2011 Oscar Shorts:
Feb. 10–16 at the Carolina Theatre (see times below)
Does your office Oscar pool count the short films as anything more than tiebreakers? If so, you might be able to gain an edge by visiting the Carolina Theatre, which will be screening all of the nominees in the short animated and short live action categories: one program for the live action ones, and one for the animated movies.
Any other good reason to watch every nominee in either category is elusive, though you’re far better off with the animated ones. Most of the miniature movies in this bunch don’t make punchy statements or experiment with form; they seem more like calling cards for the filmmakers, announcements of craft competence. Overwhelmingly, the mainstream short film is not a form of artistic expression but an obligatory career step.
To be fair, navigating the form of the live action short film is tricky not only for viewers but for the writers and directors. When shorts imitate the conventions of a feature film, with three-act narrative arcs, they come across as self-important and overlong even when, as in “The Shore,” they’re occasionally funny and a little bit touching. Watching a series of short films in a row with opening credits sequences and accompanying music is a bit like reading a book of short stories in which each story has end papers, a title page, publisher info and author acknowledgements.
Live action shorts like “Pentecost” or “Time Freak” try to sidestep the problems of the short film with humor, but they’re really just simple extended gags. In the former, the role of a grounded altar boy is compared at great length to that of a suspended soccer player. In “Time Freak,” the inventor of a time machine tries to perfect minor interactions of the previous day instead of going somewhere like ancient Rome. It’s not a bad premise, the idea that we’re too hung up on meaningless details to understand the profundity of our own accomplishments, but the jokes are flat. “Raju,” the story of a German couple adopting an Indian boy, is the only nominee that uses its longish run time to play with viewer expectations, subverting its own premise with weary ambiguity and healthy cynicism. Conversely, “Tuba Atlantic” masquerades as black humor, its main character a dying man who machine-guns seagulls out of the sky, but the story ends by comforting the viewer with some nonsense about a giant tuba that blasts its sound across the ocean to the man’s brother.
You’ll need a high tolerance for whimsy like this to take in all of these shorts at once. Patience with cliché and sap will help, too. If you can see through it and feel charitable, there are things to like about most of the movies in these collections, especially in the animated category. The totally aggro “A Morning Stroll” is the only objectionable entry in this program, with its simplistic view of people as gadget-obsessed zombies. On the other end of the spectrum is “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” about an idyllic dimension between life and death among living hardbacks. It’s likeable if indulgent, glorying in the comfortable myth of the happy loner whose best friends are books, kind of like a cutesy reimagining of the end of Fahrenheit 451. Somewhere between these two movies’ sensibility is the French Canadian “Sunday”: It’s classically animated (mostly hand-drawn!) and evocative, a wordless story about a boy discovering a world filled with mortality. “La Luna,” which pushes the needle on the well-done whimsy scale into the red, is pure Pixar and will probably win the category by virtue of the enormous Hollywood machine that it has behind it.
Much harder to classify is the most deserving movie in the category, “Wild Life,” animated with painterly skill and kineticism (think Maira Kalman in motion) about an English dandy who moves to Alberta, Canada, in 1909 to try his hand at ranching. The story is pieced together with his letters home, interviews with his neighbors and a conversation he has with his dog while he rows around a puddle-size pond. Created by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, it’s the only nominated short that feels like an artistic accomplishment in and of itself, one that seems to have satisfied its creators as artists with ideas. And if Forbis and Tilby aren’t satisfied with it, they are setting the bar for themselves in the stratosphere.
There are undoubtedly more filmmakers like Forbis and Tilby, making short films that are personal and unusual, that people might take as much pleasure in as they do in some of the better nominees in the Best Picture category (not that those are really any great shakes, either). [The Triangle has numerous good outlets for the short film form; two of them occur later this month: the Strange Beauty Film Festival in Durham and the Raleigh-based Bloc Animation Project.]
Of course, the Academy isn’t where we’ve ever expected real visionaries to be recognized, but in this category that can highlight the accomplishment of unknowns, an adventurous survey of the field would be more meaningful than it might be in the categories that count in Oscar pools.
For the record, though, the short films should only be counted in your office Oscar pool in the case of a tie, because the ability to guess which unknown short movie will take a statue shouldn’t count as much as the ability to guess all the majors. Take it from someone burned by a competitor who lost in the majors but won by consistently guessing the shorts correctly.