Some say you can estimate a Hollywood star's cachet by the Oscars he or she is asked to present. Somewhere below costume design but above, say, sound design, there lives the animated and live-action shorts categories. Last year saw Jaden Smith (the fruit of Will Smith's loins) and 11-year-old Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) present the animated nominees. The year before, Owen Wilson handed Martin McDonagh the statue for live-action winner, Six Shooter. We suspect that most Oscar-watchers use the short film categories as an opportunity to hit the fridge, which is a shame because the best of the bunch boast dazzling visuals and inventive storytelling. Unfortunately very few film fans get to see them, and so each year's Academy Awards asks its audience to applaud for work that is, essentially, anonymous. Though a few past nominees have popped up on iTunes, most stay hidden from view, leaving viewers to wonder or ignore the intriguing 10-second clips that run during the ceremonies.
Luckily, the Detroit Film Theatre (at the DIA) screens the Oscar-nominated shorts each year. And if brevity is the soul of wit, then an evening of featurettes promises that even the worst selections will be mercifully brief — much better odds than, say, the latest Lindsay Lohan epic.
In recent years, the finalists have been a decidedly mixed bag. While it's rare that something truly awful slips in, there's been a surprising amount of mediocrity lately. Last year's live-action winner, West Bank Story, was about as disappointing an honoree as ever we've seen. This year, however, boasts an impressive and inspired slate of contenders. Is it a coincidence that not a single one hails from the U.S.A.?
Not only are four of the five nominees worth a look, they shouldn't be missed. Only the charming but predictable The Mozart of Pickpockets from France fails to excite.
For the Oscar, it's a toss-up between Christian E. Christiansen and Louise Vesth's At Night and The Tonto Woman by Daniel Barber and Matthew Brown. If we had to choose, we'd lay coin on the former. Made in Denmark, this painfully intimate story of three young Danish women who become friends while spending the holidays in a hospital cancer ward paints an authentic portrait of fear, compassion and regret while miraculously keeping sentimentality at bay.
Though an Elmore Leonard Western seems an unlikely project for a pair of Brits, The Tonto Woman is fleet-footed and well-crafted. Sumptuously shot in Spain, this is a tale of a cattle rustler who decides to liberate a woman exiled by her husband after being captured and marked by the Mojaves. The short pares the genre down to a few expertly handled tropes and delivers, in a half hour, a story that's more satisfying than most full-length releases.
From Italy comes Andrea Jublin's The Substitute (Il Supplente), a satirical meditation on power with a distinctly Euro sense of goofiness. An unusual and somewhat demonic substitute teacher takes over a high school class, turning the student pecking order upside down and whipping them into an inexplicable frenzy. Later, the temp from hell finds himself in an equally powerless position.
Rounding things off, Guido Thys and Anja Daelman present a whimsical Christmastime fable about an unassuming office clerk's quest to have his a co-worker teach him to dance the tango for an impending blind date. Clever and oh-so-sweet, it'll undoubtedly be a sentimental favorite.
Though all of this year's animated shorts are first-rate, it's surprisingly that there's nary a Pixar or Blue Sky production in sight. Instead you have Canadian Josh Raskin's retro line-drawn I Met the Walrus, which cleverly illustrates an interview between 14-year-old Jerry Levitan and Beatles legend John Lennon in a style that recalls MTV's sketchy promotional ads.
Even Pigeons Go to Heaven by Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse boasts superb CGI animation in this bizarre comedy about a priest who tries to sell an aging sinner a machine guaranteed to transport him to heaven when his time's up.
Similarly offbeat is Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski's Madame Tutli-Putli. This Canadian tale of a nervous woman on a creepy train ride into the metaphysical is less impressive for its plotting than it is for its breathtaking stop-action animation. The human eyes on animated puppets are enough to give you nightmares for a week.
Russian filmmaker Alexander Petrov's My Love (Moya Lyubov) features the same amazing paint-on-glass technique he used on his 1999 Oscar-winning Old Man and the Sea. While this fable of unrequited love brings no real surprises, Petrov creates images that are gorgeous beyond words.
As impressive as My Love is, however, Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman's wordless adaptation of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf will mostly likely land the Oscar. A 30-minute masterpiece of brooding and elaborate animation, it took five years and 100 animators to bring this stunning film to life. If for no other film, you should attend DFT's screening for this incredible achievement in stop-action cinema.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 15-16 and at 3 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb 17. Call 313-833-3237.
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