Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reviewing the Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Every year around this time, it's the same old story: I see the ad for the Oscar-nominated live-action & animated shorts in Time Out New York and I say to myself, "THIS year, I am going to see them before the Oscars so I can actually have a vested interest in those awards!" But every year, I procrastinate and end up missing out, once again being forced to make uneducated guesses based on titles and plot descriptions.

But this year, I finally did it -- I hit the IFC Center (arguably the best indie theatre in NYC) for a night filled with short-film madness. Lots of great stuff vying for Oscar gold, and it makes me wish that it hadn't taken me so long to get off my ass. But fortunately, there's a first time for everything... and now, let's take a look at the nominees, starting with the Live Action set:

AUF DER STRECKE (ON THE LINE) -- Interesting & well-acted tale of a department store security guard who uses hidden cameras to spot shoplifters... and to spy on a pretty bookstore clerk. One day, while riding the subway home, he sees her fighting with a male companion, only storm to off in anger. The companion then gets harrassed by a group of hoodlums, but, the guard, thinking this guy is his competition, leaves him to fend for himself. Things are not necessarily as they seem, however, and tragedy ensues, leaving him wracked with guilt. At 30 minutes, this German entry was the longest film of the bunch -- it was good, but not quite as gripping as the other nominees and probably my least favorite.

NEW BOY -- Wonderful little ditty from Ireland about a young African immigrant on his first day at an Irish elementary school. In 11 hilariously poignant minutes, we learn that the boy has fled a war-torn nation where he excelled in school despite experiencing unspeakable horrors -- and now has to deal with two bullies, a cute little know-it-all and an exasperated teacher, while somehow trying to fit in with this strange new world. A perfect film that manages to tap into every emotion in such a brief runtime, NEW BOY is by far my favorite of the bunch and my Oscar pick! (Side note: It's based on a short story by Roddy Doyle, who wrote the novel THE COMMITMENTS, the movie of which made my top 10 Netflix rentals of '08. So clearly that guy is doing something right!)

SPIELZEUGLAND (TOYLAND) -- See now, it just doesn't seem fair that Germany, who already has one nominee, should be allowed to submit a sad, heart-wrenching Holocaust story to boot! In Nazi Germany, a mother explains to her young son that their Jewish neighbors will soon be going on a journey to "Toyland." Well, the boy decides that he wants to go to Toyland, too (who wouldn't?). So on the morning the neighbors are taken, the boy sneaks off with them, causing his mother to go on a frantic search to get him back. Powerful stuff, with an even more powerful twist.

GRISEN (THE PIG) -- A story about an old man named Asbjørn Jensen who goes into the hospital for "butt surgery" and finds a beacon of hope in a whimsical painting of a leaping pig on the wall of his otherwise-bare hospital room. But when he wakes up after surgery, he is shocked and angered to find that the painting has been removed by a Muslim family who finds it offensive. Enraged, he enlists the help of his lawyer daughter and it becomes a question of freedom of speech vs. religious rights. Great, timely little film from Denmark, and Asbjørn Jensen is one of my favorite characters in any movie this year!

MANON SUR LE BITUME (MANON ON THE ASPHALT) -- It's not easy to get more gut-wrenching than the Holocaust, but this French entry comes close. It's about a girl who gets hit by a car while riding her bike to meet her boyfriend, and follows her thought process through the waning moments of her life -- she thinks about her group of friends, mother, boyfriend, who will make the necessary phone calls, whether or not rubberneckers can see up her dress, etc. Kind of like AMELIE meets THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY... but the characters are all true-to-life and the film will make you keenly aware of your own mortality as it tugs on your heartstrings. Good stuff.

In conclusion, come Oscar night:

WILL PROBABLY WIN: Spielzeugland... damn Nazis!

Be back later with the Animation nominees!

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