Cut across shorty

There are two things that stand out about this year's crop of short-subject Oscar nominees: 1) There isn't a clunker in the bunch. In recent years there have always been one or two head-scatchers, films that were clearly outclassed by their competitors. Heck, one — 2005's West Bank Story — even took home the prize. 2) Nothing stands head and shoulders above the rest. At least, not as obviously as Martin McDonagh's Six Shooter did in 2004.

I'm not sure it's a positive development, but the nominees in both the live action and animation categories have a sameness in quality that suggests that filmmakers are either catering their material to the Academy's expectations, or the voting members are doggedly narrow-casting for taste. The first three live-action shorts this year serve as evidence. Shot in India, Ukraine and Australia, each is a handsomely mounted drama of children in danger. Juanita Wilson's The Door is a heartbreaking but predictable film that puts a human face on the tragedy of Chernobyl. Gregg Helvey's Kavi is a beautifully shot tale of a spirited young Indian boy whose family has been enslaved by a company that makes bricks. With social justice as its goal, the film trades in easy manipulations: cute kid + capricious beatings = instant villainy. It's the kind of didactic drama that Amnesty International could use to drum up donations. Luke Doolan's Miracle Fish is the best of the trio, and tied for my vote for the statue: After wishing everyone would just go away, a bullied young boy discovers that his teachers and classmates have vanished. But what seems to be the ultimate granting of a birthday wish becomes something much darker. Until its last, overstated moments, Doolan's film satisfies. 

Less likely to win, but equally worthy is Patrik Eklund's Instead of Abracadabra, which will probably lose points for being funny. Very funny, actually. Tomas is a 25-year-old living at home with his aging parents. An amateur magician, he's determined to use his dad's 60th birthday party as a springboard for his blossoming career. Unfortunately, he's not very good. Dangerously so. Though he telegraphs the short's payoff, Eklund has a geeky, deadpan style that recalls Napoleon Dynamite. Only the jokes are funnier. Chimay!

Joachim Back's mildly amusing The New Tenants is so heavily influenced by collaborator and co-star David Rakoff (A This American Life regular) that it ends up playing like a David Sedaris story as directed by Quentin Tarantino. A gay couple moves into a dead guy's apartment and is besieged by unexpected neighbors. Before you can say "too many recognizable actors" the bodies pile up. Does it work? Sorta. Will it win? Not a chance.

The animation entries are similarly homogenous. Fabrice O. Joubert's French Roast, Nicky Phelan's Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty (the weakest of the bunch), and Javier Recio Gracia's The Lady and the Reaper all sport slick, stylized computer animation that seems to be auditioning for a job with Pixar (or one of its competitors). All are amusing (Gracia's is best), trading in macabre humor and memorable visuals, but only Logorama by France's H5 animation group hits a homer. Bitingly clever, it imagines a world where corporate logos represent every facet of life, turning every event — from car accidents to a hostage crisis — into an exercise in branding. It's nice to see someone turn digital showmanship into such incisive social commentary.

But no matter how good these filmmakers are at slinging pixels, it's hard to imagine any of them besting Nick Park's latest addition to the Wallace and Gromit canon: A Matter of Loaf and Death. Filled with Aardman's trademark gallows humor, cinematic wit, and handcrafted stop-action joy, this 30 minute mini-masterpiece is the odds-on favorite to take home the statue (and beloved by both my sons).

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19-20, and at 2 and 6 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 21. It also shows at 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 27-28. Call 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]