Oscar Shorts 2012
This week, the Crest Theatre continues its tradition of bringing the Academy Award nominated short films to Sacramento in time for eager Oscar-watchers to fill out their ballots.
And watching them in these special screenings puts you on an even footing with Academy members who are required to watch them in the same manner in order to be qualified to vote in these categories.
In order to qualify for Oscar contention, short films (under 40 minutes) have to have had a run in theaters or to have won a top award in at least one Academy sanctioned film festival. The nominated films are packaged together by Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International to form theatrical packages so that the rest of us can enjoy them also.
This year, for the first time, in addition to the animated and live-action narrative shorts, Sacramento audiences will also have an opportunity to see the documentary shorts. These (the documentaries) will be screened on one night only, at 7pm on Thursday, February 23rd (and will be reviewed in a later article). The others open today in regular rotation at the Crest (note that the animated and live-action shorts are screened in two separate programs).
In past years, the five nominated films in each category have been augmented by additional films if the nominees have had a cumulative running time much less than approximately 80-90 minutes. For the purposes of this article, only the nominated films are reviewed.
“The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”
Following a storm so strong that it doesn’t just move objects and cause houses to tumble through the air, but also causes the words to be stripped off the pages of his books, our title character finds himself in a world where the books seem to have more life than the people. Unfortunately, the people’s lives seem devoid of books and the books are therefore missing the readers that give them meaning. Already whimsical in nature, there’s one flight of fancy that seems unnecessary here, but the film makes good use of color and black and white imagery in a manner perhaps most associated with “Pleasantville.”
“A Morning Stroll”
Probably the oddest of the group, “A Morning Stroll” tells the same, initially very simple story three times in different eras. A man walks along a city street and is surprised to see a chicken casually walk the other way, knock on a door, and enter a building. To some extent it feels like an exercise in animation styles, as the three distinct eras allow for three equally distinct forms of animation.
Utilizing the simplest, drawn approach, this Canadian film focuses on a Sunday in the life of a small boy. It has the feel of what might be the recollections of one of the filmmakers as the uninterested child is dragged off to church and to visit relatives. This results in uninteresting encounters, uninteresting foods, and uninteresting conversations for him, such that he has to find his own entertainment on the nearby train tracks.
Another Canadian film also focuses on train tracks, in this case the trans-continental railroad that opened up the countries interior to immigrants. Set in 1909 Alberta, it tells the story of an eccentric, to locals, Englishman who never quite belongs. A running analogy throughout the film describes the equally eccentric orbits of comets. My interest in “Wild Life” was based more on my own knowledge of the railroad as a centerpiece of Canadian history, and the way in which the train and shipping companies lured European settlers by promising them land that was more appealing on paper than in reality. Outside of that coincidental interest, the film would probably feel somewhat flat, albeit with some interesting visuals that tend more towards a painted than a drawn style.
The standout film that’s probably competing most closely with “…Flying Books…” for the grand prize is the Walt Disney/Pixar produced “La Luna,” which definitely feels like a ringer in this company. A small boy heads out to sea with his father and grandfather for what appears to be his first time accompanying them on their nightly task. It’s hard to describe what happens next without spoiling the delight, and it is a delightful concept as we find out whether the boy is up to the challenge or not. It also makes good use of near-dialog in a series of grunts and sighs that almost manage to feel like conversation without limiting itself to a single language.
One of two films from Ireland, and one of four out of the five films that give the lineup a more comedic nature than in some years. “Pentecost” looks at the life of a reluctant altar boy who would far rather be watching or dreaming about his favorite soccer stars and teams. That is until a tragic incense-related event at mass puts both occupations in doubt. Genuinely funny and endearing, this is a lesson for adults in how not to bargain with children.
The only serious drama in the program, “Raju” follows a German couple as they travel to Calcutta to adopt an Indian boy from an orphanage. Normally when we hear stories like this, we focus more on the parents and their struggles to start a family and less so on the children and the lives they might be leaving behind. This time, the focus shifts as the smooth process hits a snag after the paperwork has been exchanged, leading to culture shock and reconsideration. It’s not the best film here but it does have some advantage in attracting votes by seeming both topical and meaningful.
Probably the outright funniest of the five, here we essentially get posed the question of what we might do if we had access to a time machine. For all of our grand plans and desires to see moments in history or next month’s stock prices, at least some of us would probably dwell on our ability to go back in time and fix something trivial yet embarrassing. And when one friend finds another and the opportunity he has created for himself, he is more than a little surprised to find out how he’s been utilizing it. This might be the best use of the short format – very compact and efficient, without compromising the inherently appealing, “Groundhog Day”-esque story.
Where three of its companions are traditionally funny, the Norwegian film in the mix is more quirky. Told he has six days to live, Oskar is bothered by his long estrangement from his brother. But he also has a young helper who is determined to help him through the five stages of grief, and a serious vendetta against the plentiful seagulls around his coastal home.
The second of the Irish films manages to remind us of Ireland’s strong film industry, via some recognizable faces (if there’s a live-action ringer, this would be it). Those might help give it the edge here, along with a feeling of substance to the story, backed up by strong comedic elements. It also has some beautiful cinematography, showcasing the coastal locations. In a test of the question of whether one can go home again, a man and his daughter travel back to the Irish town he left 25 years earlier, during “The Troubles.” Although not as tightly wrapped as Time Freak, the running length here is still put to good use, managing to convey multiple themes and tones without venturing into the bloated territory that can easily damage some lo
Overall, the two programs are must-see viewing for awardophiles and a valuable lesson in style and content for filmmakers and students. Both open today at the Crest Theatre: Details and showtimes at www.thecrest.com.