Compared to last year’s shockingly lackluster lineup of Oscar-nominated shorts, the five live-action and five animated entries for the 80th Academy Awards are works of art. Even taken on their own, without sizing up against past nominees, these 10 featurettes - from Denmark and the UK, Russia and Canada, Italy and Poland, Belgium and France—are amazingly strong.
The animation group, which, atypically, doesn’t include a Hollywood-backed production, is especially competitive - voters in the Academy will have a hard time choosing a standout.
I Met the Walrus, from Canadian Josh Raskin, is the shortest and simplest of the bunch: Using a 1969 tape recording of John Lennon made by a 14-year-old fan who snuck into the Beatle’s hotel room and interviewed him, Raskin deploys a synchronized collage of cut-out images that recalls Terry Gilliam’s animated Monty Python sequences. The visuals are crazy and kaleidoscopic, and Lennon’s musings about the history of violence, and the importance of non-violent protest, are achingly wise.
Madame Tutli-Putli, from Canada’s Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, is a startlingly impressive piece of stop-motion animation, with beautifully creepy puppets on a surreal nighttime train ride. The face of the title character, with her wide, spooky eyes and fragile features, might start popping up in your own dreams.
Peter & The Wolf, from the United Kingdom and Poland, is another dazzling stop-motion `toon. Animators Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman use the familiar strains of Prokofiev to spin a dark, gorgeous tale about, yes, a boy and a wolf—but also about a goose, a cat, and a blackbird bound in string.
Meme les pigeons vont au paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven) is likewise a stop-motion project, and animators Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse have fun poking holes in a priest’s and an old miser’s visions of the afterlife. And My Love, from Alexander Petrov, is a swirling, painterly affair about a teenage boy’s amorous reveries in 19th century Russia.
All of the live-action titles boast top-flight production values, though a couple are hobbled by weak narratives and hammy theatrics. My bet is that At Night, a sad but powerful picture about three women in a Danish cancer ward over a Christmas holiday, will win the Oscar for its filmmakers, Christian E. Christiansen and Louise Vesth.
But The Mozart of Pickpockets, a playful entry from France’s Philippe Pollet-Villard in which two not-so-swift crooks are aided by a mute boy, has its charms. And the ambitious The Tonto Woman, adapted from an Elmore Leonard western by Britisher Daniel Barber, evokes John Ford and Sergio Leone as it captures the strange romance between a cow thief (Francesco Quinn, son of Anthony) and a white woman who’d been held captive—and tattooed on her face—by Indians.
The Belgian (Tanghi Argentini) and Italian (The Substitute) nominees are less solid, but nothing if not likeable.