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February 23, 2007

Oscar-nominated shorts show nuttier side of filmmaking

Far from being a throwaway category on the way to bigger and better things, the Oscar for Best Short contains some of the year’s most intriguing and unique films. Like a short story, a short film is a tricky concoction, forcing filmmakers to provide a cogent narrative in a limited time frame. Yet they also hearken back to the earliest days of film, when single-reel and trick films were the dominant means of cinematic expression. The award regained some prominence last year with the victory of Six Shooter. Directed by famous playwright Martin McDonagh, this film breathed life into the short film with its surrealist black comedy. This year’s films, now showing at the Music Box Theatre, feature a bit of humor, a bit of heart, and, in some cases, outright zaniness.

Binta and the Great Idea is the longest of the films at a stout 30 minutes. Shot in Senegal by Spanish director Javier Fesser with UNICEF sponsorship, the story focuses on class struggle, the differences between the old and new world, and the innocence of children. Binta, a small girl in Senegal, narrates the story of daily life in her village. She goes to school, where tolerance is promoted above all, but her cousin Soda does not. Soda’s struggles exemplify the problems facing modernization in the Third World, as her traditionalist father refuses to send her to school. Meanwhile, Binta’s father speaks with officials in the highest levels of government to promote his ideas for how to make the world a better place. While it does not have the best shot of winning, this slice-of-life film has the most compelling personal stories. Its earnest feel, both in the perspectives of Binta and her father, could at some points bring you to tears.

West Bank Story could also bring you to tears, but if it does, it will be from maniacal laughter. Working off the success of Borat and The Hebrew Hammer, West Bank Story is a near shot-by-shot spoof of Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s classic film, except substitute Israelis and Palestinians for Jets and Sharks. The feud is absurdly personified in rival kosher and falafel stands in the hotly contested region. Tony and Maria have been replaced with David and Fatimah, and their romance progresses in spite of the wishes of their respective stand-owning brothers. Featuring ridiculous song and dance involving camels, suicide bombers and Hasidic Jews (we’re a long way from Anatevka), the film is the most professional and well written of the films, even if the humor of director of Ari Sandel leans a bit heavy on the Jewish end.

The other highlight is the Australian film The Saviour. The film tells the tale of Malcom, a Mormon evangelist who goes knocking at the doors of indifferent neighbors. That is, until one unsatisfied woman opens the door, and he ends up knocking her up. The film is a humorous and emotionally satisfying look at betrayal, conflicting moral values, and respect. The final scene of The Saviour is the highlight of the year’s shorts.

Rounding up the Best Short nominees are One Too Many and Helmer and Son. One Too Many, an endearing if slightly flat tale from Spain of a somewhat piggish tandem of father and son. Upon their mother’s departure, two boys get their mother-in-law to take care of them. The film depicts Spanish families with an honest irreverence, but unfortunately it can’t separate itself from its competition. Helmer and Son, by far the weakest of this year’s nominees, is a Danish film about a son being called to a retirement home to deal with his flippant father, who refuses to leave a closet. Between the family business, the hopelessly misguided sister, and the rebellious niece, the film sounds and feels like an episode of Arrested Development. Unfortunately, the film’s final dig for schmaltz feels out of place.

What Will Win: West Bank Story

What Should Win: The Saviour

Not to be forgotten are the year’s Best Animated Short nominees. In some ways, the short format is better suited for animated films. Likewise, this year’s four nominees are much stronger than their live action counterparts.

The first film is The Danish Poet, a joint venture from Norway and Canada, where filmmaker Torill Kove tells the story of how her parents met in a fantastical style that incorporates the literary greats of Scandinavia. To an untrained eye, the film’s animation is quite primitive, but the combination of digital backgrounds and more traditionally animated foreground is an interesting stylistic choice. The film has the most personal feel of the four and could be a winner if it wasn’t surrounded by such strong competition.

Maestro is a digitally animated short from Hungary that has a strong connection to the trick film tradition. As the frame methodically circles around a bird preparing for a seemingly operatic performance, filmmaker Geza M. Toth cleverly prepares the audience for an outrageous punch line.

The Little Matchgirl, the most beautifully animated and somberly literary of the nominees, silently retells Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story. This Disney short, created by Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast) and Roger Allers (The Lion King), is last of the old guard at Disney, as Pixar has come to dominate Disney’s animation scene.

Finally, 20th Century Fox’s No Time for Nuts follows the squirrel Scrat (from the Ice Age franchise), as he unwittingly uncovers a time machine that transports him through several ages of history. This technological marvel only serves to distract him from his ultimate goal: burying a valuable nut. Featuring a manic, unrelenting energy with deftly executed digital animation, No Time for Nuts accomplishes in seven minutes what two feature-length Ice Age films failed to do.

The last of the nominees, Lifted, is not being shown at the Music Box.

What Will Win: No Time for Nuts

What Should Win: No Time for Nuts