As if compensating for last year’s weak slate of nominees in the Live Action Short Film category, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences has stretched further than usual for its selection of shorts this year: The 10 Live Action and Animated nominees for 2009 come from nine countries, with only one American entry, and only a couple in English. The Live Action shorts are almost entirely solemn and bittersweet, while the Animated entries are almost entirely comedic, which gives this year’s touring program (which omits the Documentary Shorts entries completely) a solid sense of balance.
It’s also surprisingly difficult to handicap the winners. In the Live Action category, Germany’s “Toyland” has the obvious advantage of being a Holocaust story, specifically about a German boy whose nervous, protective mother convinces him that the Nazis are about to send their Jewish neighbors to Toyland. The story suffers from its similarity to the recent feature The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, but it benefits from sumptuous cinematography, rich design, and an understated calm that’s more effective than swelling strings and emphatic emotion. The Irish entry “New Boy,” about an African boy trying to find his feet among the bullies in an Irish classroom, is more stridently emotional, but in ways appropriate to the exaggerated traumas of childhood. The Swiss-German co-production “On The Line” uses subdued execution and terrifically soulful performances to rescue a melodramatic story about a romantic crush and a murder; in the other direction, France’s “Manon On The Asphalt” spins a simple story of a dying girl into an overwrought fantasy that recalls the closing scene of 25th Hour. The one hint of comedy comes from Denmark’s “The Pig,” in which a hospitalized older man desperately fixates on a whimsical painting. The dialogue is too on-the-nose and the ironies are too broad, but the playfulness ameliorates the obviousness.
In the animated category, manic comedy prevails: Two lovelorn octopi fight for their lives in the cute, three-minute French student goof “Oktapodi”; pallbearers struggle to lay a body to rest in the gloriously dark, insane British entry “This Way Up”; and a magician’s rabbit faces off against his owner in the giddy Pixar short “Presto,” which toured theaters with Wall-E. Russia’s black-and-white line-art entry “Lavatory Lovestory” mixes slapstick and sorrow into a throwback concoction that feels like the Film Board Of Canada shorts of the ’80s. The one wholly serious entry, Japan’s heartbreaking “House Of Small Cubes,” serves as a lovely metaphor for memory, as a man explores lost rooms in a house mostly lost to a rising tide. This year, all 10 nominees in the Live Action and Animation categories will be available via iTunes as of February 17. But this year’s entries are so strong that it’s hard to pick and choose; for once, they’re all worth seeing, and the Academy will have its work cut out for it in selecting a winner.