by Jeff Meyers
Somebody should create an honorary Oscar for O. Henry. Every year, several of the short film Oscar nominees boast the type of cleverly ironic ending the author made famous. And while the best selections rise above their punch lines to deliver a solid and engrossing tale, many are just 10 minutes of setup in service of a gimmicky "twist."
This year, however, the strong slate of nominees mostly avoids the surprise-ending crutch. Denmark's The Pig — the fifth nomination for M&M Productions (they've won two) — comes closest with its "saw-that-one-coming" endgame, but earns points for its sly commentary on multicultural friction. When an elderly man enters the hospital for surgery, he takes unexpected comfort from a Michael Sowa painting. He soon learns, however, that what is one man's porcine solace is another man's insult.
There are two likely contenders for the statuette, and neither matches the dark-hearted brilliance of Martin McDonagh's 2007 winner, Six Shooter. New Boy, which is based on a Roddy Doyle short story, is a poignant and humorous tale of a 9-year-old African boy's first day at a Scottish elementary school. It's affectionate, tragic and, as you might expect, filled with salt-of-the-earth sentimentality. Just the type of stuff Oscar voters gobble up.
Jochen Freydank's Toyland, with its Holocaust trappings, however, will probably walk away with the prize. In many ways similar (and superior) to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, it makes its point in 14 minutes rather than an insufferable 90. It also sports a more evocative (albeit less dramatic) ending.
But winning doesn't necessarily mean best. The German import, Auf Der Strecke (On the Line), is the most resonant and disturbing of the nominees. A mall security guard uses store surveillance cameras to watch the bookstore clerk he's secretly in love with. Riding the train home one night, he witnesses the seeming rival for her affections attacked and does nothing to help. The consequences turn out to be both blessing and curse: His dream girl's drawn to him but guilt leaves him unable to act
Manon on the Asphault, a French offering that's a triumph of execution over content, rounds off the quintet. Lying on the pavement after being struck by a car, a young woman imagines how those who love her will react to her death. Despite its maudlin affectations, the short exhibits enough restraint and detail that its ending earns the lump in your throat.
Usually an audience fave, 2008's animated contenders are entertaining enough, but not nearly as engrossing as the live action nominees. As you might expect, Pixar secures yet another berth with Presto, the Tex Avery-influenced cartoon that preceded Wall-E. Chock full of sadistic slapstick, this seven-minute Looney Tunes redux hilariously pits a callous magician against his neglected white bunny.
French film school Gobelin, however, challenges Pixar for computer-animated pre-eminence with Oktapodi, a breakneck two-and-a-half-minute short that follows a pair of love-smitten cephalopods as they fight for their lives against a ruthless fishmonger.
On the arty side of things is Kunio Kato's lyrical Le Maison en Petits Cubes, which, despite its title, hails from Japan. Filled with melancholy animation, somber music and metaphorical imagery, it tells the tale of an elderly man forced to constantly build his home ever higher as water levels rise. Each year the Academy selects one film to placate the animation aesthetes. This is it, and, given the lightweight themes of its competitors, it'll probably win.
Lavatory Love Story, on the other hand, wears its simple plotline on its sleeve. A lovelorn bathroom attendant discovers that she has a secret admirer and sets about discovering who it is. Though this Russian entry is a sentimental charmer with its black-and-white line drawings and retro narrative feel, it's an unexpected nominee.
This Way Up, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of animated short you expect to get nominated but never to win. Gothic, black-humored and filled with Rube Goldberg contrivances, Smith & Foulkes' wonderfully choreographed computer-animated tale of undertakers chasing a wayward coffin is a macabre delight.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 6-7 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8. The shorts also show at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 14, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 15. Call 313-833-3237.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 6-7 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8. The shorts also show at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 14, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 15. Call 313-