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Oscar-Nominated Short Films

Short and Sweet

As an Oscar mudslide for Avatar is imminent, the less publicized races are all the more interesting and far more fun to handicap.

There’s a furious energy in short-film filmmaking, since distribution possibilities are everywhere. Starting Friday, the Lumiere Theater and Opera Plaza Cinema are screening the finalists in Best Short Film and Best Animated Shorts categories. The latter are better: The five animated shorts add up to the finest selection I’ve seen in at least a decade.

Three of these cartoons depend upon the comedic use of the crone. Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty, acted by the Irish standup comic Kathleen O’Rourke, concerns a bitter old piss pot working out her personal traumas on a terrified child using a bedtime story as a weapon. Illustrated in gilded 2-D and scary 3-D, it’s an easy knockout.

More quietly droll is French Roast, a Tatiesque offering by Fabrice O. Joubert, in which a gentleman is stranded at a cafe with a Quasimodo-like barista, a pesky transient who looks like a walking chimney brush and a sweet-faced old nun.

The Lady and the Reaper by Javier Recio Gracia stars yet another granny — a pious, white-braided widow. Vera-Lynn’s sayonara song “We’ll Meet Again” sets the stage for the arrival of our eventual pal Mr. Happy Death. Here’s a reminder of why it’s so imperative to sign those “no heroic measures” forms when a muscle-bound cardiologist and a chorus line of curvy nurses disturb the natural process. Tex Avery may be dead, but this Spanish animator still has a votive candle burning to him.

Then there’s the return of Wallace and Gromit. Nick Park’s A Matter of Loaf and Death has Wallace — that stalwart of pre-Yankified England — toiling in the artisan bread trade. His pedigreed boffin-hound Gromit is the brains of the operation.

The unprepared Wallace meets danger in the form of a beautiful woman (voiced by Sally Lindsay). She was once the balloon-riding mascot of the Bake-O-Lite bread company and Wallace’s longtime dream girl. The British murder mystery is gorgeously lampooned in this compact and delightful adventure: the brief, well-chosen movie quotes (the one from Ghost was the best) are especially amusing.

One admires Park’s entry from all angles. Is Gromit getting to be a better actor, or is it just that we’ve spent so much time with him that we’re more attuned to his slighter reactions? He has a petite amie here: a French poodle whose downcast eyes and air of muted desperation match his own. The two dogs ought to star in an East End revival of Separate Tables.

The Wallace and Gromit show is impressive, beguiling work, but the best of the five, Logorama, proves why the great is the enemy of the good. It is the work of a French collective doing business as “H5.”

Logorama is a computer-animated Sim City of Southern California in which everything, from the humans to the zoo animals to the insects, is a living logo — Naomi Klein’s worst nightmare. The city is the setting for a Tarantino chin-music opera of rough cops (a pair of Michelin Men) on the trail of a cackling psycho.

“Tonton Ronald” is what the French subtitles called this killer clown. “Fair Use” is what I’d call Ronald McDonald here, at large and carrying a gun.

Logorama is as revolutionary as a year’s worth of The Simpsons. It is as highly watchable as a kinetic cop drama. It is dense, eye-popping and seriously subversive. And the worst thing is that it tingles those weird childish feelings of comfort when one sees a logo: that satisfaction when sighting a Best Western sign glowing at the end of a lost dark highway.

What unholy power do these symbols hold? The film is all wrapped up with a posh yet well-chosen soundtrack, too, from an obscure Dean Martin track to the Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire.”

With the exception of the cute but inconsequential Swedish comedy Instead of Abracadabra, each of the five finalists in the live action package (shown for a separate admission) tries to tackle a social issue.

Juanita Wilson’s funereal The Door, based on an oral history by Nikolai Kalugin, was filmed on location in Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat. More than anything, The Door is a quick answer to those insisting we need to ramp up nuclear power without delay — by “those,” one includes President Obama.

Kavi by Gregg Helvey addresses the global problem of slave labor at an Indian brickyard in terms of Oliver Twist, and makes Slumdog Millionaire look like Satyajit Ray. (It’s a calling-card film, hoping to reach investors to finance a full-length version.)

The New Tenants, with its ending that celebrates gay partnership, has a witty script, a jaundiced eye, and fierce, entertaining performances by Kevin Corrigan and Vincent D’Onofrio.

Nothing, however, was as flabbergasting as Luke Doolan’s film Miracle Fish. I don’t care to reveal its particular social issue because of the way the Australian director sneaks up on it. On his 8th birthday, a picked-upon little boy (Karl Beattie) gets a present from his mother: a celluloid fortune-telling fish. He receives a more important birthday present, however, in that he gets to keep living.

Miracle Fish is the highest-level tale of the unexpected, as in Roald Dahl or Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga.” Doolan’s visions of abandonment, empty interiors and an insignificant toy that turns out to be a lifesaver are, as the title suggests, miraculous.