Since 2005, to the delight of awards-season junkies around the country, Shorts International and Magnolia Pictures have released the Oscar-nominated short films a few weeks shy of the ceremony. Launched the same year as YouTube, this annual event boasts a growth of interest not unlike the surging appreciation for short video content online. Unlike millions of YouTube videos, however, the Oscar-nominated shorts are profitable, having grossed over $1 million last year (a radical 289% growth since the first year, according to the official release).
If the Oscar brand can turn a marginalized form into commercial product, this year's slate seems ready-made for that treatment. Witha few exceptions in the animated category, all the contenders run over 20 minutes, command attention worthy of feature-length works and the themes are easily marketable. The live-action section contains strong genre elements, from romance to revenge; the animated shorts appeal to all ages and the documentary section is littered with global causes ideal for media scrutiny. While not the strongest artistic year for these sections, they're still busy with ideas and a lot less predictable than the top category nominees. Here's a guide to the contenders.
All but one of the nominees contain the English language, but many accents are in play. In the U.K.-set "The Confession," Tanel Toom directs a screenplay by Caroline Bruckner about two Catholic children riddled with guilt when an innocuous game involving roadkill winds up getting several people killed. Initially devoted to keeping their deed secret, the boys begin to distrust each other and story takes a bleak turn into thriller territory, where the biggest threat is not the literal authorities but God -- or at least the perception of a looming judgment day in the minds of the increasingly paranoid kids. Although tense and well-acted, "The Confession" builds to a certain point and then, at the 25-minute mark, ends where the second act should begin. It begs for feature-length treatment.
From Ireland, "The Crush" takes place in another classroom, involves another secret and another young boy out of his element in a grown-up scenario. Here, a passionate eight-year-old falls for his elementary school teacher and pledges his love to her. Innocuous at first, his affections lead to an oddly dark confrontation with the instructor's neglectful boyfriend. The threat of real violence comes into play as the boy challenges his adult competitor to a duel. While the ending is a throwaway gag, writer-director Michael Creagh builds palpable tension until the final scene.
The British dramedy "Wish 143" completes the category's unofficial triptych of dark stories involving troubled youth. A kind of twisted "American Pie," the 16-minute tale involves a cancer-ridden 15-year-old committed to losing his virginity before the end of his life. Garnering media attention for his mission and avoiding the insistence of his elder peers to look elsewhere for satisfaction, the bald-headed David (Samuel Peter Holland) eventually moves beyond his basic desires and discovers a more profound solace.
U.S. competitor "God of Love," written and directed by Luke Matheny, contains enough quirkiness to annoy certain audiences for the same reasons it entertains others. Matheny stars as obnoxious and hopeless romantic Raymond Goodfellow, a lounge singer possessing magical darts that turn any woman (or man) he strikes into his committed lover. He staves off the protests of his fellow Brooklyn hipster friend and becomes a self-interested Cupid. Their chatter is transparently one-note, intermittently amusing and gratingly obvious. "You can't just stab people!" the pal says. "Look, there's Barack Obama!" Raymond says to distract the guy, and then tosses a dart a nearby female target. Briefly winning over the girl of his dreams, Raymond eventually realizes that he has a higher calling, although this gorgeously shot black-and-white vignette mainly aims for cheap (if often effective) laughs.
The darkest nominee also has the simplest setting. Ivan Goldschmidt's "Na Wewe" takes place in 1994-era Burundi, when a group of militant Tutsis pull over a bus of traveling civilians and attempt to weed out the Hutus for execution. The bulk of the short involves an intense interrogation process that could fit nicely in the context of a larger narrative, like the rest of the candidates in the category.
WHO WILL WIN? If last year's Oscar for the playfully Kafkaesque "The New Tenant" is any indication, Academy voters favor entertainment value over rhetoric in this category, in which case the prime candidate is "God of Love." But the captivating premise and bittersweet comic vibe of "Wish 143" may give it some extra momentum.
The lengthiest member of this category has the most conventional ingredients. "The Gruffalo," a 26-minute adaption of Julia Donaldson's children's book, boasts voice work by Helena Bonham Carter, John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson in the undeniably cute story of a mouse deceiving several predators with the tall tale of a ferocious beast.
A more advanced look at the power of imagination can be found with "The Lost Thing," in which Australian directors Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan follow a boy's account of discovering a surreal, crab-like motor device on the beach and attempting to find its owner. Eventually discovering the place where all lost things go, the protagonist learns to appreciate the details of the world around him. His farewell moment, when he finally discovers the lost thing's colorful CGI home, mirrors the sentimental climax of inevitable Oscar-winner "Toy Story 3," a feat that's all the more impressive for the filmmakers' ability to fold it into a 15-minute running time.
The rest of the category is more blatantly experimental: Geefwee Boedoe's American entry, "Let's Pollute," satirically borrows the tone of post-war educational films in its celebration of America's desire to pollute in the service of economic growth ("the machine was a wonder of waste," boasts the cheerful narrator).
Teddy Newton's "Day & Night," the Pixar competitor that played before "Toy Story 3," shows the titular characters meeting each other and learning to get along in marvelous simplicity (displaying Night and Day as two transparent entities against a black background, the short works best in 3-D). But the most visually distinguished of this quintet is Bastien Dubois's "Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage," a French-produced travel diary that studies Malagasy society with delicately composed watercolor paintings come to life.
WHO WILL WIN? In 2010, voters favored the wildly satiric "Logorama," which bears some thematic similarities to "Let's Pollute." However, "Logorama" also featured deeper technical wizardly, which exists elsewhere in the current pile of nominations. "Day & Night" is a gorgeous accomplishment, but the Academy may assume there's enough Pixar love at the Oscars this year, in which case "Madagascar" and "The Lost Thing" are the likely frontrunners.
The documentary shorts, all of which run just under 40 minutes, get the theatrical treatment for the first time this year. Although nothing in the category can match the strange implications of "Exit Through the Gift Shop" facing off against "Inside Job" in the feature-length documentary category, the short section contains far more potent messages.
All nonfiction contenders are American productions, although many were shot outside its borders. Still, the fiercest of the bunch takes place on the homefront: In "Poster Girl," Sara Nesson assembles a devastating portrait of Iraq vet Robynn Murray, who manages to funnel her problems with post-traumatic stress disorder into the creation of abstract art and anti-war activism.
Less intense but about as moving, "Sun Come Up" follows the residents of the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, as they seek new land in the wake of climate change, causing their homes to literally sink into the sea. Aiming to relocate on the nearby Bougainville Island, an area still straining from the scars of civil war, the Carteret locals struggle with giving up their old home and a way of life along with it.
Featuring another environmentally focused plot, "The Warriors of Quigang" takes place in a small Chinese village where life has been virtually destroyed by the invasion of a chemical plant next door. Director Ruby Yang spent five years following the villagers as they rose up to protest the plant, pushing past violent resistance and eventually instigating change. Although fairly straightforward, the movie ably shows the distinct environmental threat in China and its direct impact on seemingly helpless citizens.
The other two documentaries in the category both center around aspects of Middle Eastern life. "Killing in the Name" follows an Islamic man traveling around the Muslim world to argue would-be suicide bombers into reconsidering their actions, while "Strangers No More" examines a Tel Aviv public school with students from 48 countries around the world. While both are admirably life-affirming, neither offer anything cinematically earth-shattering.
WHO WILL WIN? Probably "Poster Girl" or "The Warriors of Quigang," the two shorts infused with the greatest amount of raw emotion. Last year, the category had a "Kanye moment" when "Music by Prudence" director Roger Williams was edged off the stage by the journalist who allegedly came up with the idea for the project. That sort of controversy is unlikely to happen this year, although with many activist intentions dominating the category, expect any of these potential winners to do a little preaching from the podium.