I admit to carrying a case of negative baggage into last week’s press screening of The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2009 package, for neither of my best film selections were represented (those would be Benh Zeitlin’s Glory at Sea [Live-Action] and Don Hertzfedlt’s I Am So Proud of You [Animation]). But reading the press notes, I discovered that six out of the ten films listed 2007 as their year of production. Which gives me hope that my two favorites might still be mentioned when it comes time to announce the 2010 nominees; more importantly, that knowledge allowed me to drop off my dirty baggage at the Laundromat and focus on the films at hand.
As for this year’s official nominees, while I thought they were all relatively fine and dandy, representing many different styles from many different countries, each category included one clear standout for me. And my winners are…
BEST ANIMATION: La Maison En Petits Cubes (Pieces of Love, Vol 1)
In only twelve minutes, Japan’s Kunio Kato captures a lifetime of sadness. As the world continues to flood around the home of a lonely old man, he is forced into a never-ending routine of building a new abode on top of his previous one, brick-by-brick, in order to keep from drowning. Once he accomplishes this task, he returns to the waterlogged homes of his past beneath him, to reminisce about his life that once was.
In Kato’s hands, La Maison En Petits Cubes carries the weight of genuine sorrow. He gauzes the universe with what appears to be a hand-drawn-on-paper technique, as if we are seeing even the clearest of memories through an ocean of cloudy water. The color scheme is burnished and somber, which adds an even deeper sense of melancholy and loss. To seal the deal, Kato uses a beautifully sad score by Kenji Kondo as he drifts between the past and present. The result is something genuinely special.
BEST LIVE-ACTION: Manon Sur Le Bitume (Manon On the Asphalt)
Written and directed by Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont, this fifteen-minute French short transcends its formula better than any of the other nominees in the Live-Action category. A young woman begins bicycling on her way to a rendezvous with her boyfriend when a car hits her. We are then transported into her mind, where she is able to see, with omniscient clarity, everyone nearest to her as they learn of the terrible news.
Having seen so many films that play the “what if” or ultra-clever voice-over game is what made Manon Sur Le Bitume such a pleasant surprise for me. Usually, in these cases, the style wins out, removing any gravity from the proceedings and leaving the production to float whimsically in the cosmos. But here, Marre and Pont are making a sincere statement about life and death, and how we might not appreciate our lives until it’s just about too late. It’s a wonderful effort.
WHAT I THINK WILL WIN: When it comes to Live-Action, I hate to say it for fear of sounding insensitive, but I’d be shocked if the Holocaust movie didn’t take home the trophy (Germany’s Spielzeugland [Toyland]). This was certainly well executed, a tale of a non-Jewish child who tries to sneak onto the train with his yellow-starred neighbors since he thinks they’re going to a fun park of some sort. But it certainly had an air of importance that was hard to get all the way past.
The Animation contest seems a bit more open-ended, since the aesthetics and energies are so different, but I’ll play it safe and go with the Pixar movie, Presto (which played before Wall-E in theaters). I imagine this is the film most voters have actually seen, or if they haven’t in fact watched any of the nominees, my hunch is that the naturally tendency will be to default to Pixar.
THE REST: In Live-Action, I was also impressed with Auf Der Strecke (On the Line), which felt like a bona fide, full-fledged feature. Reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, it tells the story of a department store security guard whose infatuation with a bookstore worker unassumingly leads to a heavy sense of guilt (the reason is better left out here). Grisen (The Pig) starts humorously enough, but it turns into a slightly preposterous tale of political/religious/visual arts(???) tolerance. Lastly, New Boy from Ireland is perhaps too sweet for its own good, though it remains a fine example of a short film executed with class and precision.
In Animation, all of the nominees are quite engaging. Lavatory (Lovestory) from Russia is a lovely tale of romance that blossoms between a toilet attendant and her secret admirer. Oktapodi is a quick, speedy ride that recalls an old Looney Tunes romp. And This Way Up follows a Tim Burton/Henry Selick-esque journey taken between two devoted caretakers who are putting an old lady to rest.
The effort taken by Shorts International and Magnolia Pictures to bring all of these films to the general public is to be commended. Short films are movies too, people! This package proves it.
— Michael Tully
(The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2009 opens theatrically in forty cities across the country today, February 6th, and will soon be available on iTunes. Visit the Shorts International and Magnolia Pictures websites for more information.)