The 2010 collection of Oscar-nominated short films, currently making the swift rounds of movie theaters before the Academy Awards broadcast on March 7, is its usual mixture of the magnificent and the mundane, the illuminating and the irritating. Those who flock annually to the Oscar Shorts screening will find this year's familiar chasm wider than ever. Suburban parents bringing their children to see A Matter of Loaf and Death, the latest in the delightful Wallace & Gromit series, for instance, might be dismayed that more than half of the other short films nominated contain horrible beatings, illicit drugs, pointless shootings or untimely deaths.
This is not surprising, as the very format of the short film limits the average filmmaker in extremity. In just 10 to 20 minutes, they aim for grand revelations on the human condition, a sharp whack of realism that in its brevity can carry an impact but risks coming off as unrealistic and didactic.
A touch of this condition taints Kavi, an earnest 19-minute snapshot of child slavery in India that was made as a fundraising calling card for a longer film. Kavi is a young boy who sleeps on the barracks floor of an adobe brick plant, toils all day in the hot sun and dreams of attending school and playing cricket with other boys. Jailed and abused by the foreman, Kavi's eventual redemption is a feel-good ending to a serious issue of Third World child labor, thus making it a favorite to win the Oscar.
Choosing what to reveal and when to reveal it is another dominant element of the short-film format, and in this The Door and Miracle Fish succeed. Suspense in The Door reigns from the get-go, as we see a family evacuating their home, unable to bring any belongings with them. "Little did we know that the items we smuggled were time bombs," says the narrator, and it's not until the final credits that we discover exactly why.
Miracle Fish is even more effective in its structure. An Australian schoolboy who refuses to kiss his cigarette-smoking welfare mom goodbye in the morning is subject to taunts by bullies and resorts to lying about the fabulous presents he's gotten for his birthday. After a nap in the nurse's office, he wakes up to a fantasy world where the school is abandoned; he eats free candy bars, rides a skateboard down the hall and doodles on chalkboards. The film's end is among this year's most powerful surprises.
Looking for a break to buy popcorn or powder your nose? The New Tenants is a gigantic dollop of pain, with a terrible script, no exact premise, thin, unsympathetic characters and endless blather. Skip this antagonizing exercise in forced edginess and return to the auditorium for Instead of Abracadabra, a charming, funny portrait of a klutzy budding magician with an eye patch who accidentally stabs his own mother in an illusion gone awry. With his Napoleon Dynamite&–esque designs on his attractive next-door neighbor and a humorously morbid magic act, the film is the lone, welcome comedy in the live-action collection.
Animated shorts have their own clichés—a nonsensical torrential whirlwind of eye-popping, over-the-top animation is a common curse. Thankfully, this year's offerings are bereft of adrenaline-overdosed CGI anarchy, with the exception of Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty, a typical nightmarish bedtime story that grinds on the senses like old brake pads.
Chaos reigns supreme in Logorama, but it's chaos with a point. A nonstop comment on corporate dominance, Logorama cleverly creates an alternate Los Angeles made entirely from a dizzying landscape of corporate logos. Two filthy-talking Michelin men chase Ronald McDonald, with Colonel Sanders, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Dough Boy and Mr. Peanut in tow. A Starbucks coffee falls on the ground and splats into the Nickelodeon logo. Buildings represented by the Bear Stearns, AIG and Freddie Mac logos crumble in an earthquake. Fun, fun, fun.
The Antonio Banderas&–produced Lady and the Reaper is a swift romp on doctors and death, and Wallace & Gromit's Matter of Loaf and Death plays on all of the classic, entertaining tropes of its franchise—Wallace as the oblivious romantic, Gromit as the hapless sidekick. Finally, French Roast manages to be both a biting caricature of class and a comment on so-called victimless crimes at the same time, with a wonderful twist ending.
The Oscar Nominated Short Films open on Friday, Feb. 19, at the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas (551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa; 707.525.4840) and the Smith Rafael Film Center (1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415.454.1222).
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