There is one moment every year when mankind the world over is united. It comes during the Academy Awards when humanity takes a bathroom break as Oscars are presented for The Shorts - live-action, animation and documentary. The problem isn't quality, but that the public has nothing personally invested in them. They've never seen the nominees and never will. But through an obscure twist of fate, the shorts may be among the most important for the audience: when office pools are set up for betting on the winners, it's the shorts that are usually used as the All-Important Tie Breakers.
Because all that people know about them is merely the title, picking a winner is toss-of-the-coin territory. What's needed is a little inside information, just to know what in the world they are. But where to get it? Oh, where?
Office pools rejoice.
On Saturday, with a voting-member friend, I went to the Motion Picture Academy and saw all 15 of the nominated shorts. Documentary before the dinner break, and animation and live-action after. In all, the extravaganza was an eye-blearying eight hours.
We live to serve. You're welcome.
I enjoyed the documentaries the most. All were quite good, though if you need a tie breaker, Saving Face stood out. It got the best audience reaction and was my favorite, as well. (And my always-savvy Academy friend voted for it.) The film is crushingly devastating - afterwards I commented that I almost had burst out into tears halfway through -- my friend responded, "What do you mean 'almost'?" The story concerns a horrifying pandemic in Pakistan of women having acid thrown in their faces, their lives ruined with almost no recourse. Remarkably, the film has an uplifting emotion, and centers on the women attempting to fight back, and a wonderful Pakistani plastic surgeon living in England who returns to his homeland. The film works on four levels - as a medical drama, courtroom mystery, political thriller, and social tale. For those interested in more details, I'll give a "Spoiler Alert" at the end.
Several others short documentaries were quite good, too. One on the post-Japanese tragedy (The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom) was beautiful and almost poetic, though became a bit repetitive. If I had to guess on what was the room's second favorite, it would be God is the Bigger Elvis, about the young actress Dolores Hart who starred in such hit films as King Creole and Loving You (both with Elvis Presley), Where the Boys Are, and Come Fly with Me - and even got a Tony nomination on Broadway - but left Hollywood at the peak of her career to become a nun, and is now a Mother Superior in Connecticut. It's a charming film, helped by Hart's still-vibrant personality, along with particularly emotional footage with her former fiancé of 50 years ago, Don Robinson.
The field is rounded out by The Barber of Birmingham (profiling a foot-soldier in the Civil Rights Movement) and Incident at New Baghdad (about a soldier's actions after Iraq), both well-done.
Excuse the omission of the names of filmmakers. The information wasn't provided at the screening.
Surprisingly, the animation shorts (which are usually my favorite, for being wildly creative) were the least interesting of the day. No clear cut "tie breaker," although The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore was my favorite by a hair, and what my friend voted for. The animation was quite good, and it had a wonderfully fresh story, though it didn't develop as inventively as the set-up suggested. Also, Wild Life had the best animation, but the story was somewhat flat.
The other nominees were A Morning Stroll (an occasionally fun oddity about recurring encounters with a chicken), La Luna (from Pixar, telling a very sweet tale about a family cleaning up debris on the moon, that's more sweet than involving), and Dimanche/Sunday (a cleverly-drawn, strange story about one day living by train tracks that meanders a bit).
Though I wasn't blown away by any of the live-action shorts, they were consistently interesting, which hasn't always been the case in the past. (No maudlin Scandinavian tales of bleak death!) My friend loved them all, I should note. There was no consensus reaction to them, however. (While my friend again voted for the one I would have, the three people at the booth with him all mentioned voting for different ones.) The Shore was very well done, and probably has the biggest "buzz" (if shorts can have buzz..), but for my taste the story was too bland. Two friends in Northern Ireland meet again after 25 years, but it's not gripping like the plot suggests. I'd call it charming and very well made. My favorite by far was Time Freak - an 11-minute hoot, about a neurotic guy who invents a time machine and...well, I won't give anything away. Nothing flashy about it, just joyful storytelling well done, with a terrific performance by its star, Michael Nathanson.
But this is the Time Freak video making the rounds. The two filmmakers, Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey, set up a camera the day Oscar nominations were announced. It's the definition of pure joy:
Raju was perhaps the richest story of the group, a German family adopting an orphan in India, who have their world turned upside-down. The brief Pentecost takes an ordinary story about altar boys preparing for a service by the visiting Bishop, and turns it into a very funny spoof of a Big Sporting Event, with a rah-rah locker room speech that would make Knute Rockne proud. And finally, Tuba Atlantic did the almost unthinkable - a Scandinavian film about bleak death that is actually an off-the-wall dark comedy, centering on a feisty curmudgeon with six days to live and the chipper teenage girl from the town's "Angel of Death" society, sent to care for him during his final days.
Some of these may well turn up in theaters, but check online, as well, in case they find a home streaming from websites, released on Netflix, or on cable. Two of them, in fact, Saving Face and God is the Bigger Elvis are both productions from HBO, so they, at least, will have a public platform.
Let the office pools begin.
SPOILER ALERT for Saving Face:
As mentioned above, for anyone interested in how the film turns out. The one woman most-featured has her hideously disfigured face returned to about 60% normal and is seen beaming as she walks down the street with her face uncovered for the first time. The Pakistan Parliament unanimously votes to make such crimes punishable by life imprisonment. And the woman's husband who disfigured her is the first man tried under the new law and is found guilty and given two life sentences. Given that the filmmakers didn't know the results of any of this when starting their project how it would turn out. It could have been one of the most depressing movies of all time. As it turned out, they made a remarkable short film that touches many levels from the distraught to exuberant.