It has often been noted that the Academy Awards have a casual relationship with excellence, even in years when there’s a wealth of cinematic riches from which members can select. Consequently, it was frustrating to read the final roster of Oscar hopefuls announced with much fanfare and media coverage on Jan. 17. How could such an exciting movie year as 2013 yield nominations so … dull?
Pleasant surprises were in short supply – hello, Cutie and the Boxer – and some of the usual suspects were deservedly well represented. (I’m looking at you 12 Years a Slave team. Godspeed.) I have a nagging feeling the Academy won’t be able to resist favoring tasteful middlebrow fare in several key categories. If, for instance, The Hunt winds up beating The Great Beauty for Foreign Language Feature, my howls of disapproval will be heard as far away as Tinseltown. (Don’t even think about it, voters.)
Which is why I turn to you, shorts filmmakers, to spice up the proceedings a bit. Here was an ideal opportunity for the Academy to highlight burgeoning talent with a fresh, unique perspective on the seventh art. Now that I’ve seen all 10 nominees for Live Action and Animated Shorts, it’s safe to conclude, a few exceptions notwithstanding, that the Academy has blown it. Again.
Take the contenders vying for Animated Short, an Oscar already signed, sealed and delivered with Get a Horse!‘s name on the plaque. Here I was naively hoping at least one or two of the Disney short’s fellow nominees would give it a run for its money. Not to say I’m not excited for director Lauren MacMullan (The Simpsons), who pays homage to pre-Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse and gives the beloved character an intriguing intertextual spin. The film initially comes across as a long-lost silent cartoon in the tradition of Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho, faithfully adhering to Uncle Walt’s tried-and-true formula: Mickey woos Minnie, Peg Leg Pete comes along to snatch her away, delightful slapstick ensues. Just before the halfway point, however, the characters begin breaking through the movie screen Purple Rose in Cairo style, and the stereoscopic, self-referential antics bring to mind Who Framed Roger Rabbit, only updated for 21st Century consumption. The short occasionally comes across as exceedingly mechanical, as MacMullan skillfully orchestrates action on both the black and white rear screen and the comin’-at-ya front portion in color and eye-popping 3D. The iconic critters’ charm, though, wins the day in spectacular fashion.
Millions of moviegoers have already seen Get a Horse!, which precedes Frozen, a box office juggernaut still going strong at the multiplex. But what about the other four, lesser known shorts? Will voters be swayed by the mechanized boy-and-his dog yarn that is Mr Hublot? Not likely, though the short, while a tad on the tame and cutesy side, is fairly easy to take. In a retro-futuristic world run by robots who look like they’re made out of kitchen appliances and discarded metal, an OCD-afflicted resident spots an abandoned, equally metallic puppy on the recently sold building across the street. But he’s so anal about his spic-and-span apartment. Could his spotless cocoon withstand a faux canine presence? Director Laurent Witz appears to be heading towards a realistic, tough-minded finale, but he can’t bear denying viewers a saccharine resolution that effectively declaws this otherwise genial portrait.
In an aesthetic 180-degree turn from Witz’s character study, Feral, which boasts a visual style that looks like charcoal images vividly brought to life, is a dark, haunting tale of a wild child, apparently raised by wolves, who is discovered by a hunter and brought to live in civilized society. Is he ready to be domesticated? Are his classmates prepared to welcome him as one of their own? Don’t expect any Kumbaya hand-holding from director Daniel Sousa, whose atmospheric style embraces its protagonist’s dark soul.
Possessions, a ghost story from Japan, applies the surreal, loopy aesthetic of Hayao Miyazaki circa Spirited Away to haunted-house tropes reminiscent of the Grudge movies. A handyman out in the woods seeks shelter in what appears to be an abandoned cottage, but is actually a lair for restless spirits who submit the unwitting drifter to different sets of challenges tailor made for his “Mr. Fix-Anything” skills. Shuhei Morita’s dreamscapes are dazzlingly drawn, until the abrupt, anticlimactic denouement. A worthwhile entry in this category nevertheless.
Finally, there’s Room on the Broom, the latest grade-school friendly offering from British animation studio Magic Light Pictures, which follows the elemental, scavenger-hunt structure of their previous Oscar nominee The Gruffalo. A witch (Gillian Anderson) and her cat (Rob Brydon) keep meeting different animals who all want – wait for it – a space on her broom, but every time she agrees to take on a new passenger, she loses a personal item she has to go look for with her newfound buddies. I might be biased here, since I find this studio’s character designs and simplistic dialogue singularly unappealing, but the potential for directors Jan Lachauer and Max Lang to deliver something special is quite palpable, particularly considering they managed to nab Simon Pegg as their narrator. At 25 minutes, though, my goodwill ran out long before the toothless finale. It failed to bewitch me.
Not feeling the mixed bag that are this year’s animated shorts? Their live action counterparts are even more uneven. The gooey, Hallmark Channel-ready Helium, which chronicles the fierce bond that develops between a hospital janitor and a terminally ill child, has its heart in the right place, but the flights of fancy director Anders Walter inelegantly rams down your throat are eyeroll-inducing. That goes double for Spain’s social-problem-lecture stinker That Was Not Me, which takes a hamfisted look at child soldiers in Africa and the legacy of violence one of them struggles to overcome. (Steer clear, Academy voters. I mean it.)
If That Was Not Me is way too heavy-handed, the 7-minute trifle Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? barely justifies its 7-minute running time. The story of a disheveled Finnish family that oversleep and are then forced to hustle to make it to a friend’s wedding starts out promisingly, but then wallows in head-scratching awkwardness. A far wittier comic short, The Voorman Problem features the ubiquitous Martin Freeman as a psychiatrist hired by prison officials to verify whether an inmate who claims to be a god (Tom Hollander) who claims to be tasked with “ongoing maintenance of the universe” is a nutcase or a pathological liar. Ah, director Mark Gill teasingly suggests, there’s always the off chance he might actually be the real thing. Based on an except from a book by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, this wry treat is the one to beat for the golden statuette.
If I were to pick my favorite, though, it would be the French white-knuckle drama Just Before Losing Everything, which gradually introduces a mother in her early 40s (Léa Drucker) and her children as they come to the supermarket where she works. Who are they running away from? And why? Director Xavier Legrand’s engrossing short starts out in loose fashion, but stick with it, because he methodically begins doling out answers, tightening the screws on the characters and his audience. It showcases the kind of filmmaking chops I wished were more abundant among this year’s nominees.
So what if most of these shorts are, in effect, calling card films? Nothing wrong with that, as long as these fresh new faces don’t go on to sell out to the studio machine. I’m going to keep a very close eye on Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori, the directors of the kinetic Paraguayan thriller 7 Cajas (7 Boxes), which begins a one-week run at the Coral Gables Art Cinema starting Feb. 14. A punchy, tightly paced, against-the-clock narrative kicks off when Victor (Celso Franco), a wheelbarrow delivery boy with dreams of stardom, is given half of a torn-off $100 bill at the butcher shop of the market where he works. He is told he will receive the other half if he agrees to cart around the titular containers for a while. Sounds doable enough, only these boxes’ contents appear to draw local police, thieves and Nelson (Víctor Sosa), a rival wheelbarrow carrier who narrowly missed scoring the lucrative gig.
There isn’t much depth to the large assortment of hapless working stiffs Maneglia and Schembori have assembled, but what what raises this rudimentary tale above countless other Run Lola Run wannabes is the filmmakers’ strong sense of time (April of 2005) and place (a market in Asunción). They’ve made a bare-bones chase movie – with sudden bursts of gunplay – genuinely interested in exploring the lives of the working poor, not just their financial hardships, but their goals and ambitions. Victor wants to be that face on TV in the action hero role, and Liz (Lali Gonzalez), the pesky local who becomes his accidental accomplice, just wants to matter in the teen’s life.
The implausibilities and all-too-convenient coincidences pile up in 7 Cajas, particularly in the overwrought last 15 minutes, but Maneglia and Schembori manage to turn their logistical limitations into virtues. Just don’t go signing on the dotted line for the next Jason Statham vehicle just yet, guys.
The Academy Award nominees for Animation and Live Action are now showing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com), The Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com) and O Cinema (o-cinema.org). Join me online on Oscar night, March 2, as I live tweet the Academy Awards (@rubenros on Twitter). Be very afraid.