The 2009 Oscar-Nominated Short Films are here!

To me, one of the better things to happen to cinemagoing in the past few years has been the efforts of Shorts International and Magnolia Films to get the ten films nominated for the Best Live-Action Short and Best Animated Short Oscars to play in theatres each February.

The short film was, for a number of years, an increasingly a lost art. Many of us are still unaware that, before we were born, when people used to go to the movies, they didn’t see just a movie with a couple trailers in front of them but were privy to an entire evening of entertainment. The program would often start with a newsreel, those pre-television snippets that gave audiences their up close and personal views of what was happening around the world. After audiences got their fill of current events, there would often be a short film, maybe from Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges, or a True-Life Adventure from Walt Disney, then a cartoon, maybe featuring Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse or Tom & Jerry, and then a couple of previews of upcoming attractions before the start of the main feature. But in the 1960s and 1970s, theatre operators started to figure out that eliminating that twenty to thirty minutes of filler each show would, over the course of a day, allow them to get in an extra screening of a film and thus make that much more money. Cartoons went on to be packaged for television, shorts were rarely seen outside of being filler for public television and cable networks and these delicate art forms languished in the public eye for decades, only heard of in passing during the annual Academy Award broadcast, as we waited to see if Paul Newman or Randy Newman would finally win their long-deserved trophy.

For years, the only way to see some of the potential Oscar nominees for Live-Action or Animated short was to be in the know of how Oscar qualifying worked. To be eligible for the Oscar in these categories, the film must either have won a best-in-category award at one of a specific list of film festivals from around the world or have played at a commercial theatre in Los Angeles for seven consecutive days for a paying audience. Even someone like myself, who was managing a commercial movie theatre in Los Angeles for a company that would help filmmakers get their films qualified, rarely did we screen a film that ended up being nominated, and even rarer when someone would actually show up for a screening. What we would do is book five to ten shorts together, depending on length, into one block, and open the theatre a couple hours early to show the block of titles, and run on minimum staff (myself, who would also operate the projector, and a cashier, in case someone actually did buy a ticket) to save on payroll. But it wasn’t like there was a mad rush of people to get in for these, as they were never advertised in the paper and the only people who would show up would end up being the filmmakers themselves or their friends and family. In the two years I did this at one theatre, I’d estimate we showed maybe sixty short films this way, and only one of them eventually became a nominee: 1994’s Bob’s Birthday, which did end up winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature that year, and not so co-incidentally, helped me win my company’s Oscar pool by one point.

And I suspect if you are reading this article, you are looking for clues as to what films might win this year, to help you with your office or party pool. I’ll do what I can.

The nominees for Best Live-Action Short this year are…

Manon on the Asphalt, from France. Directed by Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont, in which a young woman, laying in the street after a car has hit her while riding her bike, wonders how her mother and her friends would react to her death.

New Boy, from Ireland. Directed by Steph Green, in which a nine-year-old African immigrant struggles with a bully in his first day at his new school.

On the Line, from Switzerland and Germany. Directed by Reto Caffi, which finds a security guard at a store unexpectedly coming closer to the object of his desire, a bookstore clerk at his work, whom he watches over the surveillance cameras every day.

The Pig, from Denmark. Directed by Dorte Hogh, featuring a collision of cultures between a Danish man who has become unexpected attached to a painting of a pig in his hospital room and the Muslim family of the man who shares the hospital room.

Toyland, from Germany. Directed by Jochen Alexander Freydank, in which a mother in Nazi Germany desperately searches for her young son, whom has run away from home to join their Jewish neighbors on their trip to Toyland.

Of the five, “The Pig” was my personal favorite, a quiet yet humor-filled look at one man’s short trip to the hospital. Hogh doesn’t spend much time getting into the psychology of why his lead character Asbjorn has become so attached to a not very good painting of a pig on the wall, but who really needs to be told that when one is in the hospital, one will probably find something to take their mind off what they’re going through and would likely become visibly upset when that object of fixation has been removed? “The Pig” could have been a whimsical little film Lars von Trier might shoot off in a weekend, if von Trier ever got over himself and found his sense of humor again, and gives hope that there could be a new voice in Danish cinema.

However, it is Toyland that will likely win, although it’s hard to say why without spoiling the ending. For most of its fourteen minute running time, this is a story about a young German mother who is desperately searching for her child, whom she has told all the Jewish people who leaving town, including their next-door neighbors, are going to a place called Toyland. And what eight-year-old boy wouldn’t want to go to a place called Toyland? But by the time we get to the end of the story, we’ve come to realize that, not unlike The Usual Suspects, what we have been lead to believe is simply not true at all. I won’t say the end is heartbreaking, but the resolution is certainly uplifting, and that is what will likely seal the deal for Oscar voters.

Within the first minute of On the Line, I was thinking “What is it with German movies and spying?” as I recalled recent Oscar-winner The Lives of Others. And not unlike the late Ulrich Muhe’s character, Roeland Wiesnekker’s security guard becomes involved in the life of the person he watches, the somewhat fetching Catherine Janke, especially when he inadvertently allows a family tragedy to happen to her, believing one thing when the truth was something else completely. The longest of the nominees, On the Line doesn’t quite resolve its story at the end, but that last shot of Janke should leave a lasting chill on viewers.

New Boy, based on a short story by Irish writer Roddy Doyle (The Commitments), is a slight film that isn’t sure what it wants to say. Is it trying to say something about African genocide? Or that laughter is the bridge that will unite different cultures? Olutunji Ebun-Cole has a strong presence at the young boy who has seen far worse things than any Irish snot-nosed kid can dish out, but this is easily the weakest entry this year.

Which leaves us the wild card. Manon on the Asphalt. I’ve seen some people react to it as if it was the French “Crash,” which I guess one could make a case for if one really wanted to stretch. I don’t think the unseen driver of the car that hit Manon crashed into her because he wanted to feel something, as Don Cheadle’s character famously states in that film, and what actually happens to Manon is left to the viewer. Did she really die, or was this nothing more than her mind’s way of keeping her occupied while the medics were on their way? This is the strongest looking film of the group, but I suspect too many will find it too cheaply sentimental to award it the top prize.

The nominees for Best Animated Short this year are…

The House of Small Cubes, from Japan and France. Directed by Kunio Kato, which tells the story of a man who must continually build new stories to his home in order to live out the rising tides that surround him.

Lavatory Lovestory, from Russia. Directed by Konstantin Bronzit, in which a female attendant in a men’s room unexpectedly finds love.

Oktapodi, from France. Directed by Julien Bocabeille, Francois-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier and Emud Mokhberi, which finds two octopi in love trying to outwit a restaurant delivery boy

Presto, from the United States. Directed by Doug Sweetland, in which a magician is continually foiled by his hungry bunny sidekick.

This Way Up, from the United Kingdom. Directed by Adam Foulkes and Alan Smith, which finds two morticians struggling to get a coffin to its final resting place.

Of all the nominees in either category, most people will be familiar with Presto, which was seen in front of WALL-E in theatres this past summer and is also included on the subsequent DVD release. Some might write the short off a nothing more than a series of progressively more extreme running gags (and, seriously, what Pixar short isn’t?), but I defy anyone to honestly say it wasn’t hilarious the first time around and didn’t remain so during the fourth or fifth viewing. It is, bar none, the best short Pixar has made to date, and should easily win the Oscar this time around.

Presto’s closest competitor, in my eyes, is Lavatory Lovestory, its polar opposite in practically every way. Where Presto is colorful and takes advantage of every opportunity afforded a computer-generated cartoon, Lavatory Lovestory is a simple black and white hand-drawn tale of a lonely matron in a Russian restroom whose world is thrown for a loop when an unseen person starts leaving her colorful flowers in her tip jar. It might go on for a couple more minutes than it needs to, but it’ll make you smile in the end, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Oktapodi doesn’t suffer from going on a little too long. In fact, this not quite three minute short probably could have gone on twice as long without suffering. Two octopi in an aquarium at a market in Greece are separated. The one left behind sees the little cart his beloved is about to put into, and, imagining the worst, decides to go after her. There are but four gags in the short, with the end credits jarringly coming before what feels like the end of the fourth gag. Sure, what comes before is entertaining, but for once there should have been more, and that will hurt its chances.

The House of Small Cubes finds its hero building a small addition on the roof of his small house, which is surrounded by an endless sea. What we slowly discover is that this is not the second floor of his house but the umpteenth story, when he dives in the waters to rescue a pipe he has lost when moving his belongings from one soon-to-be-flooded floor to the one just built above. As the man goes further down in the water, he sees the submerged remnants of his life and remembers what they used to mean to him. Come to think of it, this lovingly rendered short, done up in hand-painted style and with its eco-warning storyline, could sneak in as a surprise winner.

The last of the animated shorts, This Way Up, is probably just too bizarre for most voters. A father and son team of undertakers have a series of misadventures as they try to get a coffin to the cemetery. If Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam ever teamed up to make an animated movie together, This Way Up is what it would likely look and feel like. And while I love both Burton and Gilliam, that’s probably too much quirky darkness for one film to take. It’s funny, and its even got a musical dance sequence, but its just too damn strange.

Both sets of programs will be opening in theatres across America starting February 6th, which additional theatres added February 13th and February 20th. Please visit the Magnolia Pictures web site for specific dates and theatre locations.