The Academy Award categories for short live action and animated films now seem ahead of the curve, when for years they felt like an academic exercise.
I don't mean to downgrade the importance of the short-film format, since some of my all-time favorite films are shorts. But there's always that strange moment in the Oscars show when they give out the award for the shorts, films that few people outside of film schools or festivals would or even could ever see.
As a medium, short films have discovered a whole new audience and delivery platform, thanks to the Internet at DSL speed, and successful "viral videos" are probably becoming better calling cards than low-budget indie features. Original YouTube videos tend to be silly, one-joke affairs, however, and The 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films program, opening Friday at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, provides a showcase for the form's more substantive possibilities.
For instance, director Daniel Barber's superb live-action short "The Tonto Woman," with its widescreen Western landscapes and quiet, deliberate storytelling, all but demands being shown in a theater. "The Tonto Woman" joins the company of 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as another marvelous new Western that could revive the genre, assuming anyone saw it. The film depicts the unlikely romance between a cattle rustler (Francesco Quinn, son of Anthony Quinn) and a rancher's wife (Charlotte Asprey) who lives in isolation after being held prisoner by the Mojave for 11 years. Barber strives a little too hard to express grand themes, but "The Tonto Woman" strikes me as this year's likely winner, partly because it's based on an Elmore Leonard short story (and is in English).
"The Tonto Woman" might find stiff competition from Denmark's "At Night," an account of the friendship between three dissimilar women on a hospital cancer ward over the holidays. It's definitely some heavy lifting, but also presents a sensitive, deeply felt and beautifully acted character study, which shares similar motifs of love, loss and illness as Away from Her.
The other live-action nominees are all unmemorable comedies. France's "The Mozart of Pickpockets" cracks some laugh-out-loud jokes in its portrayal of two dim-witted con men who enjoy a reversal of fortune thanks to a deaf street urchin. Italy's "The Substitute," about a wildly eccentric substitute teacher, feels like a showcase for a Roberto Benigni. Belgium's "Tanghi Argenti" turns out to be a real charmer as an office worker enlists a colleague for tango lessons, ending with a cute twist.
The five animation nominees downplay both humor and computer animation, perhaps in response to the influx of CGI shorts made as DVD extras for the likes of Pixar's feature films. The one computer-animated comedy in this year's lot doesn't even look like CGI. France's "Even Pigeons Go to Heaven" resembles a Wallace & Gromit short with some peppery Monty Python attitude, but lacking the sense of comedic control. A hucksterish pastor receives a comeuppance after trying to con an elderly man, but the frenetic setup doesn't really pay off.
Technically, all five films demonstrate mastery of animated imagery and design, although some prove to be dry and forbidding as well. The English/Polish stop-motion take on "Peter and the Wolf" offers a dialogue-free, loosely modernized adaptation of Prokofiev's famous, kid-friendly composition. The most interesting touch is the way the film keeps the soundtrack mum for at least five minutes, so when the famous melodies finally arrive, our spirits seem to soar, although the film's tedium eventually brings us back to Earth.
My favorite was Chris Lavis' and Maciek Szczerbowski's nightmarish "Madame Tutli-Putli," in which a mousy traveler becomes increasingly convinced of sinister doings on a passenger train at night. "Madame Tutli-Putli's" Claymation has a toys-in-the-attic quality reminiscent of vintage Terry Gilliam and builds to a spellbinding, surreal conclusion. Lavis and Szczerbowski could be a creative team comparable to Jeunet and Caro of City of Lost Children fame.
In "My Love," a 16-year-old aristocrat obsesses over two beauties in 19th-century Russia. Animator Alexander Petrov presents stunningly beautiful images that resemble Seurat paintings in motion. Affecting (although a little slow), "My Love" is the loveliest of the nominees, although I'm not sure if Petrov's 1999 win in the category makes him more or less likely to win this year.
The times might be ripe for the smallest-scale nominee, "I Met the Walrus," which animates an actual 1969 interview with 14-year-old Jerry Levitan and John Lennon. The constantly shifting imagery evokes Beatles iconography (including the animation from 1968's Yellow Submarine), while Lennon's pro-peace views may suit sentiment against the Iraq war, without being too overt about it. If you're intrigued by "I Met the Walrus," keep an eye on the Internet, since, of these 10 nominees, it seems the most likely to enjoy an online afterlife.