The Academy Awards short films categories are the traditionally the bane of Oscar office pool players because typically they are unseen by the public until the brief trailers presented on Oscar night. This year that has changed, as the Oscar short films (under 40 minutes) are being shown in commercial theatres before the Feb. 26 awards ceremony. Two feature-length programs, one for nominated short animated films (76 minutes in total) and another for short live action films (107 minutes), opened at TIFF Bell Lightbox last Friday and will debut at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Feb. 17.
As well as the poetic and comic concision that characterizes the best short films, this year the entries share something else in common: They're all nice – technically polished, inoffensive, with an emphasis on the poignant, whimsical and quaint rather than the shockingly inventive.
The Favourite: On the animated shorts side, the slickest film and presumable Oscar favourite is the Pixar entry, La Luna, by Enrico Casarosa. Inspired by an Italo Calvino story, this magic realist fable follows a young boy, who goes out with his father and grandfather in a canoe on their night's work, sweeping the moon. The film captures the mythic quality of Pixar's best work and perhaps helps put to rest recent unpleasant memories of Cars 2.
The Runner-Up: Pixar's strongest competition will likely come from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore from William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg (which is actually a movie version of an iPad app for children.) The story of a Buster Keaton-ish silent man and his life among animated books has some of the faux antique charms of the Pixar feature Up in a story that blends playful technique and a poignant message.
The Dark Horse: The National Film Board entry, Wild Life, by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby (who were previously nominated for 1999's When the Day Breaks) is rendered in a shimmering brush-stroke animation which tells the tale of a young Englishman who heads out to Alberta in the early years of the last century. A mournful tale of high hopes brought low, it follows the young man's experiences through letters back home and interviews with the skeptical locals as his life's trajectory is compared to that of a comet flying too close to the sun.
The other NFB entry is Patrick Doyon's pencil-illustrated childhood story Dimanche/Sunday, with dark-pencil lines and muted water-colour suggesting the style of Roal Dahl. A child experiences the adult world on a day trip to visit his grandparents, with reality leading to imaginative leaps, involving crows, a bear and a penny on a railway track.
The Contenders: For sheer fun, though, you can't beat English animator Grant Orchard's A Morning Stroll, a sort of visual jazz riff in three time signatures. In New York, a man witnesses as a chicken walks along the street and up a doorstep, taps on the door and is admitted. The same routine happens in three times (1959, 2009, 2059), progressing from stick figure animation to a realistic-looking CGI future amidst a zombie apocalypse.
Even in the typically serious live action category, the films are predominantly light this year.
The Favourite: The Shore, from Academy Award-nominated Irish director Terry George ( Some Mother's Son), is the sort of old-fashioned tale with a twist you might have read in The Saturday Evening Post years ago. Ciarin Hinds stars as a man who returns to Ireland after 25 years accompanied by his grown American daughter. As he arrives home, he tells her the story of the best friend he left behind him, and the fiancée he jilted for his new life in America. The story, in truth, is only a frame for a portrait of folksy camaraderie.
The Runner-up: The only serious, issue-oriented short drama is German filmmaker Max Zahle's Raju. A German couple arrive in Calcutta to pick up the four-year-old boy they have adopted but, when the child disappears before they can bring him home, they find themselves caught in a world of corruption. Raju, named after the child, is a smart thriller-in-miniature, though ultimately educational in purpose.
The Dark Horse: Hallvar Witzo's mordantly funny Tuba Atlantic begins with an old man learning he has just six days to live, He is assigned a young female hospice worker who is supposed to take care of him. Instead, she gets wrapped up in his bizarre obsessions, including shooting seagulls with a machine gun and trying to send a message to his brother in America by way of a giant mechanical tuba that they designed together years before.
The Contenders. The other two live action entries are, in effect, extended jokes. Peter McDonald and Eimear O'Kane's Pentacostis a saucy tale of how sports and religion get confused in Ireland. A soccer-obsessed altar boy is given a key assignment in an upcoming mass overseen by the visiting bishop, but with fantasies of Liverpool Celtics in his head, he makes a terrible, if very funny, error in judgment.
Another straight-out joke piece, American Andrew Bowler's Time Freak, feels like an early Woody Allen short story in which an inventor creates a time-machine that, unfortunately, leaves him a repeated loop of trying to improve on what happened the day before.
For a trailer of the Oscar nominated short animated and live action films, go to youtube.com/watch?v=Yji46hmAxks