Ever wondered where you could see some of the Oscar-nominated short films, both live action and animated, long after the awards ceremony was done?
Most traditional distribution venues – theatrical, network TV, home video - don’t have a huge interest in short films unless there’s something unique, and while a few specialty channels (Moviola) and online venues such as YouTube have given filmmakers additional routes to showcase their short-form narratives, the most familiar places to catch short films are as filler material on cable stations when a program runs shorter than the time slot, or at film festivals.
How many people have actually seen even one of the short films in any Oscar year, let alone the winner?
Magnolia’s collection gathers the nominees and winners of 2005, and it’s a really satisfying mix of work from around the globe. If any one theme governs the live action tales, it’s characters involved in dramatic or semi-comedic situations.
Ausdreisser / The Runaway (Germany) by actress Ulrike Grote has the greatest mood swing of the shorts. Beginning as an odd comedy of a man perpetually followed by a child, the child-hating bachelor eventually finds himself unwantingly becoming a surrogate father. Grote’s film takes place in Hamburg, and while one might see the twist ending at the half-point, there’s a great balance of humour and drama within the framework, and the finale is handled with minimal schmaltz. Jorn Lux’’s score is particularly strong, and smoothens the mood transitions, particularly when the story goes down darker alleys.
By the time Sean Ellis’ Cashback (Britain) was nominated for an Oscar, the writer/director was reportedly already involved in a development deal to expand his short film about an art student’s activities during night shifts at a large grocery store into a feature length movie. Retaining the entire cast and most of the footage, Ellis altered the focus from an amusing tale to a student coping with a recent breakup and an ongoing bout of insomnia. Magnolia added the short to their DVD of the feature film, whereas Alliance/Remstar’s Canadian DVD omitted the extra, so Magnolia’s Oscar collection is one way the curious can catch the short without having to re-buy the feature film again. (A comparison between both versions can be read HERE.)
Runar Runarsson’s Síðasti bærinn / The Last Farm (Iceland) is an exquisitely shot drama about isolation, mourning, and finding peace when an already disintegrating lifestyle is brought to a complete crash. Making exceptional use of a hard, barren landscape, Runarsson’s tale deals with a recent widower and his realization that, like his crumbling farm, his own position within his family and plans for a retirement home are tenuous. There’s very little dialogue in the film, and Runarsson emphasizes the man’s physical environment and facial gestures to trace the development of his plans, and the final ‘twist’ payoff. Like Runaway, there’s an excellent score (by Kjartan Sveinsson) that ensures the drama is never seen as maudlin or manipulative.
The wittiest short comes from Rob Pearlstein (a story editor on TV’s The Inside and Medium), whose Our Time is Up (U.S.A.) has a meticulous shrink (Kevin Pollak) jettisoning his staid methods of treatment in favour of frank talk when some sudden news changes his outlook on life. The pacing is brisk, the editing sharp, and the performances by the patients (including Lost’s Jorge Garcia) are appropriately dry and nuanced, matching the sharp dialogue that’s cleverly broken up and delivered by memorable characters. It’s a great compression of character development and story, and although the ending may seem abrupt, it’s appropriate.
Six Shooter (U.K. / Ireland) by Martin McDonough (In Bruges) is essentially a straight drama about a fresh widower (Brendan Gleeson) who encounters a sordid couple and a fresh-mouthed brat (Rúaidhrí Conroy) on the train home. A couple who recently lost their son to crib death catch the ire of the brat, and the stream of insults cause both a weird injection of humour (the dead baby’s compared to the bald singer of Bronski Beat) and tragedy. While the performances are earnest and impressionable, the film’s conclusion is sudden, only because one must to listen to a whisper-clue in the opening scene to understand the brat’s background in the finale. Gleason’s final act is a bit confusing, and one feels the Oscar judges award the prize to Six Shooter more for the film’s harder dramatic interplay, as it’s most uneven film of the lot.
The DVD’s animated films include Sharon Colman’s Badgered (Scotland), a short but amusing tale of a badger in need of a good night’s sleep that’s repeatedly upset by two screeching crows and the sudden construction of a missile silo. It’s an absurdist tale with an animation style emphasizing character ticks, and Colman’s firm grasp of the ridiculous makes the story work smoothly.
The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation (U.S.A.) is John Canemaker’s effort to dissect and comprehend the contradictory behaviour of his father, John Cannizzaro, a WWII veteran (awarded double-Purple Hearts for bravery and valor), as well as an absentee father & abusive husband, and front man for the mob who went to jail for 5 and a half years after burning down the family business to allegedly funnel the insurance money to his criminal backers.
Canemaker’s short is rather long – in tone, pacing, and emotion – but it’s intriguing for the way in which animation is used to analyze and wrestle with the personal pain of seeing the family fall into further emotional ruin after the father’s release, as well as Cannizzaro’s support of his son’s desire to be an animator, going so far as to build the desk and gear needed to draw on cells.
The film is a blend of live action, stills, and very diverse animation styles, and the script is beautifully enlivened by the vocal work from John Turturro as Canemaker, and Eli Wallach as John Cannizzaro. Moon and the Son is essentially the private dialogue a father and son were never able to have, and an imagined reconciliation that almost happened near the end of Cannizzaro’s life.
The last animated short is a very dark tale of a navigator whose captain takes the ship’s crew on a dangerous journey into unknown territory, and brings back creatures that may save their world from a plague killing thousands of cityfolk.
The setting of Anthony Lucas’ The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (Australia) is a near-apocalyptic world where the ocean is the sky, the travelling vessels are giant steel gyro-ships, and the animation style is comprised of vivid etchings of a messed up industrialized world inspired by Victorian technology, design, and grimness.
It’s a pity the short couldn’t have been developed into a feature film, because there are enough characters, conflicts, and otherworldly travels to sustain a fantasy for adults with a taste for bleak worlds. Visually hypnotic, with a luxurious sepia tone look, and a fine score by Bruce Rowland.
Note: the fourth animated film, Mark Andrews and Andrew Jimenez' One Man Band, is available as a bonus short on the Cars DVD, and the anthology release Pixar Short Films Collection, Vol. 1
The DVD’s extras include a typically oddball fable of impossible love by Bill Plympton (U.S.A.) – The Fan and the Flower – and Cedric Babouche’s Imago (France). The latter is an amiable fantasy tale of a boy whose love of barnstorming and propeller planes is passed on to his son, whereas Plympton’s fable is a stark black & white tale that moves like a graphic novel; Plympton’s pacing has great economy, and the unusual characters – a ceiling fan and a flower – becoming increasingly engaging.
Babouche’s direction in Imago incorporates 2D and 3D animation, as well as computer rendered movement for what resemble explosively colourful watercolour drawings, with characters drawn in anime style. Imago also features the strongest score within the DVD’s collection - fine orchestral soundtrack by Thierry Malet.
The quality of the shorts varies from excellent (Our Time is Up) to high-contrast (Cashback) and non-anamorphic wringy (The Runaway) but the dramas manage to overshadow particular transfer and source issues.
Magnolia’s collections of Oscar-nominated shorts contains volumes for the years 2005, 2006, and 2007.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan