Once again, Sundance Cinemas is screening all the Oscar nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film, a selection culled from around the world, but mostly Europe. Here are brief looks at each of them.
Live-Action Short Film
Manon on the Asphalt: A young woman riding her bicycle is hit by a car, and in the remaining moments of her life we're privy to her thoughts, which take her forward and backward in time, relishing her past and imagining her loved ones reacting to the news of her death. Watching this French film is both touching and strange, like having your entire life flash before your eyes while attending your own funeral.
New Boy: Based on a Roddy Doyle short story, this 11-minute sketch by writer-director Steph Green concerns an African kid who must endure his first day in a new school in a new country - i.e., Ireland. Lots of hazing, by what could easily be future members of the IRA, but by the end you sense that everything will be okay. Green, who must have been a kid once herself, has a fine eye and ear for the casually brutal way little people treat one another.
On the Line: A feature film that just happens to last only 30 minutes, this German-Swiss production offers a master class in narrative compression. Only later do you realize how many twists and turns the plot has taken. In a large city, a department-store security guard likes to keep an eye on a pretty bookstore clerk, either in person or via hidden camera. But an incident on a train both brings them incredibly close together and drives them forever apart. I'll say no more, except that director Reto Caffi captures every tiny shift in emotion.
The Pig: Remember those Danish cartoons that enflamed the Muslim world? That's obviously the inspiration for this lightly comic parable about an elderly Danish man who goes into the hospital for treatment of a rectal abscess. He's concerned, as we all would be, but he's able to draw comfort from a painting on the wall of his hospital room. It's of a pig gracefully diving off a dock, the smile of the pig's face not unlike that of the Mona Lisa, he feels. Unfortunately, the man he's sharing the room with is Muslim, and Muslims object to paintings of pigs, apparently. What follows is both humorous and serious, intolerance slowly giving way to...well, it's hard to say what it gives way to, but at least there's a dialogue.
Toyland: It's 1942, and all your Jewish neighbors in a German-city apartment building keep getting carted off to the local train station. What to tell your children? This mother tells her son that they're all going to Toyland, an amusement park far, far away. And before you can say The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the son is hitching a ride to the Final Solution. As garish as the premise sounds, German director Jochen Alexander Freydank pulls it off with admirable restraint. And the ending is unbelievably moving.
Animated Short Film
Lavatory Lovestory: From Russia's Konstantin Bronzit comes this animated comic strip about a public-toilet attendant who may or may not have a secret admirer. (But if not, where are all those flowers coming from?)
La Maison en Petits Cubes: The artiest of the bunch, this wistful little film from Japanese animator Kunio Kato imagines a world where everybody has had to add successive floors to their homes to stay ahead of a mysteriously rising tide. And we watch as a sad, lonely man puts on scuba gear and descends through the layers of his past, one level at a time. It's a bracing vision of post-apocalyptic hell made poignant by the use of storybook-illustration techniques, as if we were drowning in watercolor.
Octapody: A pair of octopi separated by a fisherman do everything they can to get back together in this three-minute chase scene through the streets of a white-stucco Greek village, the project a collaboration by a group of French animation students. Think Finding Nemo, only with more tentacles.
Presto: Many of you will have seen this computer-generated film from Pixar; it opened for WALL-E during its long theatrical run. The thing is still a marvel, a throwback to the classic Warner Bros. cartoons of the '40s and '50s. A Victorian-era stage magician tries to pull a rabbit out of his hat, but the rabbit isn't going for it, not until he gets his daily carrot. If you ask me, Pixar needs to make even more room on its mantel.
This Way Up: The British team of Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes created this amusingly macabre look at a father-son pair of undertakers who undertake the mission of carrying, upon their shoulders, an occupied casket over hill and dell, then through the very fires of Hell. With no dialogue, the movie puts the "dead" back in "deadpan."