Unless smiled upon by the pooh-bahs of PBS or the lords of cable, the makers of most short films are doomed to obscurity -- at least in this country. Even the lucky ones can expect little more than a hard-earned glimpse at the odd film festival, followed by orphanhood. Thank heaven, then, for Magnolia Pictures/Shorts International and Apollo Cinema, a pair of distributors who have packaged the Academy Award-nominated shorts in advance of the annual ceremonies. Two separate programs of this year's nominees -- animated and live-action -- will screen for one week at the Starz FilmCenter beginning Friday, February 24; a third collection, of the four Oscar-nominated documentaries, will open March 3.
The variety is mind-boggling, and among the animated films, nightmares dominate. In Shane Acker's beautifully drawn 9, made at the UCLA Animation Workshop (and happily destined for a full-length expansion by Focus Features), a pair of haunted fugitives are stalked through a ravaged wasteland by a huge, creaking insect with scary high-beam vision. Anthony's Lucas's The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jason Morello posits a beautifully detailed, pseudo-gothic city beset "by appalling violence," from which the pilot of a fantastically ornate airship is ordered to embark, leaving his beloved wife behind to fend off the forces of darkness. John Canemaker's The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation (scheduled to air on HBO) explores the Elmira, New York-born filmmaker's stormy relationship with his late father, John Cannizzaro, who was apparently a brute and definitely a convicted arsonist. Peppered with bits of home movies and old family photos, this gorgeously conceived but lacerating biography/ autobiography (with voices provided by John Turturro and Eli Wallach) rises past auto-therapy to the level of confessional poetry. The film, son announces to father, "is the conversation we could never have."
Two slighter animations display lesser charms: Sharon Colman's Badgered shows us the beleaguered quadruped of the title struggling, against the odds, to catch a nap, while The Fan and the Flower, by veteran Bill Plympton, suggests a sweet, unrequited love affair between a ceiling fan and a potted plant.
Talk about diversity: The five live-action shorts vying for an Oscar in 2006 come from five different countries. German director Ulrike Grote's Ausreisser (The Runaway) would be my winner. A guileless six-year-old wearing red rubber boots attaches himself to a jobless man in Hamburg, persistently calling him "Daddy" and leading the baffled grownup on a dark voyage of discovery. A marvel of concision and perfectly tuned emotion, it's everything a short film can be. The other major contender has to be Martin McDonagh's Six Shooter, which combines Irish melancholy and Irish wit in a weird train-coach encounter between a grief-stricken man (the great Brendan Gleeson), whose wife has just died, and a cheerfully detached punk (Raidhri Conroy), who rattles on about death, God and exploding cows in the strangely appealing voice of a prophet. Can the new widower's day get even worse? Oh, yes.
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In The Last Farm, Iceland's Rnar Rnarsson provides a chill, Bergmanesque meditation on love and death; in Cashback (also headed for a full-length version), British director Sean Ellis puts us inside the head of an imaginative London art student (Sean Biggerstaff) who muses about painting (and naked female models) as he slogs through his mind-numbing night shift at a brightly lit supermarket. The American contender is pure black comedy: Rob Pearlstein's Our Time Is Up, in which a bored psychiatrist, Dr. Stern, played by witty Kevin Pollak, learns he is dying and replaces professional discretion with brutal candor in his sessions with a cocky playboy, a closeted gay man and a gorgeous anorexic. Satirical sample: the patient who washes with soap, then washes the soap he washed with, and yearns to wash the soap that he washed that with, too.
The four nominated documentaries, all between 27 and 40 minutes in length, share a timely fixation on war and peace. For me, the most dramatic is Steven Okazaki's The Mushroom Club, which revisits Hiroshima six decades after the Bomb. The filmmaker finds in that anonymously rebuilt city not only a legacy of grotesque physical and mental birth defects, rampant cancers and touching memorial sites, but a case of creeping Japanese indifference as the last survivors of President Truman's fateful decision die off. One unforgettable old woman (she lost 21 relatives in the atomic attack) still searches riverbanks for heat-fused roof tiles and intact shirt buttons because "they represent the souls of the people they belonged to."
God Sleeps in Rwanda, by Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman, glimpses the lives of five women who survived the massive genocide of 1994 (more than a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus slaughtered) and must carry on ravaged by AIDS, poverty and memories of gang rape. Rwanda's population is now 70 percent female, we learn, and the struggle to rebuild a devastated society has just begun. Eric Simonson's A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin is a nice companion piece to Good Night, and Good Luck, a profile of the mostly forgotten CBS radio poet and political sage who inspired millions of Americans during the Depression and World War II with his Whitmanesque commentaries on democracy and sacrifice, culminating in his May 8, 1945, broadcast celebrating the end of the war in Europe. Says TV's Norman Lear: "Corwin was one of the great men of the Western world."
Last (and least), we have The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club, documentarian Dan Krauss's not-so-successful attempt to make a martyr -- or at least a casualty -- out of a South African freelance photographer who was tragically tormented by his Pulitzer-winning work in war-torn South Africa and Sudan. (But not so tormented as to save a starving child's life when he had the chance.)