Every year it's pretty much the same: Celebs grit their teeth and applaud for nominees they've never heard of and films they've never seen while members of the home audience take a bathroom break. A tradition since 1932, short subject films are the red-headed stepkids of the Oscars. When these awards now divided into live action and animated categories are given out on Sunday night, you and all but a handful of people at the Kodak Theater will be clueless about who deserved to win.
With the advent of YouTube, iFilm, Atomfilms and hundreds of other Web-based video sources, you'd think that short film nominees would have a built-in network of fans. Unfortunately, these Oscar contenders are all but hidden from public view, their releases tightly controlled and limited at best. If it seems bizarre that the Academy asks you to applaud anonymous work, you're not alone. Can you imagine the TV ratings if the feature film categories were handled in the same way? The time has come for the Academy to require every nominated film to be widely accessible to general audiences.
Until then, film fans will have to rely on institutions like the Detroit Film Theatre, which will be running the 2007 nominees for short live action and animated films.
Best Short Film (Live Action)
Though many big name directors cut their teeth on micro masterpieces (Spielberg, Spike Lee, David Lynch, etc.) it's telling that few have ever had their shorts nominated for the Oscar. In the last 30 years, only Taylor Hackford (An Officer And A Gentleman, The Devil's Advocate, Ray) turned his Oscar-winning short into a full-blooded Hollywood career.
This year's selection is a typically mixed bag of missed ambition and overlong sketch comedy. Unlike past years, the nominees avoid the show-offy overindulgence of filmmakers who have nothing to say but want to say it loudly. Instead, each is competently executed but hardly inspirational.
The likely winner but weakest of the offerings is Ari Sandel's West Bank Story. A politically informed spoof of West Side Story, this musical about forbidden love and feuding falafel joints (Kosher King vs. Hummus Hut) is a shallow and barely amusing Hollywood calling card for the filmmaker who knows how to do quirky but doesn't try very hard.
The sentimental favorite is Javier Fesser and Luis Manso' Binta y la Gran Idea. Narrated by a young Senegalese girl, this half hour modern parable espouses the virtues of education and community responsibility. It's a simple sweet story filled with beautiful visuals.
Spanish filmmaker Borja Cobeaga's Éramos Pocos and Helmer & Son by Denmark's Soren Pilmark and Kim Magnusson are similarly domestic tales of parent-child relations. Both films have an understated sense of humor and live for their punch lines. Neither impresses nor overstays its welcome.
The best of the bunch is Peter Templeman's Saviour, a punchy little comic-drama about a young missionary who is led astray by an Australian housewife. Templeman's deadpan irony and idiosyncratic sense of pace make him the only nominee worth watching for in the future.
Best Short Film (Animated)
As you might expect, the animated shorts prove to be the highlight of the program, offering up impressive visuals and big laughs. Traditionally, big-name studios gearing up for a feature release dominate these selections. For decades, Disney maintained a stranglehold on the category, but the recent CG revolution has pushed companies like Pixar to the head of the pack.
Of course, foreign and independent efforts elbow their way into the mix but their quiet artistry, even if it wins, is frequently overshadowed by the whiz-bang spectacle of studio efforts. This year is no exception.
Vying for CG short supremacy, Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles) and Blue Sky (both Ice Age films, Robots) each has vanity shorts on display. No Time For Nuts is another Ice Age spin-off with prehistoric squirrel, Scrat, stumbling across a time machine. It's fast, funny and highly reminiscent of Tex Avery's work.
Lifted, Pixar's alien-in-training short wasn't available for screening but the clips online look predictably impressive.
Géza M. Tóth's Maestro is a wonderfully funky five minutes as an avian performer and his mechanical assistant get ready for a big performance.
The Danish Poet by Torill Kove boasts Liv Ullmann as its narrator. A poet suffering from writer's block travels to Norway to meet his favorite writer. A series of romantic coincidences and mishaps ends up fulfilling the poet in ways he never expected. The whimsical animation keeps this charming but overlong tale engaging.
The true gem of the evening, however, is Roger Allers take on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Matchgirl. An animator with Walt Disney, Allers worked on The Little Mermaid, and this short can be found on its recent special edition DVD. Beautifully rendered and heartbreakingly tragic, it marries Disney's sentimental sense of imagination with the cruel realities of fate. It's the best classic-style animation the Mouse House has put out in years.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23, 4 & 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24 and at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25.
Also showing at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463, at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].