The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2009

These shorts wear their Oscar nominations well

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 6, 2009
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There's a lot of preciousness in this year's Oscar nominees for best live-action and animated short. The five films in both categories use blips of style to yank at the heart - if the ubiquity of sad piano doesn't get you, the parade of long faces will. It's entirely possible to leave the theater convinced that the live-action format is a haven for forced quirkiness and tidy sentiment. Some of these, particularly the ones that get the Academy's attention, pursue irony as though the short films worth watching are those O. Henry might have directed.

The title of Jochen Freydank's "Toyland," set in Holocaust-era Germany, refers to the place a child thinks his friends and neighbors are all being herded off to. So he packs a suitcase with the intent to join the fun. Freydank structures his film with the intent of pulling the rug out from under you, in order to break your heart. The movie belongs as a WWII appetizer for best-picture nominee "The Reader."

The other films - "On the Line," a German-Swiss production, "New Boy" from Ireland, and "The Pig" from Denmark - are fine. But if Academy voters do more than read the synopses, they'll get to Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont's lovely, if crudely titled "Manon on the Asphalt," about a woman (Aude Leger) imagining how the people in her life will react when they hear she's just been hit by a car. It's as guilty as any of these movies of being precious (starting with the inclusion of a jaunty Madeleine Peyroux version of Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" and ending with the feeling that you've just been "Amelie"-ed). But it also has actual filmmaking and the natural human warmth these other movies strive so hard for. Plus Leger has an alluringly descriptive face I could watch for hours.

Meanwhile, like certain Super Bowl ads, the nominated animated shorts tend to favor critters, though this year the human entries win three of the five slots. Konstantin Bronzit's starkly drawn "Lavatory Lovestory" features a bathroom attendant desperate for any of the men who pass through her turnstile to notice her. Bronzit's stripped-down style can be funny (his "Die Hard" spoof is worth finding). This film can't determine how to balance a mean spirit with a corny one. But the jarring momentary shifts in vantage point (once, from inside her booth, say) are neat.

"This Way Up," from England, pushes too hard for folly (a pair of undertakers transport a casket across the countryside) and winds up being a showcase for its talented animators to show off. Their flamboyance, though, does produce the two longest (and most extraordinary) faces of all. The German Expressionists would have killed to have actors with such crags and features capable of casting so much shadow.

For animals, there's "Oktopodi" - from France - in which two computer-animated octopi try to escape becoming dinner, while in Pixar's "Presto," a starving rabbit tortures his magician owner for a carrot. The world saw "Presto" when it opened for "WALL-E," and it's another impressive display of Pixar's mastery of the happy marriage between sound and image.

Yet, again: If the voters are doing their homework, it's "La Maison en Petits Cubes," from Japan's Kunio Kato, that achieves real art. It's hand-drawn and shaggy but vividly forlorn. A rising flood has forced a codger to construct additions on his home until its his modest cottage becomes a tower that resembles something Gaudi might have built in a giant fish tank. At some point, the builder goes scuba-diving down into the old rooms where the memories still live. It's lovely, surreal, and sad: The old man and the sea.

In nearly every case, with this batch of movies, neatness chokes some of the life out of the storytelling's emotional impact. Not here.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

THE OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2009 At: Coolidge Corner Theatre, Institute of Contemporary Art

Running time: 134 minutes


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