A look at the Oscar-nominated short films

BY ANDREW LAPIN AND EMILY BOUDREAU
Daily Film Writers
Published February 11, 2009

Every year around Oscar nomination time, there are at least 10 recognized films the general public will have never heard of: the five live-action and five animated shorts nominated in the Academy’s “Best Short Film” categories. But it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. The Michigan Theater is currently screening all the 2009 Oscar-nominated short films in two separate programs or one combined, discounted program. The Daily picks apart the best and worst from this cinematic smorgasbord.

ANIMATED

“Oktapodi”

Short but sweet, this two-minute French CGI lark follows an octopus as he attempts to save his significant other from the clutches of a restaurateur. The film's slightly insane pace makes it play like a deleted scene from “Finding Nemo.” Superb art direction is on display as the characters race through a gorgeously designed hilly seaside village.

“Pieces of Love” (“Le Maison en Petits Cubes”)

Every frame of this exquisite Japanese film could be sold as a watercolor painting. The concept is engrossing, if melancholy: An old man lives alone in a flooded village, and he must constantly add new floors onto his house to survive above the rising tide. As he scuba dives through his submerged home, he recounts happy memories of his family from years gone by. Of the five nominees in this category, “Pieces” is most deserving of the prize.

“This Way Up”

Considering two hallmarks of British comedy are slapstick and making fun of dead people, it should come as no surprise that this short (concerning two bumbling morticians who must transport a recently deceased woman to her grave by foot) comes out of the United Kingdom. “This Way Up” is morbidly hilarious as the heroes get caught in one ridiculous obstacle after another — it’s like Tim Burton by way of Rube Goldberg.

“Lavatory — Lovestory”

In this minimalist Russian short, a lonely public bathroom attendant finds mysterious bouquets in her tip jar and tries to deduce her secret admirer from the many gentlemen occupying the toilets. (It seems tip jars in bathrooms and restroom caretakers of the opposite sex are commonplace in Russia.) The film is cute, but the black outlines of characters on white backgrounds tend to resemble a Red Bull commercial.

“Presto”

The Pixar short-making machine strikes again with this zany magician-versus-rabbit tale (which opened for last summer’s “WALL-E” in theaters). It’s laugh out loud funny, with more excessively violent physical humor than the studio has perhaps ever dared. While “Presto” doesn’t meet the imaginative heights of “For the Birds” or “Geri’s Game,” it works wonders as an extended Tex Avery homage.

Bonus Films

To give your buck added bang, the Animated Shorts showcase also includes five “extra commended” (not nominated) films from 2008. Four of these are animal tales. Two of them, “Gopher Broke” and “Hot Dog” (both from the United States) are goofy slapstick; one, the U.K.’s “John and Karen,” is cheeky and dialogue-based; and one, the U.K.’s “Varmints,” is just bizarre (a humanoid dog attempts to protect his meadow from the evils of urban sprawl ... and giant jellyfish). The remaining film, France’s “Skhizein,” shows a man who’s struck by a meteor and finds he’s literally beside himself. It’s the best offering of all the shorts. Why this engrossing and darkly humorous work didn’t receive an actual nomination is mind-boggling.

Andrew Lapin

LIVE ACTION

“On the Line” (“Auf Der Strecke”)

Yes, Lance Bass of *NSYNC is in a 2001 movie with the same title. No worries, though: This German film is much better. A department store security guard is madly in love with a girl who works in the book department. He is so enchanted by her that he watches her on his surveillance cameras. He is a lonely man — most of his interactions with others are based on what he observes through his camera. He wants to find a connection with somebody who is not barred by a camera lens. After a preventable tragedy strikes on the subway, he finds the relationship he seeks but is ridden with guilt.

“New Boy”

This Irish short, based on the story of the same title by Andre Dubus, tells the classic tale of the new kid in class. But this time, the “new boy” is a refugee from Africa who is isolated from his country and peers. The boy carries a heavy secret in addition to the traditional “new school” problems (bullies and the annoying girl who decides she has a crush on him). He flashes back to memories of his home in Africa, his school and his father to create a piece that is both funny and powerful.

“Toyland”

In pre-World War II Germany, a Gentile mother attempts to save her son’s innocence by telling him his Jewish best friend is taking a trip to Toyland. The boy packs his suitcase in the middle of the night, determined to follow his friend there. The plot seems like a repeat of “Life is Beautiful” at first, but the ending has a rather unexpected twist. This German film has a rather tired feel, though. Its plot, shots of black and white photographs, and theme of perpetual innocence have all been worn out.

“The Pig”

An old man has to suffer the indignity of having gastrointestinal surgery (or as he puts it, “surgery in the butt”) in this Danish short film. The situation is lightened slightly when he notices the rather odd picture of a pig on his wall with a smile he describes as “just like the Mona Lisa.” The man comes to believe the pig to be his “guardian angel” and causes a fuss when the painting goes missing. The film is thoroughly enjoyable and perhaps the most Oscar-worthy of the bunch.

“Manon on the Asphalt”

This French film is not nearly as dismal as it sounds. Manon is involved in an accident and, as she is dying, she experiences flashes of past evenings with friends and old boyfriends. She wonders how each of these people will handle her death, and she ponders the times they’ll have after she’s gone. The jazzy soundtrack and the bright summer light create a dreamlike atmosphere that somehow manages to reassure the continuation of life even after Manon is gone.

Emily Boudreau