Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Unsung!: Oscar-Nominated Shorts

The Oscar-nominated short films, those red-headed stepchildren of the motion picture industry, are being released for the eighth year to actual movie theaters in selected cities. This is a positive trend, but I wish more studios and theaters would bring back the idea of showing “selected short subjects” before the main feature. Remember those Three Stooges shorts you watched on television as a kid… or The Little Rascals… or Looney Tunes? Those were all originally shown in movie theaters. Those were the days! (AND GET OUT OF MY YARD!)

Why are animated shorts only shown before animated features? Why are live-action shorts not shown at all? Last year’s Oscar-nominated animated short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore was available, for FREE, on iTunes weeks before the ceremony. It won. Coincidence? I think that if all the nominated shorts were similarly available, they would garner the huge audiences they deserve, and “Oscar Pool” participants worldwide would be better informed when making their choices.

Fortunately, Shorts HD has released all the short film nominees in two programs, and if you are smart enough to live near a major metropolis, they may be playing at a theatre near you. For the first time, the compilations are “hosted” by last year’s winning directors (Luke Metheny for Live Action Shorts and William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg for Animated Shorts). It is surprising it has taken Shorts HD this long to add this feature. Between the nominated films, all three gentlemen provide brief but delightful insights about their work and what it actually feels like to win an Oscar. Here are this year’s nominees:
Live Action:

Death of a Shadow (dir. Tom Van Avermaet) The visual invention alone in this short gem make it Oscar worthy, but the story demonstrates something peculiar about short films. Perhaps because of their brevity, many shorts fall into the Twilight Zone trap: they feel they need to devise an impressive “twist.” Death of a Shadow looks like a TZ episode, it sounds like a TZ episode, and it has a plot reminiscent of a TZ episode. Its ending proves that it has no interest in being a TZ episode. I admired the film’s unexpected sweetness.

Henry (dir. Yan England) This one really got to me (along with the rest of the audience at the Landmark Century, if all the sniffling and eye-wiping I heard are any indication) but I have discovered that some online critics actively hate it. An elderly pianist looks back upon his life and faces the tragedy of lost memories.
It made me cry and cry.

Curfew (dir. Shawn Christensen) The dark comedy of this might doom its Oscar chances, but this was my favorite of the five. An errant brother is asked to babysit his niece one night under inconvenient circumstances. Christensen demonstrates a great sense of tone and, more importantly, mastery of the short film form. Curfew never feels like a five minute idea unnaturally inflated or, worse, like a feature cut down to “shorts” size. I admired the performances, the understated themes, and the bonus “bowling alley musical number.” This is the one I want to win.

Buzkashi Boys (dir. Sam French) This one felt the most like a feature that was crudely whittled down to a short. It reminded me of The Kite Runner Lite. (The Lite Runner?) As Jeremy Wilson at 411mania.com noted, “Buzkashi Boys looks like it was made… to win an Oscar.” The ending also sends a terrifically confused message, I thought.

Asad (dir. Bryan Buckley) There was a lot to like in this short film. With an offbeat sense of humor that turns the whole thing into a third world shaggy dog story, the film is very good at making some of the horrific aspects of the character’s lives (piracy, hunger, terrorism) seem almost banal. This one really crept up on me, and the more I think about it, the more I like it.

These last two nominees feature a kind of “poverty tourism” that I find unsettling. Although I think Asad’s “We Are All Real Somali Refugees!” casting was well intentioned, there is something exploitative here that makes me queasy. Again and again, economically depressed locations are made to look “ironically beautiful.” The Anglo surnames of the directors point to a desperate Western grab for authenticity. Turns out, French has worked for TVLand and the SyFy channel, and Buckley has directed more than 40 Super Bowl commercials. Maybe Buzkashi Boys and Asad should both be subtitled “What We Did On Our Summer Vacations.”
After all of this depressing social significance, I needed a cartoon. Here are this year’s Animated Short Film nominees:

Adam and Dog (dir. Minkyu Lee) Certainly the most visually impressive entry, this animated film owes a lot to the work of Miyazaki and Studio Gibli. The film’s inflated sense of its own artistry, though, leads to a film that is woefully overlong for the story being told. Still, it is beautiful to look at, and I was impressed by the gentle, non-exploitative handling of Adam’s nudity.

Fresh Guacamole (dir. Adam Pesapane) Somehow, I feel this one has the least chance of winning, but it is the one I most hope will win. It is short and clever and goofy. Plus, at only two minutes, there is no way it is overlong. It knows exactly what it is trying to do, and it does that thing with wit and economy. Here—watch it for yourself!

Head Over Heels (dir. Timothy Reckart) While I am always impressed by good claymation (and one of the plot specifics of this one leads to some very tricky and ambitious animation), I thought this film was too safe and warm and comfortable.

The Longest Daycare
(dir. David Silverman) Starring Maggie Simpson, this film almost seems like cheating. The Simpsons’ crew, which has been doing this for two decades on television, releases five minutes of its usual work as a short film with the latest Ice Age installment so they can pick up the one award they have not yet won. I cry foul. It is not even their best five minutes.

(dir. John Kahrs) I was captivated by this when I saw it for the first time before Wreck-It Ralph this winter. Seeing it again on the Animated Shorts program, I was less impressed. It seems a bit slick, a bit slight, a bit “too Disney” now. I still like the look of it, all 1940s clean charcoal grey. I have a feeling this has the strongest chance of winning.

WILL MY PREDICTIONS COME TRUE? Will my favorites win? Who cares?

Join the F This Movie! crew LIVE, Sunday Night, February 24th, when we Live Tweet (on the Twitter) the 85th Annual LIVE Academy Awards LIVE from Casa de JB.


  1. Nice write-up. I'm going to try to seek these out before Sunday.

  2. Thanks JB for saying something I didn't even remember needed to be said. Why are these short films given the "glory" of Oscar consideration but not really brought to the public's attention in any sort of meaningful way? Christ, with Americans' low attention spans you'd think people would gobble these up! "Honey, you want to go catch a film at 2? We'll be home eating our second lunch by 2:15!"

    Why can't we be watching these instead of watching crap like Tom Hanks' face slowly unblurring as we try to figure out which Castaway star can fit 4 regulation-size donuts on his penis?

    These all sound very interesting and they're just the nominees! Bring back the pre-show short!

  3. I wish I could talk about these but, ahem, I can't (if you catch my NDA drift). ;-)

    In general speak though, I've often wondered why Oscar-nominated shorts aren't put as the pre-shows before other theatrically-released movies. Pixar does this all the time. Yeah, I know: extra-running times, more screenings per day, yadda, yadda. Crying shame, as Sol O. mentions, that these short films only get a moment to shine year-round during the Oscars, and its inevitably the part of the ceremony everyone hates because it's about films and filmmakers most people (even cinephiles) aren't familiar with. Vicious circle of showbiz life I guess.

  4. I really like all of PES' (PES'S? PES'S'S'?) work. His entire YouTube channel is a trip.