The nominees for Best Animated and Live Action Short Film tend to be the most obscure entries on Oscar night, not counting the documentary categories, of course. The relative obscurity of short subjects makes the Oscar Nominated Short Films 2009 program, divided into animated and live-action segments, so handy.
I guarantee, however, that most of you have already seen one of the animated shorts: Pixar's "Presto," about a pompous stage magician and his hungry bunny. It was attached to last summer's WALL-E and received a bigger showcase than its competitors could have dreamed of. Although it's one of Pixar's best shorts, and a delightful tribute to the slapstick cartoons of past generations, "Presto" has garnered more than enough approbation, so it'd be nice if one of the other nominees won the statuette.
France's amusing, computer-animated "Oktapodi" hurls a star-crossed pair of octopi into a high-speed chase, but feels a little too much like an outtake from Finding Nemo. Japan offers a fascinating, melancholy entry, "Le Maison en Petits Cubes," which involves a village of homes constantly built up to avoid Waterworld-like rising flood levels. An old man uses scuba gear to dive into his house and retrieve his pipe, and flashes further back into his past the further he goes in a haunting metaphor for memory.
Russia's "Lavatory-Lovestory," about a female men's room attendant and her secret admirer, offers a winning blend of bittersweet humor and simple animation along the lines of newspaper comic strips. My favorite is England's "This Way Up," in which father-and-son pallbearers embark on an odyssey to deliver the dearly departed to their final resting places. The small masterpiece of deadpan black comedy builds to a flamboyant finish while subtly exploring the morticians' relationship with each other. (The shorts program also includes nominees from previous years, such as the obnoxious "Gopher Broke.")
Without even featuring dialogue, the 2009 animation nominees handily outshine the live-action shorts, some of which prove to be shamelessly manipulative. German entry "Toyland" may be the favorite to win, thanks to its Holocaust theme. A mother tells her son that their Jewish neighbors will be shipped off to "Toyland," and the boy wants to join them in the boxcar. Ireland's "New Boy" uses children to pull the audience's heartstrings in an adaptation of a story by popular writer Roddy Doyle. An African student encounters bullies – boo! – and cute sassy girls – aww – on his first day at an Irish school. "New Boy" proves undeniably sweet but excessively slight.
Denmark's "The Pig" offers a comedic take on themes similar to last year's dark Danish nominee "At Night." An elderly man checks into a hospital for surgery "on my butt," and finds hope in his room's whimsical pig painting until it provides unexpected conflict with his roommate. "The Pig" features a winning premise and an O. Henry-worthy twist, but makes its jokes and its politics too broad.
The German/Swiss entry "On the Line" featured the strongest acting in its tale of a moody mall security guard who carries a torch for a bookstore clerk, and grows to regret his moment of selfish inaction. Of the live-action films, I was most impressed by France's "Manon on the Street," in which a young French woman suffers a road accident and imagines the different reactions in her circle of friends. Maybe it's not a coincidence that "Manon on the Street" and "This Way Up" make the most memorable statements through their completely different yet equally poignant explorations of mortality.