The Academy Award-Nominated Short Films (2009)
Film review by: Witney Seibold
It’s now been a few years in a row that Shorts International has thought to assemble, and release theatrically, the Academy-Award-nominated short films for public consumption. Thank goodness that they have, too, as it not only allows people to absorb and appreciate the little-seen and underappreciated art form of the professional short film, but gives the Oscar buffs (like me) a chance to be a step ahead of the game come Oscar night.
The animated films this year were mostly fun, and included some hilarious comic shorts (although I am still dismayed by the over-use of CGI in such a media, and also the way it is used). The live-action films were relentlessly bleak, and often included children in peril. Here then is a rundown on the five live-action shorts and the five animated shorts nominated for 2009 academy awards.
Gregg Helvey’s “Kavi,” the film from India, is about the titular boy working as a modern-day slave in a brick-making factory. His boss promises him games of cricket for hard work, but his parents, enslaved along with him, are happy just to avoid being beaten. Lurking in the bushes around the slave camp are a pair of reporters, possibly bent on exposing the horrors of the camp. “Kavi” will, in my opinion, win the Academy Award, as it’s well made, tragic without being too brutal (well, someone does deliberately break their own thumb at one point). It also has a post-film scrawl about the blight of modern-day slavery in the world, and encourages you to donate money to stop it. I don’t mean to belittle the horrors of modern-day slavery, but the “message” would have been stronger if you had let the film do the talking.
From Denmark came Joachim Back and Tivi Magnusson’s English-language “The New Tenants,” a dark comedy involving drugs and violence, and, surreally, recognizable American actors. It’s an amusing conceit: people rant and rave and die in front of a newly-moved couple, and they don’t speak much, or leave their dining-room table. David Rackoff plays a misanthrope who snipes at his boyfriend. Vincent D’Onofrio shows up ranting about his wife. Kevin Corrigan is a bitter murdering drug dealer, and there are several murders. For all the bloody mayhem, “the New Tenants” is actually pretty funny, although it seems strained-ly stylized by the end; like the filmmakers grew up watching Tarantino movies.
The best-looking, best-shot, and best-written film came from Australia, in the form of Luke Doolan and Drew Bailey’s “Miracle Fish.” A young boy, bullied at school on his birthday, falls asleep in the nurse’s office, and awakens to find that the school is mysteriously empty. The observance of honest childhood behavior was excellently executed, and I was genuinely interested in what was going to happen to this kid. The unfortunate part of the film is the way the story went. I won’t reveal too much, but I will say that there is a lot more violence than you’d might expect. I guess putting children in peril is a sure-fire attention grabber.
Juanita Wilson and James Flynn, American directors, gave us the Russian-language “The Door,” which put an adorable doe-eyed, blonde little girl in the radiation radius of Chernobyl back in 1986, and then slowly watches her die. The last shot of the film is her funerary procession. Sigh. I don’t mean to disparage this film too much, but, what the Hell? Watching a little girl die of radiation poisoning seems to me like it’s not playing fair. That’s like giving a puppy cancer. It’s a melodramatic conceit that has one rolling their eye in equal incredulity and sour depression. Wilson and Flynn are skilled directors, but the need a cheerier subject fro their film.
The cheeriest film, strangely, came from Sweden, in the form of Patrick Eklund and Mathias Fjellström’s “Instead of Abracadabra,” about a loser twentysomething still living with his parents, and trying desperately to impress his new next door neighbor with his questionable skills at magic. Our magician is a recognizable character from many “quirky” romcoms of the last decade, but, at a mere 17 minutes, he doesn’t get the chance to become insufferable. The film’s denouement… well, I don’t want to ruin the ending, but it goes a way you may not expect. This film may win just because, compared to the others, it’s a riot and a half.
From France, we have Fabrice O. Joubert’s “French Roast.” It’s a cutsey li’l dialogue-free CGI thing about a man who forgot his wallet at a café, and the beggar who bugs him. This is more an example of virtuosic animation than it is a triumph of storytelling. The CGI looks good, and the filmmaker managed to give the characters interesting movements, rather than that jerky, hyperkinetic stuff that infects the form.
From Spain, there is Javier Recio Gracia’s “La Dama y la Muerte” which was beautifully and hilariously grim in the children’s haunted house vein. It features Death and a hunky doctor who are vying over the life or death of a sweet old lady in a battle that becomes a high-speed chase. It’s gorgeously designed, wicked, and way fun. It’s unlikely to win the award, but it’s a light and serviceable entertainment.
From Ireland there was Nicky Phelan’s and Darragh O’Connell’s “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty,” which seems like something that would play better at Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation than something that’s seen amongst other Oscar films. The only thing elevating it is the quality of animation. It involves an angry grandmother telling a particularly vengeful and scary version of Sleeping Beauty to her terrified granddaughter. Had this been animated with drawings rather than CGI, I think it would have been more effective. But there you go.
From England we have the slickest, the most professional and the most recognizable film in the form of Nick Park’s “A Matter of Loaf and Death” featuring none other than Wallace & Gromit. It’s also be like likely winner come Oscar night, should the final film somehow lose. In it, our hapless hero Wallace, now a baker, unwittingly welcomes a charming serial killer into his home, and it’s up to his mute pooch Gromit to get him out of the jam. I am a big fan of Wallace & Gromit, and liked seeing their antics on the big screen again. However, there seemed to be something kind of… I dunno, compulsory about this film. It was perhaps a bit too pat, and not enough quirkily British. But that is, perhaps, just me splitting hairs.
The last nominee is from France, is in English, was directed by Nicolas Schmerkin, and is the frontrunner, I feel, for the Academy Award. It’s called “Logorama” and takes place in an alternate reality where everything – the animals, the buildings, the people, the cars – are all made of living corporate logos. While the concept of kiddie-friendly characters doing crass things is hardly new – Ronald McDonald goes on a shooting spree, Bob’s Big Boy curses – I like the sort of Reagan-era apocalyptic view of corporate America on display. It must have taken a huge effort for the filmmakers to cull all those all-too-familiar images, and then construct an entire world out of them. I wish the jokes had been wittier, and more of a comment was made, but it was still the most creative and the most striking of the films.