnerability, generating a complex portrait of a person foolishly clinging to the only “happiness” she knows–a middle class, leisure lifestyle that remains completely beyond her grasp. Unfortunately, the film incorporates a plot reversal in its last act that suggests a more conventional ending than the preceding film deserves, but this will be a movie that lingers in my mind for some time to come.