This year's Oscar Nominated Short Films? Boo! And Whoop-doo!

A Matter of Loaf and Death!
Most people consider the Academy Awards' short film categories a speed bump on the way to those bigger prizes of the night. Who cares about some five minute scat-fest when the Best Picture fate of Avatar rests at the ass end of a very prolonged trophy tossing ceremony? Right? No one's even seen these stupid little stretches of artistic baboonery...Well. It used to be that way. For the past five years, Shorts International has been packaging the five live action and five animated shorts into one ethereal screening experience. And this year's program contains some must-see movie magic that proves to be even more entertaining than the big ten Best Picture nominees. It also contains some less than stellar awards bait that might have you groaning loud into the night. Either way, you should definitely check them out on the big screen. If they don't make it to a town near you, all ten films and a couple of bonus shorts have also been made available on MOD (movies on demand) and Itunes starting this week.

Plug!

Instead of Abracadabra!
Why are short films so important and worthy of inclusion on The Academy Awards telecast? Because they serve as a showcase for future talent. It allows up and coming filmmakers a foot in the door. And provides funding for important projects. Both Socially and artistically. Back in the day, the only place to see a lot of these shorts was either on USA's Night Flight or as an interstitial between feature presentations on Showtime. There hasn't ever been a great showcase for independently produced short films. But like the once derided documentary, these tiny explosions of creativity are quickly finding their way into the general public's interested consciousness. Especially with the Internet offering instant downloads and the grouped theatrical release allowing you to see them all in one convenient place at one set time.

Last year was the first time I ever sat in a room and watched all of the nominated shorts back to back. Most of them have stayed with me; the live action more so than the animated. My personal pick for Best Live Short of 2009 was The Pig, which saw a man waging a tiny personal war in his hospital room after his beloved swine painting was removed by request of the next patient over (A Muslim). The Oscar went to Toyland, which chronicled a German kid who believed his Jewish neighbors were going to a giant land of toys, not the gas chamber. Ah, Auschwitz. It will get you the prize every time. On the animation front, Doug Sweetland's popular Pixar short Presto was bested by Kunio Kato's hardly seen La Maison en Petits Cubes, a hand-drawn ditty about an old man trying to save himself from a flood.

The Lady and the Reaper!
But that was last year, and there are no Holocaust victims or Pixar animators to be found amongst this new batch of shorts. Instead, we get a heart-wrenching look at Chernobyl and a classic bit of claymation from Aardman Studios. The two standout films are Wallace and Gromit in 'A Matter of Loaf and Death' and Instead of Abracadabra. Both of which are far too commercial to win. Neither have stirring plot points or any social relevance. But God Damn it, they're indubitably entertaining. Well made. And make the International Shorts program one to definitely check out. They are my picks for best animation and live action shorts. And I hope come this Sunday night, at least one of the two will be able to take home that Oscar.

Yes. 'A Matter of Loaf and Death' should get the animation prize. We have to look at this from all angles. It's the most infectious of the bunch. Its thirty solid minutes of non-stop action. It's handcrafted from the ground up. And pain-stakingly pieced together by hand. You can still see the fingerprints pressed into these globs of Plasticine that come to life in vivid color. Director Nick Parks has won five other times in the recent past, so Academy members may feel inclined to give the prize to someone else this time around. Really though, there is nothing as worthy in this category. 'A Matter of Loaf and Death' is Wallace and Gromit's fourth short film together. The story finds Wallace falling head over heels in love with former pin-up bakery model Piella Bakewell, who seems to have a thing for warm bread. Gromit, sensing that this new woman in his master's life my be a threat to their newly opened bakery business, sets out to discover her ugly secret. Of course Wallace is too preoccupied to believe the dog when its revealed that Bakewell is killing off local chef's to collect her own baker's dozen of dead corpses. Which she keeps in her attic, dressed in white. There's one really great chase scene, a hilarious moment that finds Gromit trying to defuse a bomb, and plenty of subtle humor kneaded into this landscape of clay. It stands on its own, and is a pure joy to watch. Not to mention, it's the only non-computer animated film to garner a nomination. Whoop-doo! I seriously hope it wins.

Logorama!
CGI almost feels like a cheat at this point. There isn't one single hand-drawn short in the animation category this year. That certainly speaks to these cruel economic times. No one has patience enough to craft a real piece of art. Its all keystrokes and mouse manipulation. That doesn't mean the rest of these films are complete pieces of shit. Javier Recio Gracia has crafted eight minutes of sheer comedic bliss with his wacky, Looney Tunes-inspired The Lady and the Reaper. As clever as any Pixar short could ever hope to be, a he-man hero disguised as a clean-cut doctor fights hand-over-fist for the soul of an old woman. Ol' Grimmy the Reaper serves as Wile E. Coyote here, failing miserably to keep his grasp on this frail bitty's life sprit. After a hot pursuit that incorporates a couple of sexy young nurses and that old "wrong door" gag, we discover that Granny and Grimmy are soul mates. When the shiny doc finally saves this old woman's life, she jumps off her gurney and takes a bath with a toaster. It's morbid. Funny. And swift. But not quite as fast paced as the equally entertaining Logorama, which hails from France. Here, we have the Michelin Man as police offer in a town built of corporate logos. Ronald McDonald screams into this iconic burg with a machine gun in tow, takes off the head of Mr. Peanut and murders Bob's Big Boy. It's a Michael Bay-worthy extravaganza full of car chases and nearly non-stop gunfire. Though the animation is a little on the cheap side, it sure is fun to watch all of these mascots run around, flaunting action cliches and the F word as if it were going out of style. It's a little preachy, and morbidly French in its metaphors. But it certainly catches your attention from the get go. A lot of fanboys will claim it should receive that top prize, but it's an easy do. While amusing, it doesn't take much imagination to create something as obvious as Logorama. That said, it still gets a big Whoop-doo from me! I quite enjoyed it.

The Door!
There are two obvious duds here. Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty has some neat looking computer animated hair. And weird old lady boobs jiggling around. But the narrative is as senile as its lead character. Granny attempts to tell a napping child her own version of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. But it's damned by dementia, and too hard to follow. Which wouldn't be so bad, but damn is it boring. I don't care about Granny or her stupid made-up fable. This is one long eight minutes to struggle through, and I have to wonder if there weren't any better picks roaming around out their. Still, it's not as pointless as the meandering and blah-stifled French Roast. A French bit of existentialism about a man who's forgotten his checkbook, here's another eight minute stretch that seems to roll on forever. It's pretentious, self-important. And, again, seemingly obsessed with gonzo CGI'd hairstyles. It smells like Awards' bait. Because of that, it might just win by default. Both Granny and French Roast get a thunderous Boo! from me. I didn't like either one of them.

On the live action front, it certainly seems like the award will go to The Door. Because it's poignant. Relevant. And socially aware. It strips away dirty flesh to expose man's inhumanity to man. Voters love that shit. The story follows one family as they try to escape the fallout from Chernobyl. The cinematography on display is quite stunning, and it's set up as a zombie-infestation tale. It uses the usual horror tropes to drag us into a very real world that has been blasted with radiation. Like all of the nominated live action shorts this year, it feels like a push reel. An ad for investors. The Door needs to be two hours longer. Director Juanita Wilson does a lot with her allotted seventeen-minute runtime, but its not enough. Not for a real life tale as important as this. It hits like Armageddon, and for the family on display, that's certainly what it becomes. A father hurries to grab the door from his grandfather's funeral before hurrying his wife and daughter out of town. He knows his family's fate. And it doesn't take long for the radiation sickness to set in. Skin starts to fall off, and lives are lost. It's well made, but there's more to tell. It feels a bit lopsided, constrained by its subtle limits. It gets a Whoop-doo!, and if it wins that Oscar, it certainly deserves it.

Miracle Fish!
But The Door didn't grab me in quite the same way as Instead of Abracadabra. This Swedish comedy is self-contained. It runs like a real twenty-two minute sitcom. It's the opening chapter in what could possible be a hilarious and iconic film somewhere down the road. Some will call it the Danish Napoleon Dynamite, but it's a little smarter than that. I definitely feel director/writer Patrick Eklund should take home the Oscar for his efforts, despite the fact that his film never touches on anything quite as important as the gas chamber or radiation fall out. His tale revolves around Thomas, an eccentric man in his late twenties immobilized by his chosen profession. He's a stay-at-home magician that can't seem to earn enough money to move out of his parent's house. His mom and pop are super dry and absolutely hilarious on their own accord; yet Thomas proves to be a fascinating watch that transcends modern comedy. He's lost temporary sight in one eye due to a trick gone wrong, and when he tries to convince his father that this magic will soon pay off, the budding trickster accidentally stabs his mother with a long sword while performing a gag in the living room. On the verge of giving in and getting a shit job at the local Abra-Kabobrah, Thomas catches the eye of his new neighbor, a sexy single mother. He decides that he should give this magic business another shot. Which all leads up to a big show at his father's birthday party. There is blood. There are screams. And there are surprises aplenty. Presented as the climax in this shorts package, it's the one film worth paying admission price for. And it gets the biggest Whoop-Doo! Of the bunch. I'd love to see it take home the award. It certainly deserves it.

Chimay!

Kavi!
That leaves three other live action shorts in this category. None of them are Boo! worthy. Though, none of them are as stirring or as excellently executed as the above two mentioned films. Kavi is aimed at the Auschwitz crowd, as it flaunts an important cause in world slavery. Kavi is a young Indian boy forced to carry a wheelbarrow full of bricks day in and day out. All he wants in life is to go to school and play with the local kids. His master promises Kavi a soccer ball if he can get a giant pyramid of broken rocks moved within the day. It's a lie, though. And soon Kavi's parents are being hauled away in a truck, never to be seen again. Don't worry! Some social workers snatch the young slave away from the interment camp. But its sad and emotional, because who knows if Kavi will ever see his mom and dad again? Its pure Awards' bait. But well made and insightful. It, too, could very well win the award based on subject matter alone.

The New Tenants!
Luke Doolan's seventeen minute Miracle Fish is "neat". It reminds me of a Showtime short. But it's a fleeting moment of pop entertainment that doesn't add up too much at the end of the day. Eight-year-old Joe is having a shit birthday. He's mom is broke, and his only present is a palm reading piece of red cellophane in the shape of a trout. Bummed and tired of being picked on by the schoolyard bullies, he checks himself into the nurse's office. A few hours after his much needed nap, he awakens to find the school completely empty and locked up. Is this a dream? The young boy takes full advantage of the deserted building, but then it all comes into sharp focus. Horrible things are afoot within the school, and it doesn't take long for Joe to get caught up first hand in the madness. It's an interesting bit of excitement. Well made. But it doesn't stay with you very long. The same can be said for The New Tenants, which scraps along like a short play penned by Quentin Tarantino. The acting is superb, the dialogue is crisp, but it feels a little dated. Two new tenants discover that three people were recently killed in their apartment. The killer comes looking for his bag of cocaine. Vincent D'Onofrio makes a quick cameo. And it ends with two gay lovers dancing down the street. Cool. Entertaining. Yet totally forgettable.

The Whoop-Doo! picks for live action and animation shorts are definitely Wallace and Gromit in 'A Matter of Loaf and Death' and Instead of Abracadabra. But that is based on my pure enjoyment of them alone. Will they win? Who knows? We'll have to wait until this Sunday to find out. That's when The 82nd Annual Academy Awards airs live. At 8 pm EST/5 pm PCT, only on ABC! As f you didn't know that already...

Chimay! Gothic, death, and mayhems! A little magic and mysteries! Eat Grandma! Kill food! Whoop-doo!

B. Alan Orange