this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts
18 April 2008
“They’re not just seeing the present. They’re seeing the future,” announced Oscar-winning writer and director Curtis Hanson, as he introduced this year’s Academy screening of the ten Oscar-nominated short films â€” five live-action and five nominated. A sell-out audience of more than a thousand people filled the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at their Beverly Hills headquarters. With films of up to forty minutes in length, that they might well have called the â€˜longs’ rather than the â€˜shorts’, the screening â€” and question and answer session â€” gave film enthusiasts five hours of entertainment for their money.
The Academy’s governor responsible for short films, Jon Bloom, said the programme was now so popular that the theatrical release of the Oscar-nominated shorts is projected to end up in the top 250 releases at the US box office this year.
The record of recent British success in the short film competitions serves to illustrate Curtis Hanson’s point. Andrea Arnold’s Wasp picked up the live-action short Oscar in 2005 and the following year, her debut feature Red Road was in competition in Cannes. That year saw another British director pick up an Academy Award: in 2006, the Oscar went to Martin McDonagh for Six Shooter. His debut feature, In Bruges, opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
This year’s British nominee in the live-action category is Daniel Barber, with his adaptation of the Elmore Leonard short story The Tonto Woman. Commercials director Barber told the audience in LA that his brother had brought him the story, originally written for the New Yorker in the 1960s. “I know it’s unusual for an Englishman to make a Western,” remarked Barber, “But why not?” He explained the importance of rehearsals to his film. Reading through the script with his writer highlighted some changes that needed to be made and reading through with actors helped him refine the script and block the camera. For such a low budget, he said, rehearsals were invaluable.
Barber’s 36 minutes, sombre film is definitely the slickest and most accomplished visually. It tells the story of a cattle rustler, who befriends the socially outcast wife of a rancher. The wife was kidnapped by Indians shortly after her marriage and lived with them for 11 years before her husband rescued her and forced her to live alone in a remote farmhouse.
Daniel Barber’s other ambitious competition is At Night, a Danish drama about three women, suffering from cancer, who agree to celebrate New Year’s Eve together in the cancer ward. This is the longest short (40 mins), most poignant and grimmest, but well executed. In fact, the mood of the film conjures up images from other Scandinavian masterpieces, notably Bergman’s Persona.
The other shorter â€˜shorts’ are lighter and comical. The Substitute, an Italian comedy about a businessman who alleviates his boredom by pretending to be a substitute teacher, causing havoc with his slapstick antics as he gives the student outrageous psychological quizzes; The Mozart of Pickpockets is a cute French comedy about two wannabe pickpockets who take a homeless child under their wing, and â€” predictably â€” the child turns to be a master Pickpocket; and Tanghi Argentini, another sharp comedy from Belgium following an office worker who gets last-minute tango lessons from his colleague in order to be an online date.
As a whole package, none of the live action shorts get near masterpiece status, but none is awful either. It will be tough to pick a winner here, though it won’t be a surprise if Barner’s short wins. The animation shorts on the other hand fare much better in terms of quality, technique and visual aesthetic.
There’s British representation in the animated competition too, with yet another longer short that runs for 30 minutes. Producer Hugh Welchman approached director Suzie Templeton with the idea of animating Prokoviev’s classic children’s story, Peter And The Wolf. Templeton’s stop-motion animation successfully used humour instead of dialogue to invoke a whole range of emotions as the Philarmonia Orchestra played in the background. She told the audience that the music was a treasured part of her childhood and enabled her to talk about things she’d wanted to talk about, including the tensions between the city, country and man’s relationship with the wild.
Another comparably competitive and equally astonishing work, but in a softer mode, is the Russian short My Love, which conjures up the imagination of a romantic young boy in 19th century Russia. The story is told in moving oil paintings as the boy’s dreams explode into phantasmagorical images of fairy tale princesses. It’s a long short that runs over 30 minutes, but its arresting hand-drawn images makes an enthralling experience for art lovers.
The Canadian entry Madame Tutli-Putli is slightly shorter (17 mins), but equally innovative. In it, a woman boards a train with a mountain of luggage and encounters some bizarre characters in her journey. The directors use stop-motion animation and sculptured figures to evoke their nightmarish vision by basing the train passengers in their story on their favourite dead.
The other shorter animations are sharp and clever. I Met The Walrus, Josh Raskin’s Gilliam-inspired illustration of an interview sneaked with John Lennon in a hotel room in 1969; Even Pigeons Go To Heaven sees a French team using computer animation to tell the surreal tale, in which a greedy priest tries to sell an old man a machine that will take him to heaven.
2008 is the 75th year that the Academy is honouring short films and as Curtis Hanson suggested, having British film-makers in both categories can only be positive for the future of the UK industry.