I spent the weekend with the short film nominees to get a handle on how I see those two typically ignored races shaping up. I thought I’d use this week’s Oscar column to reflect on those ten entries.
Best Short Film (Live Action)
In the live action category, I have to say, things are looking bleak. I understand the difficulties of making a short film. I spent four years making them as an undergrad, after all. You have to capture an audience in a short amount of time, but if you want your film to be any sort of calling card, you also have to present viable cinematic capabilities that show you can handle a feature experience. Usually, one of two things makes for a failing short: the vision is too small or the vision is too big.
Thankfully, none of the live action shorts competing this year suffers from having a bloated vision. And really, the only film that has an expanded thematic and spatial mentality (“Binta y la Gran Idea”) manages to keep an even keel. But none of these films really transcends enough to write home about. None of them has a creative thrust that leaves you wanting to see the filmmaker’s next work, and certainly, none of them leaves me with a desire to see these filmmakers hitting the feature turf running.
Let’s start with the likely winner, and ultimately, the worst film of the lot: “West Bank Story.” Replace the word “Bank” with “Side” and you’ll get an idea of what this short-sighted, spoof-ish, altogether uncreative film is all about. Set in the West Bank and detailing forbidden romance and feuding fast food joints (the Kosher King and the Hummus Hut respectively), “West Bank Story” takes its leads from “West Side Story,” which took it’s leads from William Shakespeare, which took his leads from Greek mythology.
It kind of reminds me of high school, actually. You could tell which weeks the food budget had suffered a blow. On Monday, we had pizza, and throughout the week, varying shades of Italian cuisine. All I know is it was red and orange. By Friday, we had “lasagna.” My classmates and I were convinced it was all the same food.
But I digress.
“West Bank Story” shows that filmmaker Ari Sandel has the visual quirkiness that is necessary to be a filmmaker, but it also shows he is capable of drastically limited vision and, clearly, he wasn’t willing to push very hard on this effort. He’s got a calling card, likely an Oscar, and his career will be off. But that doesn’t make “West Bank Story” a good film.
The best offering of the lot would have to be “The Saviour,” the story of a Mormon evangelist who falls in love with a married woman, one of his door-to-door “prospects.” The fact that he is missing a hand is fascinating, I’m not quite sure why. He hits a crisis of faith when she tells him they can no longer see each other, and the third act offers the closure a film like this needs.
“The Saviour” isn’t perfect. It isn’t head-turning, it isn’t even poignant. But it has some ideas, makes its case, gets to the point in a decent amount of time and gets out before things go on too long. That’s all you can really ask for. Filmmaker Peter Templeman also shows visual idiosyncrasies that ought to improve as he crosses over into feature territory, should he choose to do so.
Elsewhere, the most awarded of the live action shorts, “Eramos Pocos,” isn’t much of an effort either. It, too, lives and breathes in its final act, but the ultimate reflection on the rest of the film in hindsight is a bit hollow.
“Binta y la Gran Idea,” the longest of the nominees, is actually very interesting. Narrated in a humorously matter of fact tone by Binta, a young girl in Senegal, we’re treated to perspectives of education, village life and family affection.
Finally, the least interesting film of the bunch, “Helmer & Søn.” There isn’t much to say about this other than, well, at least it was brief. It clumsily makes its way to a point of father-son love and hate, but really, it just feels like the last act of something with much more substance.
Best Short Film (Animated)
On the other side of things, the animated shorts are by and large a delight from start to finish. Most of the time, animated short nominees come from studios churning out brief segments in the wake or in preparation of one of their feature endeavors. Pixar started in the short game before launching into cinemas with “Toy Story” in 1995, and Disney, of course, always cranks out short form work and has done so for decades. Each company has an entry in this year’s race, as does another major studio, hopping into the fray with a tagalong from one of their feature sequels.
Ultimately, I wish more singular creativity would yield animated contenders in the Oscar race. Understandably, animation is an expensive endeavor, so it makes sense that major companies would show up more often than not. But sometimes, you get something that is clearly a piece of passionate creativity which didn’t spring out of a conglomerate. Such is the case with Géza M. Tóth’s “Maestro.”
I first saw “Maestro” months ago, actually, and was delighted to see it had received an Oscar nomination. I really couldn’t go into much depth about this brief film without spoiling the ultimate point of the effort, but I love what is offered as a plot outline at IMDb: “Five minutes before his big performance, the Maestro and his persistent mechanical assistant are getting ready. As the clock ticks, life at the top is not all it seems.”
“Maestro” might be considered a dark horse to win in this category, but I think the most deserving of the lot will be the ultimate victor: the heartbreaking “The Little Matchgirl” from The Walt Disney Company and filmmaker Roger Allers.
Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the same name (and if you’ve read it, you understand the need for a box of tissues), this film is absolutely WONDERFUL. It is at once a meditation on the vibrancy of imagination and the harshness of reality and, in my view, it might be the best short to ever come out of the Mouse House.
Allers, you may recall, co-directed “The Lion King” in 1994. He was also on the story department for “The Little Mermaid,” also based on one of Anderson’s stories, and indeed, “The Little Matchgirl” can be found on the 2-disc special edition of that 1989 Oscar winning animated milestone. In many ways, his work on this short is not only a validation and nostalgic reincarnation of traditional Disney animation, but proof of its ultimate power.
20th Century Fox missed the animated feature category this year for “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” but Chris Renaud’s “No Time for Nuts,” included on the DVD, did manage a spot in the short field. It’s definitely a better film than its big brother, which was a snooze and a half, but “No Time for Nuts” is also quite creative, boasting a refreshing sense of humor. This film won the Annie over the weekend, but it wasn’t, however, competing with any of the other Oscar nominated films.
Pixar is in the mix again, this time with sound editor Gary Rydstrom’s directorial debut, “Lifted.” This is a gorgeously animated film that could well take the win. Rydstrom is certainly a hero in the animation community, designing the sound of more than a few successful feature endeavors in that realm for some time now. If you listen through the credits, you’ll even hear the infamous “Wilhelm scream” sound effect that remains a running gag in those circles.
In any case, “Lifted” has a great sense of humor and, encouragingly, looks likes the beginnings of what could be a great Pixar feature. The short will be attached to the studio’s summer release “Ratatouille” later this year.
Finally, the black sheep of the group would have to be “The Danish Poet.” Classic film buffs will enjoy the narration of actress Liv Ullman, and some might even get caught up in the film’s romantic story. But I was nodding off and it’s only a fifteen minute ride.
The Oscar nominated shorts will be released theatrically on February 16 across the country by Magnolia Pictures.
Coming next week: Final Oscar predictions. It's almost over!
Main Category Charts
Technical Category Charts
Oscar Predictions Archive
Previous Oscar Columns:
02/05/07 - "Around the Bend"
01/22/07 - "No More Bets"
01/15/07 - "Building the Perfect Beast"
01/08/07 - "Making It Count"
12/18/06 - "Winding Down, Sorting It Out"
11/27/06 - "Switching Gears"
10/23/06 - "Lighten Up"
10/16/06 - "Starting To Get Serious"
10/09/06 - "'Flags' Lands and the Supporting Actresses Need Sustenance"
10/02/06 - "What's in a lead anyway?"
09/18/06 - "Aftermath"
09/11/06 - "It's All Happening."
09/04/06 - "Aw, Canucks."
08/28/06 - "On Your Marks..."
08/14/06 - "Enough Foreplay!"
08/07/06 - "Don't Knock Masturbation; it's Sex with Someone I Love"
07/31/06 - "Old and New, the Oscar Season Approaches"