The idea of releasing the ten Academy Award nominated animated and live-action short films in one package into theaters is such a great one that it's a wonder no one thought of it sooner than a few years ago. As with any collection of shorts, these are always a mixed bag, especially given the Academy's century-long penchant for awarding "important" films rather than good ones. But lo and behold, there are some wonderful things here, too, and one, The Lady and the Reaper, that is just flat-out excellent.
I will refrain from making any predictions here, as it's nearly impossible to guess whether the Academy is interested in quality or in the mood for messages. Not to mention that there is one X-factor: Nick Park. Up to now, Park has won every single Oscar he has been nominated for, except one, and that's only because Creature Comforts and A Grand Day Out competed against each other in 1989 and one of them had to lose. Will the Academy feel obligated to give Park a fifth Oscar? Or has Wallace & Gromit grown a little tired over the years? Personally, I found A Matter of Loaf and Death highly accomplished and enjoyable, but fairly minor; it's not much different from the last entry, A Close Shave.
After that, your guess is as good as mine. My fingers are crossed for The Lady and the Reaper, directed by Javier Recio García from Spain. A sweet little old lady wishes to go to heaven to join her departed husband. The grim reaper shows up to take her away, but an egotistical doctor (surrounded by voluptuous, redheaded nurses) keeps bringing her back. The battle between doctor and reaper grows ever more ludicrous and imaginative; it moves beyond its single joke and into something beautifully surreal, like an extra-crazy Chuck Jones chase cartoon. Plus there's one teeny credit-sequence joke that cracked me up.
At first I wasn't sure what to make of Logorama (pictured above) from France, by directors François Alaux, Herve de Crecy and Ludovic Houplain. It takes place entirely in a city made up of corporate and product logos and characters, and it's astonishingly vulgar and violent. It's a bit off-putting, but then I began to appreciate how much the relentless parade of logos contributed to the uneasiness, more so than the shooting and chasing. It's a fascinating, complex experiment. The plot has two "cops" (actually Michelin tire men) chasing after Ronald McDonald and shooting up the town.
Finally, we get the two "meh" entries in the animated category. Fabrice Joubert's French Roast is one of the most gorgeous of the nominees, but its various narrative parts never quite come together in a satisfying way. A businessman in a café discovers that he has lost his wallet and bides his time by ordering more coffee, all the while watching a parade of odd people come and go. And Nicky Phelan's Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty from Ireland incorporates two different kinds of animation for a really luscious effect, but the film contains only one mediocre joke. In it, a nasty old lady tells an angry, self-serving fairy tale to a terrified little girl.
In the live-action category, there are three message movies and two comedies. One of the message movies, Miracle Fish, actually does a fine job of disguising its agenda until the final moments, which is a welcome approach. Directed by Luke Doolan and set in Australia, Miracle Fish tells the story of a lower-class boy who endures the cruel ridicule of his classmates for not getting anything more than a cellophane "miracle fish" toy for his 8th birthday. He sneaks off for a nap in the nurse's office and when he wakes up, everyone is gone. He begins to enjoy the solitude, until the other shoe drops. The treatment of the child actor is fairly shallow, but young Karl Beattie has a presence that grows on you.
Patrik Eklund's Instead of Abracadabra, a comedy from Sweden, is arguably my favorite of the live-action batch. A very geeky magician (with a scraggly little moustache and bad glasses) still lives at home with his parents and is on the verge of having to get a real job when he meets his pretty new neighbor. To impress her, he convinces his father to let him perform at his 60th birthday party, where he plans to try the old "saber-in-a-box" trick. Eklund keeps a quirky pace throughout, and there are some funny lines around the magician's favorite magic word: "Chimay," which he uses "instead of abracadabra."
The other comedy, The New Tenants, is from America, translated into English from a screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, though I'm not sure whether it's a "remake." Two men move into a new apartment. Unfortunately, the former tenant had some unresolved issues that brings several new visitors, including an angry husband (Vincent D'Onofrio) and a fast-talking drug dealer (Kevin Corrigan). Director Joachim Back keeps a steady, deadpan pace, and writer David Rakoff cooks up some terrific dialogue.
Then we have the message movies. Juanita Wilson's The Door takes place in Russia just after the Chernobyl incident, and it's a pretty typical Oscar contender, with heavy, self-conscious symbolism and weighty importance. A father must break into his own house to steal a door upon which to lay the body of his daughter (dead of radiation poisoning). Directed by Gregg Helvey and set in India, Kavi is probably the worst of the lot. It tells the story of a boy who must work making mud bricks for a tyrant to help pay his father's debt; he'd much rather play cricket. The film sets up some very awkward moments of violence and suspense (it feels too rushed) and pays off with a printed onscreen message about real-life slavery.
Being a glass-half full type of guy, I came away from this collection excited for the good stuff I had seen, and hopeful that the voters will see excellence in the same places. (It's always a bonus on Oscar night to have seen the short films. It's fun at parties!) Overall, this is a collection worth seeing.