Need help with your Oscar ballot? Well, now there's a way to help yourself. Just in the nick of time, Sundance Cinemas is screening this year's nominees for Best Animated Short and Best Live-Action Short Film. Some, if not all, of them are available on the Internet, but is YouTube really your idea of quality sound and image? I didn't think so. Culled from all over the world, these little gems deserve the finest presentation money can buy. And my hat's off to the Academy, Magnolia Pictures and Sundance for getting them to us in a timely fashion.
Here are brief looks at each of them.
Animated Short Film
I Met the Walrus: In 1969, 14-year-old Jerry Levitan showed up at John and Yoko's Toronto bed-in and landed an interview with the soon-to-be-former Beatle. Nearly 40 years later, Josh Raskin has taken the transcript of that interview and animated it in a manner that Terry Gilliam might have employed back in his old Monty Python days. The result is pleasingly surreal in a Yellow Submarine kind of way. My only reservation: Wasn't the walrus Paul?
Madame Tutli-Putli: With luggage trailing behind her like a caravan, a waifish woman in a cloche hat boards a train and begins a journey into the far reaches of her own wild imaginings. Rarely has night travel seemed so enchanting and so disenchanting at the same time. The stop-motion animation is amazing, given an extra jolt of life by the use of real eyes, digitally blended in.
Even Pigeons Go to Heaven: The only computer-generated nominee (wassup, Pixar?), this delightfully cinematic tale features an ostentatiously oily salesman hawking a machine that's supposed to take you to heaven. One small problem: You need to die first. The film's vision of paradise is itself to die for. And so is the lickety-split editing.
My Love: Thousands upon thousands of paintings were done in oil on glass to create this picturesque film by Russian master Alexander Petrov. The story, inspired by Turgenev's First Love, is about a young nobleman who can't choose between a lovely servant girl and an exotic beauty, but the real story is all those paintings, the colors mixing like the glints of light on a Monet haystack.
Peter & the Wolf: One hundred animators spent five years on this retelling of the beloved children's story, which uses bits and pieces of Prokofiev's score but drops the narrator who traditionally introduces children to the instruments of the orchestra. What remains is a superb folk tale, superbly told, the animals so full of personality you'll go through mild shock when the wolf inhales the goose.
Live-Action Short Film
At Night: Imagine spending the holidays in a cancer ward. That's the fate that befalls the three young women in this Danish film about the loneliness of death. The women are maybe too fetching to be dying of cancer, but the film is nevertheless an unblinking look down a dark abyss.
The Substitute: Everybody remembers how much fun it was to have substitute teachers, who were lucky to get out of there alive. Well, this amusingly satiric Italian comedy turns the tables. The guy who shows up - from where, it's not clear - is like the bastard son of Roberto Benigni and Benito Mussolini. He's what happens when the class clown gets put in charge.
The Mozart of Pickpockets: Chaplin's The Kid gets a French makeover in this gentle comedy about a pair of petty thieves with responsibility for a cute little tyke who, while people are patting him on the head, robs them blind. The interplay among the three is delightful, the kid holding his tongue while his illegal guardians - not exactly criminal masterminds - flap theirs like the wings of a hummingbird.
Tanghi Argentini: From Belgium, a nice little film about a man who has only two weeks to learn how to tango. That's when he's meeting an Internet flame who thinks he knows his way around a dance floor. An office mate shows him some steps, proving that it takes more than two to tango. And the film, with an unexpected reversal at the end, turns into a moral fable about helping others help themselves.
The Tonto Woman: And finally, this magnificent piece of work from British director Daniel Barber. It's a spaghetti Western, shot in Spain, and the images are so iconic you half-expect Clint Eastwood to ride into town. Instead, we get Francesco Quinn, son of Anthony, playing a good/bad guy who falls for a woman holed up in a cabin, forced to bear the shame of having been kidnapped by the Apache. Think The Searchers, only later, after things are supposed to have settled down. Adapted from a short story by Elmore Leonard, The Tonto Woman manages to cover a lot of territory in a very short time. In fact, you begin to wonder why a movie would ever need to be any longer.