Oscar Shorts 2006

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello

Major media outlets may be enthusiastically promoting Oscar dresses this week, but what they haven’t promoted much are the films in three of the event’s categories–short live action, short animation, and short documentaries. While the news of Wellspring’s folding last week can still register grief, the films in these categories represent genres so marginalized it has been decades since anyone has wondered why they can’t somehow be incorporated into the mainstream moviegoing experience.

So it’s nice that Magnolia Pictures is distributing the live action and animated shorts in commercial theatres (Apollo Cinema is handling the short docs); but you can only see them in one of a handful of cities, and if the screenings at the Laemmle Fairfax in Los Angeles are any indication, Magnolia has chosen to exhibit them only on video. One step forward, two steps back? Anyway, a DVD is in the works.

Live action:

Ausreisser (The Runaway) (Germany, 23 min.)

I wanted to like this film more than I did, a well-observed tragicomedy about a struggling architect who one day encounters a young boy who blithely insists he is his son. Initially bewildered by the encounter, but increasingly drawn to their inexplicable emotional connection, the architect attempts to locate the boy’s mother, confronting his past in the process. Despite some good performances and efficient storytelling, the film attempts to wrap things up in an unnecessary reality-bending finale that dismantles much that has transpired before it.

Cashback (UK, 19 min.)

This eccentric and polished film by fashion photographer Sean Ellis is a largely amusing portrait of late-night supermarket workers who attempt to enliven their boredom in offbeat and creative ways: aisle races, consumer conspiracies, management mockery. The narrator is an art student who worships beauty and suspends time in order to disrobe female customers and study their forms. Unfortunately, the film’s keen commentary on social ritual is marred by this latter element; the female clientele–all of them potential supermodels–are intensely objectified by the camera’s fragmentary compositions. Thus, the narrator’s interests seem more adolescent than aesthetic. You can download the film for $1.99 at iTunes, here.

The Last Farm (Iceland, 15 min.)

My favorite in this category is a quiet study of an elderly farmer living in a small house in an abandoned valley; his wife has just died, and delaying his oblivious daughter’s visit, he begins a laborious task to collect and assemble logs in the cool arctic light. His intentions are never clear until the end, but the film’s striking compositions of Icelandic prairies and desolate mountains invoke a palpable sense of isolation and grief. The film was directed by R˙nar R˙narsson, a student at the Danish Film Institute, and a Dreyeresque spirit hovers over this sensitive and accomplished work in its deliberate framing, emotional resonance, and moving contrast between youth and old age.

Six Shooter (Ireland, 27 min.)

This ultra black comedy has a lot going for it if you can stomach the cruelties on display. Award-winning Irish playwright Martin Mcdonaugh wrote and directed this tale about a middle-aged man who wife has passed away; he takes a train and meets a grieving couple whose baby has passed away. Before anyone can commensurate, however, an antisocial young man begins to verbally provoke and accost them in their sorrows, thus setting the stage for a violent and tragic conclusion. Unlike other writer-turned-directors, Mcdonaugh’s filmmaking is fluid and subtle, and the film’s tension, humor, and pathos intermingle in provocative and memorable ways.

Our Time is Up (US, 15 min.)

This film amounts to a one-joke routine about a psychotherapist who discovers he has a short time to live, so he suddenly becomes an abrasive and shockingly candid ass with his young adult clients (a germaphobe, a bulimic, a fondler, a repressed gay man, etc). The film’s editing is noteworthy, with humorous cuts linking various client sessions, but the general implications seem little more than reductionistic thumb-nosing of the therapy industry.

* * * *


9 (US, 11 min.)

This CGI action story may be an impressive achievement for a UCLA grad student who toiled away on it for five years, but somehow it still comes across as pretty formulaic despite its striking visual design. (Which is probably why Tim Burton is producing a feature remake.) Anonymously suited and numbered denizens explore an eerie postapocalyptic landscape while attempting to evade a prowling mechanical monster. Fast-paced and kinetic, it’s captivating but not especially compelling.

Badgered (UK, 7 min.)

First-timer Sharon Colman directed this entertaining, hand-drawn (pencil, acrylic, watercolor) vignette about a badger prevented from sleeping in his den by two screaming crows and the installation of a new missile silo. Clever minimalism and infectious timing make this humble but well-wrought film a model of economy.

The Moon and the Son (US, 28 min.)

Famed historian and animator John Canemaker has long been known for his personal subjects and lively, childlike style, and both are on fine display here. Imagining a conversation between himself and his deceased father (a dialogue voiced by John Turturro and Eli Wallach), Canemaker combines family photos, home movies, newspaper clippings, and hand-drawn animation to retrace their difficult relationship. His father was convicted of arson and sent to prison when Canemaker was still a young boy, and the subsequent two-thirds of the film traces his father’s secret life as the son of Italian immigrants; it’s a story of survival, idealism, and covert Faustian bargains. If it sounds similar in tone to last year’s Oscar winner, Ryan, it’s a more personal and multimedia approach to history, less concerned with the creative psyche, that’s tremendously vulnerable and absorbing. My favorite in this category, hands down. Clip here.

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (Australia, 27 min.)

Conjuring the spirit of Lotte Reiniger for the 21st century, Andrew Lucas’ “steampunk” epic is breathtaking in its silhouetted world creation; suspended parks dot a cloudy landscape of industrial towers swarming with floating dirigibles; its moody narration and profusion of wheels, clocks and propellers seems equal parts Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne. Unfortunately, its Alienesque narrative is less inspired: a guilt-ridden engineer joins a team of explorers to find a cure for their plague ravaged city, which leads to a beautiful but deadly discovery marked by treachery. Nevertheless, its floating, shadowy environments and intricate design offer one mesmerizing sight after another. An Australian all-region DVD will be released March 15; details and the trailer can be found at the film’s official site.

One Man Band (US, 4 min.)

Was this really only four minutes? This short epitomizes many of my problems with Pixar; everything looks like a theme park (even the Italian piazza here), characters are invariably cute or exuberantly manic, and every microsecond is programmed (literally) to induce instantaneous amusement for an attention deficient culture. That may not be the worst formula in the world, but it makes for pretty loud and obvious filmmaking and makes me wish the Oscars would relegate this kind of massive production to their animation feature category, and allow their short category to champion the smaller works.

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