FEATURE: Oscars 2002: Shorts Go for the Big Statues
with articles by Tim LaTorre
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(indieWIRE/03.22.02) -- It's Academy Awards time and with all of the attention devoted to big Hollywood films like "A Beautiful Mind," "Lord of the Rings" and "Moulin Rouge," it's easy to overlook the awards that truly embody the independent spirit. I'm not speaking of the Independent Spirit Awards, but rather the prize that are right under Oscar's nose: the Academy Awards for live action and animated short films. Ten films from all over the world, five in each category, will compete for the same-sized statue as the big guys. As the short film format has grown in stature in the past few years, we've decided to take a look at the little guys and how they get admitted to the big race.
Compared to the feature categories, winning or getting nominated for an Oscar for a short subject is a relatively understated achievement, but it's an important stepping stone to bigger opportunities in the film industry. Of the 10 last live action winners, six directors made their next move with feature film projects and one went on to high profile TV directing.
But how do short films stand out as Oscar-worthy? Official Academy rules define live-action and animated short subjects must have a running time less than 40 minutes, be substantially in English or have English subtitles, and have a composite print in the 16mm, 35mm, or 70mm film format. Films must have been completed in the last two years and met one of two necessary exhibition requirements between Dec. 1, 2000 and Nov. 30, 2001: they must have been publicly exhibited for paid admission at a commercial theater in Los Angeles County for at least 3 consecutive days (no fewer than 2 screenings per day), or participated in a "recognized" competitive film festival and won a best-in-category award (a list of the 42 international qualifying film festivals can be found at http://www3.oscars.org/74academyawards/rules/rules_shortfest.html).
Once eligible films have been submitted, a reviewing committee of volunteer active and life members of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch of the Academy view all films and individually rate them. The highest rated above a certain score are passed on to the Branch Nominating Committee, consisting of all active and life members of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, who view and rate each of the remaining films. The highest rated above a specific score of this group then become the nominated films. The final award is determined by a general vote of all active and life Academy members, each getting one vote. According to Academy rules, excellence is judged on the basis of originality, entertainment and production quality without regard to the cost of production or subject matter.
With no single front-runner, this year's live-action short film nominees are a real mixed bag in subject matter and quality. On the experimental side is Virgil Widrich's "Copy Shop" (Austria), a black-and-white trip into the world of facsimile. Kafka-esque in plot and humor, the film centers on a copy shop assistant who finds himself in an increasingly crowded world of facsimiles after he accidentally photocopies his hand. While stylistically inventive, the film comes off as a quirky technical experiment, keeping the viewer emotionally distant and moderately entertained.
Kalman Apple's "Speed for Thespians" (USA) uses the intriguing and original idea of staging Anton Chekhov's "The Bear" on a New York City bus. With strong performances and a funny, out-of-place setting, the viewer seems set up for more interplay between the actors and their surroundings, which doesn't materialize. At 29 minutes long, the film's length exhausts its own premise and the setting end up continually distracting the viewer from the power of the performances and language of the writing.
Emotional, if a bit sappy, Johannes Kiefer's "Gregor's Greatest Invention" (Germany) follows a young man's love of his grandmother as he tries to keep her out of an old folks home by inventing contraptions that will aid her to walk. The setting is nicely drawn, but the film depends too much on the development of comedic inventions and wacky predicaments and neglects to build the simple bond between the two main characters.
Continuing on the humorous side, Ray McKinnon's "The Accountant" (USA) uses sly wit and original characters to poke fun at the plight of the farmer and the southern way of life. Entertaining and well written, the film runs a bit long at 39 minutes.
With a slight edge because of its important subject matter, Slawomir Fabicki's "A Man Thing" (Poland) follows a young boy who tries to hide the fact that his father beats him. Shot in stark black-and-white with powerful performances from young Bartoss Idcsak and Mariusz Jakus as his soccer coach, "A Man Thing" could take home the Oscar if Academy members choose to overlook the film's rough technical quality and go for gritty and dramatic.
With stronger overall competition, this year's animated short film nominees are an assortment of comedic gems from Ireland, Canada and the USA. Cathal Gaffney's "Give Up Yer Aul Sins" (Ireland) actually originated in the 1960s, when an Irish schoolteacher recorded her young students telling bible stories (with a few tweaks of their own). It later became a popular radio program and caught the ear of Gaffney, who took one of the stories and turned it into the film. The result is a very entertaining piece, which visually interprets the biblical story of John the Baptist as told by a young girl, mistakes and all.
The longest of the bunch (coming in at 8 and 1/2 minutes), Cordell Barker's "Strange Invaders" (Canada) follows a childless couple after they receive a gift from the gods in the form of a strange, spacey child. As the child becomes more curious, it takes over their lives. Barker's animation is vibrant and outlandish and the story is a poignant tale of young parenthood.
In a more traditional, "Flintstones"-influenced style, Joseph E. Merideth's "Stubble" (USA) follows a lovesick caveman who tries to win the attention of a smooth-skin-loving woman by trying to shave his always-returning stubble. The inventive writing and comedic timing is reminiscent of old Chuck Jones' Loony Tunes or Tex Avery films that focus on a multitude of comedic predicaments on the road to the single romantic conquest. Funny and irreverent, this single-tone plot ultimately limits the film's "there's someone out there for everyone" storyline.
Two computer-animated entries - Ruairi Robinson's "Fifty Percent Grey" (Ireland) and Ralph Eggleston's "For the Birds" (USA) -- round out the animation category as strong, dry-witted contenders. Robinson's "Fifty Percent Grey" finds a recently-killed soldier waking up in a blank, desolate setting, except for a TV and VCR welcoming him to heaven. As he searches for answers, he accidentally keeps slipping toward damnation. Robinson's simple concept and dark humor make this an afterlife classic.
Originating from the incredibly successful (and previously awarded) minds at Pixar ("Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc."), Eggleston's "For the Birds" focuses on the familiar theme of his company's canon, the plight of the outcast. This time out, this conflict takes the form of a large, dopey bird on a telephone wire among a flock of small birds, who mock and laugh until their humor turns to paranoia. That famous Pixar quality