Short films tend to be an under-appreciated art form these days, but they always get some annual love from the Oscars in the form of the Best Animated and Best Live-Action Short categories. The Daily's film staff is here to parse through this year's selections. All of these nominated films are currently playing on a single bill at the Michigan Theater.
Oscar Nominated Short Films 2010
At the Michigan
Animated Short Films
“Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death”
A serial killer is on the loose. The target? Bakers, leaving everyone's favorite Claymation duo as the only bakers left in the town. This is great for business, but when a heavyset bread model seduces Wallace, the pair's prospects don't look too bright. As Wallace’s love literally blossoms like bread in the oven, death looms ever closer. This is one of the longer shorts, but it’s lighthearted and witty. The silly inventions, subtle sexual innuendos and expressions of disgust on Gromit’s face all come together to form a carefully constructed animated world.
French director François Alaux delivers a searing critique of American culture through a Los Angeles inhabited entirely by logos. The Pringle face drives trucks, Apple apples grow on trees and the Michelin man works as a cop. But the streets are no longer safe, as the most-wanted criminal, Ronald McDonald (who else?), is on the loose. By this point, it’s a bit too easy to criticize America for rampant consumerism and violence. What makes this short different is the way the corporate symbols pop out and are given their own personalities. The pavement cracks into an X-Box symbol and Mr. Clean is cast as an effeminate zookeeper. The little twists are enough to make people rethink the way advertising works.
A man loses his wallet in a French bistro while being pestered by a homeless man, a sinister nun and a sleepy policeman, resulting in a slight misunderstanding. The characters are all a little creepy looking and don’t quite fit in with the farcical tone of the plot. The short is entertaining, but it gets a bit repetitive after a while. The characters all show emotion in a predictably cartoonish way, with buggy eyes and twitching mustaches. The short is so bent on hammering in a moral to the story that the end loses all sense of charm.
“The Lady and the Reaper”
This story of an old woman who just wants to rest peacefully explores the implications of modern medicine and morality. The woman becomes caught in a struggle between a young whiz-kid doctor and the Grim Reaper. The struggle evolves into a slapstick fight over the woman’s body. Despite his reputation, it’s hard not to root for the Reaper as he develops an engaging personality without really saying anything. His expressions and demeanor allow him to seem funny and natural, rather than a menacing figure.
“Granny O’ Grim”
This six-minute Irish film is absolutely delightful. A kooky grandmother with a flair for theater decides to tell her nervous grandson her version of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty.” She’s trying to get him to fall asleep, but because her spin on the story is a bit horrific, her efforts prove detrimental. It's clever to see how it all plays out.
Live Action Films
“Instead of Abracadabra”
In this “Napoleon Dynamite”-meets-Todd Solondz-meets-John-Waters amalgamation (with a drop of Swedish drag queen), Tomas, a clumsy, theatrical 25-year-old who still lives with his parents, tries to make it a big as a magician. After an embarrassing mishap at his first exhibition, Tomas tries to impress his new neighbor at his father’s 60th birthday celebration, a gig only promised to him on the grounds that he will get a real job. “Chimay!” the eyeliner-coated, sparkle-faced, ruffle-wearing illusionist histrionically shouts. “She-male?” asks the confused photographer. “No, Chimay!” he replies. “Instead of abracadabra.”
It's traditional for the Oscar Live Action Short category to be dominated by "socially relevant" films, and it's not at all unlikely that they win, either. “The Door” revisits the well-worn story of the Chernobyl incident of 1986, where a family is evacuated and quarantined after the radioactive explosion impacts their health. The father symbolically attempts to steal the door off his own apartment, a door on which he eventually lays his own daughter out for her funeral. In an attempt to make its lack of originality more palatable, the film tells its events out of order, “(500) Days of Summer” style, but this disjunction just becomes confusing.
Embracing the “Slumdog Millionaire” trend with full force, “Kavi” is about an impoverished Indian bricklayer boy with a love for cricket. The young protagonist is brutally taunted by his master when he expresses a desire to go to school. The plot is really nothing new, but the uncomfortably intimate close-ups map out the raw desire and patent hunger in the boy’s eyes. It’s clear there’s something rotten in the state of India. But just to make sure we really got the point, the director tacks a PSA-style message about Indian slavery at the end. “Kavi” is heartbreaking, to be sure, but just a bit too overwrought to be effective.
It's to director Luke Doolan’s credit that we have no idea what to expect from this film as it roams shot to shot. A young Australian boy living on welfare is bullied mercilessly when he only receives a red Fortune Teller Miracle Fish for his eighth birthday. He takes a nap on the nurse’s sick cot, wishing that the entire world would go away. He awakens, stunned, to find the entire school emptied. Had he slept for so long it is now the weekend? How had nobody noticed he was there? Or is something more sinister lurking at the fringes? “Miracle Fish” is an impressive piece of work, just because it manages to construct genuine tension out of one isolated moment.
“The New Tenants”
This Danish short is an enjoyable black comedy. Two gay men move into a new apartment and within hours discover that the recently murdered previous tenant, Jerry, was involved in some shady business. The new renters encounter several people who still have some bones to pick with him. Jerry's angry acquaintances end up taking their frustrations out on each other, and the bodies begin the pile up. The film gets more ridiculous and more hilarious as the shocked couple bears witness to the scene.
Highly Commendable Short Films
It’s a bit surprising that “Partly Cloudy,” the Pixar animated short, didn’t receive a nomination. The adorable film depicts the relationship between a stork and a cloud who forms baby animals out of cloud dust. The Canadian film “The Runaway” was less engaging, focusing on the journey of a train desperately trying to make it up a hill but running into a few problems on the way. The Polish film “The Kinematograph" was the only animated film with a dismal tone, telling the story of an inventor whose wife succumbs to illness and dies.