We all know about the nominees in the major Oscar categories. How could you not, given how saturated the airwaves are with talk about “The King’s Speech” vs. “The Social Network,” and Natalie Portman’s baby bump. Left on the short end of this monstrous publicity machine are the Oscar-nominated shorts.
We all know about the nominees in the major Oscar categories. How could you not, given how saturated the airwaves are with talk about “The King’s Speech” vs. “The Social Network,” and Natalie Portman’s baby bump.
Left on the short end of this monstrous publicity machine are the Oscar-nominated shorts. Or, as most Academy Award viewers refer to them, “the minor categories” creating a yawn-inducing dead spot in the middle of the telecast. Well, the Academy is out to shoot down that wide-spread belief by making this year’s nominees in the live-action and animated categories available for all to see.
The idea is to create a buzz around these small gems equal to that generated by their big brothers in the races for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature. They’re on to something, too, because I’ve seen the 10 nominated shorts, and just about all of them are worthy of the must-see designation.
The films, hailing from such diverse locations as Africa, Australia, Britain and the USA, are an eclectic collection sharing an ability to stir emotion while profoundly commentating on our crazy way of life in this rapidly shrinking world.
To prep you for the festival, here’s a rundown of the 10 films (plus two bonus shorts: “The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger” and “Urs”) on the program this weekend at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge:
“Day & Night:” Many of you probably caught this Pixar gem last summer, when it was shown in tandem with “Toy Story 3.” But it’s so good, it’s well worth seeing again for the clever artistry born out of a simple story about Day, a light-generating creature akin to the sun, and Night, his nocturnal opposite, trying to find a common ground, as they learn to appreciate their differences. Like a good portion of the studio’s Oscar-winning “WALL-E,” “Day & Night” unfolds free of dialogue and loaded with heart and charm. Skillfully directed by Teddy Newton, “D&N” picked up an Annie Award last week for best short and will likely add an Oscar to its haul two weeks hence. 4 stars.
“The Gruffalo:” The popular children’s book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler is reverently transformed into an equally charming big-screen experience featuring the voices of Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, Robbie Coltrane and John Hurt. Directed with an alluring blend of edginess and heart by Jakob Schuh and Max Lang, the movie follows the adventures of a tiny mouse traveling uncharted forest territory in quest of an acorn paradise. Along the way, he encounters a fox, an owl, and finally, a snake. All three are anxious to have him for supper, but just as they are about to pop the little guy into their mouths, the quick-thinking rodent wins his freedom by convincing his carnivorous acquaintances that a giant monster called a gruffalo is due to meet him at any second – adding that the beast likes nothing better than dining on foxes, owls and snakes. The cowards hightail it instantly, never suspecting that the mouse is lying. It all builds toward a clever twist that underscores the story’s message about the power of words, brains and unwavering confidence. 4 stars
“Let’s Pollute:” If you’re my age, you remember all those grainy educational films they showed during social studies class. It was how we learned to duck and cover, and not talk to strangers. Director Geefwee Boedoe hilariously emulates those reel relics with his delightfully satirical tale that plants tongue firmly in cheek, as his pen-and-ink masterpiece urges viewers to continue their unbridled support of factories, processed foods and disposable packaging. The Pilgrims, those losers, barely wasted anything. Thankfully, we’ve evolved into a society in which everything is laid to waste: trees, mountains and clean air and water. Who needs those? It’s one of those films that’s high in irony, as it makes you laugh hysterically while effectively making its very grave and solemn points about how we’re destroying our planet under the banner of commerce and convenience. 4 stars
“The Lost Thing:” The ostracizing of people different than us is the subject of this tale from down under about a young man befriending an odd-looking creature left stranded on the beach. Sensing the voiceless, tentacled critter with the tin-can body is without friends and family, the young man begins a quest to find a place where the lost thing will be welcomed and accepted. The movie, directed by Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann, can be plodding at times, but the ending is so moving that it’s well worth the wait. 3 stars.
“Madagascar: Carnet de Voyage:” In the least interesting, but perhaps most visual of the nominees, director Bastien Dubois invigoratingly chronicles a day in the life on the exotic African island. Seen through the eyes of a white visitor, the film – a collection of liquid figures and quivering lines – offers few insights, but it certainly sets an intoxicating mood that ultimately wins you over. 3 stars
“The Confession:” As two 9-year-old boys prepare for their first confession, they plot to commit a sin less mundane than failing to honor thy mother and father. Their wicked plan involves stealing a scarecrow (looking Christ-like nailed to a wooden cross) from a cornfield and tossing the raggedy man in the road, intending for the farmer to run his creation over with his tractor. Instead, a young mother coming in the opposite direction swerves to miss what looks to her like a body and winds up smashing hard into a tree. What the boys do next is both shocking and riveting. And it only grows more so, as the plot thickens and one lad’s conscience begins to get the better of him. Suspenseful as it is powerful, the movie, directed by the talented Tanel Toom, is very much akin to the early work of Danny Boyle (“Shallow Grave,” “Trainspotting”), who displayed an uncanny ability to make his audiences squirm. 4 stars
“The Crush:” Whoever said chivalry is dead never met the 8-year-old boy at the heart of director Michael Creagh’s bloody valentine about an Irish schoolboy taking a crush on his second-grade teacher a bit too far after learning his beloved is promised to an insensitive jerk. What does the love struck youngster do? Lets just say it involves a pistol and an almost unbearably tense showdown, the end of which will shock and amaze you. 4 stars
“God of Love:” Luke Matheny has a rubbery face only a mother could love. And he uses it to maximum effect in an ode to cupid that he wrote, directed and stars in as Ray, a dart-throwing lounge singer hopelessly in love with his female drummer. She, unfortunately, is mad for his best friend, a guitarist who wants nothing to do with the girl. But just as he’s about to give up the chase, a mysterious package arrives containing a dozen magic darts, the tips of which have been treated with a potion that makes the person pricked fall madly in love with the first soul they see. The downside, besides changing the natural order, is that after six hours, the potion wears off, and if the couple’s love isn’t true, their brief affair ends instantly. Will Ray aim his dart at his love? Or will he do something far more unselfish, and, in turn, alter his destiny? The answer is as sweet as it is funny, not to mention perfectly in tune with Valentine’s Day weekend. Be prepared to be smitten. 3.5 stars
“Na Wewe:” Of all the filmmakers nominated in this category, Ivan Goldschmidt is clearly the most capable of instantly moving into the big leagues. In less than 25 minutes, he touches on every emotion from fear to laughter to nail-biting suspense in telling a seemingly simple narrative about a dozen travelers in Burundi being stopped near the Rwandan border during the ethnic cleansing taking place in 1994. Their armed attackers order them to divide up: the Tutsis to one side of the road and the Hutus to the other. Not wanting to be killed, they all line up on the Hutu side, drawing the ire of their oppressors. What ensues is viscerally frightening, as each individual calls on their multi-ethnicity to convince the gunman not to execute them. Then, just when you think you’ve grown so tense you can’t possibly take another breath, Goldschmidt deftly and succinctly goes straight for the funny bone with an ending that delightfully underscores that it truly is a small world after all. 4 stars.
“Wish 143:” Humor again lightens the load on a heavy subject in this heartbreaker about a terminally ill 15-year-old boy, whose make-a-wish request isn’t Disneyland. Well, not unless you consider a woman’s body an amusement park. This lad certainly does, and he’s determined to lose his virginity before he loses his life, much to the chagrin of the kindhearted local priest. What starts out like a teen sex comedy, quickly turns into something quite deep and profound under the tutelage of directors Ian Barnes and Samantha Waite, who lovingly depict a dying boy discovering that even though he might not get what he wants, he’ll get what he needs. Be sure to keep the hankies handy for this one, because I guarantee, you’re going to need them. 4 stars.
“The Cow Who Wanted to Be A Hamburger:” Writer-director Bill Plympton creates the perfect metaphor for our thankless, workaday chase for the almighty dollar with this haunting, but quite humorous, tale about a calf who, with the assistance of a well-placed billboard, decides to dedicate his life to becoming a hamburger. Little does he know that he’ll need to die to get his wish. What ensues is every bit as exciting as the final half hour of “Toy Story 3,” but with higher stakes. Or should that be, steaks? Anywho, in 5 short minutes, Plympton’s cow manages to summarize what it means to be human, and as such, gullible to bogus advertising and false promises, all while making you laugh. Great stuff, but I’m bummed this one didn’t get the nomination over either “Madagascar” or “The Lost Thing.” 4 stars.
“URS:” This one, unfortunately, is my least favorite of all the films on the two programs. Not sure why, but I just wasn’t moved by this animated tale about a strongman name Urs, who straps his frail and elderly mother on his back and ascends a steep mountain, convinced that a better life awaits on the other side. I’ll say no more, except that things don’t turn out the way Urs planned. 2.5 stars
Contact Al Alexander at email@example.com.