Salute Your Shorts: Oscar Nominee Rundown

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Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored. 

For most of the year, short films are pretty much ignored by everyone except the very small community who make and show them at film festivals.The best that these films can realistically hope for is to get an award and then use the award to catapult into feature-film direction, which, unlike directing short films, actually, you know, pays.

But for a very, very, very brief time at each year’s Academy Awards they’re given recognition in front of live audiences around the globe.Not much recognition (it’s not like their makers get on the stage or anything crazy like that), but still enough to remind home viewers that the genre exists.

Since 2006, Magnolia Pictures has been theatrically releasing the Oscar nominated live-action and animated short films in theaters.This still leaves the documentary shorts missing, with pretty much no rhyme or reason for the decision except that people don’t like documentary short films, but it’s certainly an improvement on how things used to be. 

The Academy Award’s nomination process has always been a little bit hazy.Most years this problem is reiterated when the foreign-language nominees are announced, a category that almost always has conspicuous absences from the best films of its type made that year.But that’s a rant for another day, and besides, the category that’s even more baffling to figure out is short films.It seems safe to say that most Academy members don’t spend their free time in poorly attended short-film festivals, so how exactly do these get noticed? 

Well, as with other categories, they’re submitted by the entrants.The difference here is that the films are required to have been either publicly exhibited for money, which is arguably true almost exclusively for Pixar films, or to have won a “best-in-category” award at a theoretically accredited film festival.All of which is to say that, unlike features, there is a process; it’s only after they’re submitted that it becomes a real mystery. Even with relatively strict requirements, the number of entrants for each category can be huge, and without any sort of critical consensus for which are worth looking at, it’s no wonder the Academy never seems to know what it’s doing.

It’s for this reason that each year’s shorts seem like a pretty mixed bag, when logically they should probably be very good every time out.Last year’s crop of live-action films was rather weak and this year’s is, well, also rather weak, but in a different way.If 2007’s films felt like student works, 2008’s feel professional but almost fascinatingly politically correct.The worst of these is Steph Green’s “New Boy,” which feels like an artily shot government-made film, designed to show the joy of diversity and acceptance.Its bold message, that people shouldn’t harass others just because they’re different, feels like pandering of the worst kind.If you haven’t learned this fundamental truth by now, the film’s message of racial harmony is only likely to inflame your anger anyhow.

Similarly grating is the German film “Toyland,” which is something like the sixth holocaust exploitation film this year and posits what would happen if a German child were mistaken as Jewish.The film has not only a nearly-indentical plot as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but it also has a similar feel.Like “New Boy,” it’s pretty but insubstantial, and somehow manages not to say anything remotely new.You get the feeling that films like this are exactly why Quentin Tarantino’s working so hard on Inglourious Basterds—not because he disagrees with the idea of these films, per se, but rather because this film in particular makes you wonder whether it’s worth sleeping through something that’s only 14 minutes long.

In contrast with these, the strongest of the nominated films feels personal rather than clinical.  Reto Caffi’s “On the Line” questions the issues surrounding Good Samaritanism and honesty.It’s also the longest of the shorts, but whereas many of the others feel lengthy at a mere 12 minutes or so, “On the Line” feels like it’s a short because Caffi understood the length his premise needed.In a nutshell, it feels fully developed, like a good short story that leads to an ambiguous point instead of running toward a pre-determined resolution.

“Manon on the Street,” a film that posits what will happen to a woman’s loved ones when she dies, is the only live-action short that feels unprofessional.The whole thing is driven by an irritating, forced voice-over.If “On the Line” is a developed short story, “Manon” is one that’s written to a prompt and then published before editing.Its premise has something to it, but the rather fatuous method of exploring it makes for a dull, solipsistic film.

The last of the live-action nominees is the only one that’s even a little humorous.“The Pig” focuses on a hospital patient’s love for a painting, which is then taken down by those next door due to their Islamic faith.It nearly slips into the same trap as the earlier mentioned shorts, but despite its blunt dialogue, is still winning with its wistfulness and charming acting.It’s also an "issue" film, which is sometimes problematic for pieces as short as these, but unlike the others, this one isn’t completely full of itself.It’s only a little full of itself.Plus, the pig painting does reallyhave something to it.  

In contrast with the generally somber tone of the live-action shorts, the animated films are almost all whimsical, funny and for whatever reason, silent.Probably the most known of these shorts, which is to say the only nominated short anyone not seeking them out would’ve come across, is Pixar’s “Presto.”It’s indicative of the rest of the category too, in that it’s enjoyable and well-crafted, though not very deep. It’s a good-but-not-great film, one we’ll revisit at a later date when looking at how it fits into Pixar’s increasingly impressive canon of short films.

Clearly influenced by the Pixar school of computer animation is the French film “Oktapadi.”  At three minutes long, Julien Bocabeille’s film is the shortest of all the nominees, telling a quick tail of two octopi fighting not to be eaten.It’s the only film that feels a bit more like a tech demo than a full short and it’s oddly anachronistic when compared with everything else in the category.There’s nothing wrong with it, really, but it’s so slight that many video-game cut scenes feel epic in comparison, and not just ones from Metal Gear Solid. 

The weakest of the category is the Russian “Lavatory Lovestory,” which uses a minimalist, line-drawn style.Its animation is fluid and quickly attention-grabbing, but unfortunately the rest of the story is pretty lackluster.Its fantastic tale of love found by a lavatory attendant is simple and its slapstick mostly dull.The most interesting part about the film is learning that Russians and other Europeans are charged to use a bathroom in public places, which I’ve also been informed used to be the case here in the States.This begs the question: Is living in Russia today like living in the United States circa 1964? Of course, that’s a question only scholars will one day be able to answer, but personally I’ve never felt prouder to be an American.

All of the films listed above can be found on iTunes for anyone whose cities aren’t (or are no longer) showing these series theatrically.Unfortunately, for reasons that remain opaque, the two best animated shorts are still offline.Japan’s “House of Small Cubes,” is as beautiful as it is moving, speaking metaphorically about memory by showing a man exploring rooms despite incoming tides.“This Way Up,” our choice for best of the nominees, is a dark, insane story about two pallbearers laying a body to rest.It’s the film that best explores the possibilities of animation, despite being made on a bet with Mike Judge about whether it could be made in only eight months.The creators might be best known as the folks who did the Catch Me If You Can intro, which gives only a taste of what they do when given three dimensions.With any luck, these two shorts will be online soon as well. If not, the above should give you a good idea of what to check out.It’s only $2 a film, and worth it, too. Not only do you get to check out some great works, but you also support a medium that’s sadly neglected.

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