Every year right around this time, dedicated but previously distracted movie fans race to the cineplex in a mad dash to soak up as many Academy Award-nominated films as possible before the awards ceremony. If you’ve slacked off for the past six months, filling up your Oscar dance card in the next few weeks will be a daunting prospect. Heck, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will take 166 minutes out of your life and that’s only one of the films nominated for Best Picture.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, though: If you wanna catch a whole mess of Oscar-nominated films before the big dance, there’s a quick and easy way to do it. In less time than it takes to watch Brad Pitt turn into a little baby, you can absorb 10 (count ’em 10!) of 2008’s Oscar best.
As always, the animated shorts are a delight to see--a mixture of cutting-edge technique and old-school craftsmanship. First up in the animated program is Konstantin Bronzit’s Russian offering “Lavatory Lovestory.” This cute romance is done in simple New Yorker-esque line drawings and follows a washroom attendant who is alternately frustrated and intrigued by a secret admirer. Like all the films in this year’s animated Oscar slate, this one’s without dialogue. Next up is France’s “Oktapodi.” The slim story about an octopus trying to rescue his ladylove after she’s purchased from a seafood shop doesn’t have much in the way of nuance, but the computer animation is stylish and memorable. Adam Foulkes and Alan Smith’s U.K.-made short “This Way Up” is also computer animated but feels somehow more old-fashioned. The blackly humorous short features a pair of diligent morticians trying to deliver a coffin to the graveyard without the aid of their hearse. Their trials and tribulations become increasingly outrageous, leading to plenty of ghoulish comedy. Japan’s “La Maison en Petits Cubes” by Kunio Kato steers clear of humor to create a lovely and gentle piece about an old man trying to keep his house intact in a world being slowly engulfed by water. It’s mostly about memories--encased, in this instance, in a succession of neat cubicles. You’ll have to see it to really get the metaphorical impact, but with its melancholy soundtrack and charcoal-sketch look, “La Maison” lingers beautifully. “Presto” from the good old U.S.A. is the most familiar of this year’s selections. Created by the fine folks at Pixar, it was attached to WALL•E during its summer release. Top-notch computer animation aside, this tale of a hungry rabbit battling a performing magician with the aid of a magic hat is classic cartoon slapstick. The Pixar people know the history of their art form, and this toon wouldn’t be at all out of place alongside ’30s and ’40s classics by masters like Walt Disney, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery.
As if those five weren’t enough, producers of this traveling showcase have included five additional “commended films,” including Marc Craste’s stunning ecological tale “Varmints” and Bill Plympton’s new short “Hot Dog”--the third film in his devastatingly funny “Guard Dog” series. Quality and quantity!
While the live-action selections may feature a bit less technical razzle-dazzle, they’re still a laudable lot. A German/Swiss coproduction, “Auf der Strecke (On the Line)” is an absorbing drama about a security guard at a Swedish department store who develops a crush on a young German woman who works in the book department. One fateful evening, a terrifyingly bad decision brings the two together but leaves our protagonist in a major moral quandary. Director Reto Caffi and cast manage to pack a feature’s worth of film into 30 minutes. Ireland’s Steph Green adapts a fine short story by Roddy Doyle (The Commitments, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) with “New Boy.” In it, a preteen lad is transferred from a schoolhouse in Africa to an Irish primary school where he must deal with a classroom bully. “Spielzeugland (Toyland)” from Germany continues Oscar’s obsession with Holocaust stories. Although the well-played historical short adds little to the already weighty canon of World War II-era Jewish cinema, it does feature a nifty twist ending that lands right on the mark. “Grisen (The Pig)” from Denmark starts out as a tale about a lonely old man who goes to the hospital for surgery and ends up a story about racial tolerance. The film paints Muslims in an arguably simplistic light and could be seen as more religion-baiting from a country that has already had a lot of trouble depicting Islam in art. In the end, though, the film finds a hopeful note on which to rest. The final live-action selection comes from France. “Manon sur le Bitume (Manon on the Asphalt)” is about a young woman who goes out on her bicycle and gets hit by a car. While lying in the street, she contemplates what will happen to all her friends because of this tragic accident. Though it sounds rather fatalistic, “Manon” concludes as a poetic rumination on life’s tiny moments of joy--a perfect capper to 2008 cinema’s tiny moments of joy.