[The title cat of 'Lorenzo,' nominated for Best Animated Short.]
No matter how hard you've tried to keep on top of the big contenders, there are at least 10 films you haven't seen. And it's not for lack of want; they simply can't be seen. They are the small gems that round out the animated and live action short nominees. No stars. No theatrical releases. They're made and you can't see them, unless you stumble across one at a film festival or manage to find one floating around the Internet.
There is one option: squeeze yourself into the Academy's yearly screening for the public -- either in New York or Los Angeles -- which I did this afternoon. This year's five animated shorts and five live action shorts are a good crop of industrious filmmaking. There are virtually no heavy hitters in the bunch (no Pixar, though Disney is represented with 'Lorenzo') and only three are American (the animated 'Guard Dog' and 'Gopher Broke,' and 'Everything in This Country Must,' though it was filmed in Northern Ireland by an Irish cast and crew).
There is a kind of paradox with these types of films. They don't get released per se, so they aren't made to make money. Box office simply isn't in the equation, because most never see the box office. So they are made with heart, with wit, with courage, and with a sense of adventure and urgency that rarely comes through normal, run-of-the-mill features that sprout up at the multiplex every Friday. But there's the paradox. No one sees shorts. Here, then, is a run down of the Oscar nominees, for those of you wanting insight to guide your office pool picks:
The title character of Birthday Boy spends his days skipping around a small, deserted town in Korea in 1951. This nine-minute film is very quiet and its story is told from the simplistic perspective of a child who plays with soldiers but has no concept of the war that is altering his life frame by frame. The dialogue is in Korean, but 'Birthday Boy' is Australian.
Gopher Broke fills the belly-laughing spot usually occupied by Pixar and, yes, it does have the biggest laugh of any movie this year. One scrappy gopher tries to jack some vegetables from passing farm trucks but is always beaten to the punch by other animals. When he finally gets things to go his way, the situation goes udderly awry.
Prolific animator Bill Plympton was at the screening to represent his Guard Dog. With good humor, Plympton said how his previous nomination in 1987 in the same category made him hot property, though nothing substantial came of it. (IMDb says that he turned down a seven-figure deal to animate 'Aladdin' because anything he created became intellectual property of Disney -- a substantial deal yes, but you must admire his nerve.) 'Guard Dog' is a loud, violent, hapzardly-animated film about a zealot pooch dedicated to protecting his master, at any cost.
The most beautiful, slick entry of the bunch comes from the Disney folks but is decidedly un-Disney. Lorenzo sports characters animated in the Disney tradition, but these characters occupy scenery that is bohemian, burlesque and sadistic in tone. Lorenzo is a fat blue cat who enjoys eating shrimp inside while famished alley cats watch with wide eyes outside. Lorenzo is snapped from his luxurious perch when a villainous black cat puts a hex on his tail, which takes on a life of its own.
The winner, though, will be Ryan. I saw it in Telluride without advance warning and seeing it today reminded me how personal and compassionate it is, and how new and exciting its animation is. Animator Chris Landreth points his talents at a potentially uncomfortable subject: Ryan Larkin, a pioneer of animation in the 1970s who now panhandles on the streets of Montreal after debilitating battles with cocaine and alcohol. 'Ryan' is one artist's plea with himself and his idol to keep at it -- "it" being life, art, and everything in between. The film's greatness lies in its tone, which is elegiac rather than sympathetic, and its animation, which sees people as industrial rainbows marked with individual red-orange-yellow-green-blue-violet badges of courage. Landreth will win the Oscar for which Larkin himself was nominated in 1970. The award will be a testament to both.
[Chris Landreth's stunning 'Ryan,' nominated for Best Animated Short]
LIVE ACTION SHORTS
'Everything in This Country Must' and Little Terrorist both concern two peoples who share the same heritage but are embroiled in senseless feuds -- the Northern Irish and British in the first, the Indian and the Pakistani in the second. Both films show boths sides trying to heal even as new wounds are opened.
The strangest and most amusing of the bunch is the Spanish 7:35 in the Morning, but you can see for yourself via the link (though the video file's size is too small to see the priceless faces of the extras). Just one question: What good is a first impression if it's your last?
Two Cars, One Night is a delightful trifle from New Zealand. Two brothers are made to wait in the car as their parents go into a pub in Te Kaha, and one of the boys gets acquainted with a girl waiting in a car two spaces over. Shot in black and white, 'Two Cars, One Night' seems solely about the splendor of pre-pubescent attraction, though I got the feeling there was something deeper at work.
Andrea Arnold has cleaned up in the festival circuit with her cinema verite 'Wasp,' about a young mother juggling four young children and a desire to have a social life. Sounds petty, but 'Wasp' captures in striking detail the lives of the lower class in Great Britain and how, no matter what you do, life's a compromise.
It's tough to say which film will end up on top on Feb. 27. The makers of 'Little Terrorist' are campaiging (according to their Web site), the wonderfully brief '7:35' is just zany enough to pull off a win, 'Wasp' is comparatively well known, 'Everything' is intense and dramatic, and 'One Night' plays like an homage to classic cinema. Which will sit best with voting members? My favorites are '7:35' and 'One Night,' but I think 'Little Terrorist' will win because it is both topical and appealing.