There’s something exciting about the three short Oscar categories — Best Short Animated Film, Best Short Live-Action Film, and Best Documentary Short. Maybe it has to do with tens of thousands of office Oscar-pool voters getting creamed in these categories every year. Or perhaps it's the fact that the winners in these categories often seem so thrilled, so fresh, so un-Hollywood-like. In recent years, Magnolia Films, Shorts International, and the IFC Center have actually screened the Live-Action and Animated shorts in the weeks preceding the awards, often to sterling box office. And in truth, some of these films are the best things at the Oscars. With that in mind, we watched the nominees in all three categories and now give our opinions on them, plus our picks for the films that should win.
BEST ANIMATED SHORT
A Matter of Loaf and Death
Legendary animator Nick Park delivers another impeccably staged Wallace and Gromit short, this time with Wallace falling for a dough-hating, baker-murdering serial killer, and Gromit jumping through dozens of increasingly elaborate hoops trying to save him.
Reasons it may win: Park has already won four Oscars in this category — the only time he ever lost was to himself. And this is a triumphant return to form, following a not-always-successful foray into feature films; it’s already won the Annie and the BAFTA awards.
Reasons it may not win: Dude’s got four Oscars already.
In this action-packed spectacle set in a Los Angeles in which pretty much everything — every building, every character, every vehicle — is a corporate logo of some kind, Michelin Man cops chase a crazed Ronald McDonald who has taken a Bob’s Big Boy hostage. The generic plot is of course meant to be ironic, but the film’s ability to keep tossing recognizable logos in our faces actually has a terrific energy of its own. (After an apocalyptic finale, the camera pulls out into space, and what do we see? The Universal Logo. Nice.)
Reasons it may win: Inventive concept.
Reasons it may not win: Roland Emmerich–level story line, albeit with a wink.
A prissy Parisian businessman sits in a café ignoring the beggar who comes by occasionally looking for money. Then he realizes his wallet’s gone, and decides to sit there, drinking more coffee. And then there’s this old lady now that we’re actually typing the plot out, Fabrice Joubert’s cute film seems stranger and more disconnected. Still, never underestimate Oscar’s fondness for shorts involving homeless people.
Reasons it may win: Beautiful animation.
Reasons it may not win: Been-there, done-that kind of story.
The Lady and the Reaper
An elderly woman, hoping for death to come so she can be with her deceased hubby, is caught in a slapstick tug-of-war between a young, heroic doctor (and his bevy of bodacious nurses) and the Grim Reaper. We can kind of see the twist that’s coming at the end, but the crazed battles between the Reaper and the doctor are fun.
Reasons it may win: Exciting animation. Antonio Banderas produced it; does that mean he gets an Oscar if it takes the prize?
Reasons it may not win: It's mostly pointless.
Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty
An acerbic, pissed-off Irish granny tells her own version of the Sleeping Beauty story in this irreverent and slight film, which mixes different animation styles.
Reasons it may win: It looks great.
Reasons it may not win: Nothing happens in it.
A Matter of Loaf and Death. We’ve gotten burned too many times in the past voting against Wallace and Gromit. If you’re convinced Oscar voters won’t give Nick Park his fifth statue, then consider Logorama.
BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT
A poor Australian kid gets taunted at school, hides out in the nurse’s office to get away from everyone, and wakes up to find himself in a dramatically changed world. Though it starts off promisingly, Luke Doolan’s film quickly heads into a world of unremarkable twists, a rather sad epidemic in the modern-day short film genre.
Reasons it may win: Cute Australian kids. Some may find the turn the story takes to be an intriguing one.
Reasons it may not win: Violent ending feels like a cheat.
In this miserabilist wallow that suggests all you need to score an Oscar nomination is to offer a depressing story about some important hot-button issue (in this case, modern-day slavery), a young Indian child working in a brick kiln is brutalized by his boss.
Reasons it may win: Harrowing scenes of poor Indian kids being beaten down. Socially conscious filmmaking. It already won a Student Academy Award.
Reasons it may not win: Slumdog fatigue. Ham-fisted filmmaking.
The only thing more despairing than this portrait of a Ukrainian family trying to survive in the wake of an apocalyptic disaster that’s slowly killing them is learning that it’s not science fiction, but based on a true story from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Reasons it may win: Grim subject matter, stark and powerful direction.
Reasons it may not win: Grim subject matter, stark and powerful direction.
The New Tenants
In this cross between 1994-era Tarantino and a one-part acting exercise, a chatty, nervous pessimist and his reserved lover/roommate who have just moved into their new apartment get more than they bargained for when they discover that their new pad was recently the site of a grisly murder.
Reasons it may win: Familiar faces (Vincent D’Onofrio, David Rakoff, Kevin Corrigan); actor-friendly monologues.
Reasons it may not win: A slightly stupid story with a WTF ending.
Instead of Abracadabra
Charming, arch comedy about a hapless twentysomething — a “Goth death and devastation” magician — who lives with his parents. All hell threatens to break loose when he tries to woo his cute new neighbor with attempts at “extreme” magic.
Reasons it may win: Whimsical subject matter in a category that is otherwise full of death and devastation.
Reasons it may not win: There’s a reason Wes Anderson doesn’t have an Oscar.
Instead of Abracadabra. It’s a bit of a dark horse, and we suppose Oscar might go for something more socially conscious or star-studded, but we’re betting that Patrik Eklund’s winning comedy will strike a chord with exhausted voters.
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
A gripping, devastating portrait of the parents of children killed in a 2008 Chinese earthquake, in which shoddy construction resulted in an unusual number of schools collapsing. The film follows the distraught parents as they attempt to exact justice from the corrupt and inept bureaucrats whom they hold responsible for this senseless tragedy.
Reasons it may win: Harrowing account of an unbelievable human tragedy. Angry denunciations of government callousness. It’s the kind of film that gets your blood boiling.
Reasons it may not win: Hollywood’s perpetual fear of pissing off China.
The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner
Daniel Junge’s sensitively drawn and evenhanded film follows the popular former governor of Washington State, who now suffers from Parkinson’s, as he spearheads a campaign to make physician-assisted suicide legal in the state.
Reasons it may win: A surprisingly gripping story, thanks to the bona-fide narrative arc provided by Gardner’s campaign.
Reasons it may not win: Assisted suicide is still a controversial issue; respected lefty (and Academy member) Martin Sheen is shown doing ads for Gardner’s opponents.
The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
A powerful and topical look at the last couple of weeks in the life of a GM auto plant in Moraine, Ohio, as generations of workers and townspeople prepare for the final truck’s passage through the assembly line, symbolizing the end of their livelihoods.
Reasons it may win: Scenes of grown men crying. Pedigreed filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert have a number of Oscar and Emmy nominations between them.
Reasons it may not win: Now that Toyotas are killing people, GM looks awfully good these days.
Music by Prudence
Roger Ross Williams’s lively and touching portrait of Prudence Mabhena, a disabled singer from Zimbabwe who overcame the superstitions and fears of her community (some family members wanted her dead, believing disability to be the result of witchcraft) to become a member of the all-disabled band Liyana.
Reasons it may win: Emotionally resonant subject matter. Vibrant, articulate protagonist. Lovely music and photography.
Reasons it may not win: It’s going up against some big guns: Three of the other nominees are HBO Films.
Rabbit à la Berlin
During the Cold War, thousands of wild rabbits lived and thrived in the dead zone between West and East Berlin, watched over by guards and free of predators. When the Wall came down, the rabbits had a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings. Bartosz Konopka’s film offers a poetic rumination on the plight of these rabbits, turning their plight into a compelling metaphor for the consequences — foreseen and unforeseen — of the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Reasons it may win: Intriguing, almost playful premise — despite several scenes of rabbit carnage. If the other, more socially conscious docs split the vote between them, this one could sneak in there.
Reasons it may not win: The odd, arty filmmaking worked for us, but what will Academy voters think?
China’s Unnatural Disaster: Tears of Sichuan Province. Films focusing on children tend to be very strong in this category, and this one is unusually powerful. Plus, recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile give it unexpected relevance.