You can gain an unfair advantage in your office Oscar Pool by checking out the Academy Award Nominated Short Films at the Ritz this week. A few years ago, the clever folks at Magnolia Pictures began releasing these Short Films to theaters before the Awards broadcast, and I’ve quite enjoyed finally being able to understand what the people on stage are talking about during that part of the show when everybody usually just goes to the bathroom or talks amongst themselves.
By far the best in this year’s bunch is Wish 143 , Ian Barnes’ raunchy, off-handedly poignant tale of David (Samuel Peter Holland), a rough-around-the-edges 15-year-old soccer-hooligan dying of terminal cancer. The caseworker from a local Make-A-Wish-Foundation gets more than he bargained for when he asks for David’s final request: Dude just really wants to get laid.
Navigating a potentially icky premise with sublime confidence, writer Tom Bidwell and director Barnes mine David’s determination not to die a virgin for the expected laughs, while still granting a sad dignity to his mission. The fine British character-actor Jim Carter co-stars as David’s unlikely sidekick, a Catholic priest who works at the hospital dispensing wisdom with earthy, often irreverent panache.
The two have such a relaxed rapport, and the other relationships in Wish 143 are so finely detailed, these scant 24 minutes have the richness and emotional arc of a feature-length film, with an ending that moved me to tears. Expect more great things from Bidwell and Barnes in the future.
Catholicism looms even larger over director Tanel Toom’s The Confession, a shock tragedy so poker-faced I’m unsure if he’s kidding or not. Baby-faced 9-year-old Sam (Lewis Howlett) is about to make his first confession, but worries that he doesn’t have enough sins to confess. To remedy this, he and bullying best friend Jacob steal a neighbor’s scarecrow for a stupid prank that takes an unexpectedly horrific turn. Halfway to black comedy, it’s full of over-ripe religious iconography that makes me worry Toom might actually be sincere. Still, The Confession is elegantly assembled, and the striking widescreen compositions yield two or three terrific jolts.
Michael Creagh’s The Crush similarly skirts the edge of WTF. Precocious 8-year-old Ardal Travis (Oren Creagh, the filmmaker’s nephew) intends to marry his lovely schoolteacher Miss Purdy (Olga Wherly), and doesn’t take it well when she instead accepts the proposal of a loutish jerk that young Ardal deems unacceptable. The child’s single-minded determination and access to handguns suggest that his surname callback to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is not entirely coincidental, and the whole fun of The Crush is wondering just how far Creagh is going to push it.
Luke Matheny, the writer-director and star of God of Love has a gangly, Goldblum-esque confidence that belies his awkward appearance. A suave crooner who shoots darts while singing nightclub standards in a Brooklyn bar room full of skinny ties, his Raymond Goodfellow would probably be insufferable were it not for Matheny’s off-kilter charisma. He’s head over heels in love with his band’s drummer (Marian Brock), who unfortunately happens to have already fallen for their guitar player (Christopher Hirsh.) But after receiving a mysterious package containing magical romance-inducing darts, Raymond becomes the hipster cupid, able to bring happiness to everyone but himself.
A Charlie Kaufman conceit by way of Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan cool, God of Love is the most technically accomplished short in the program. Shot primarily at nighttime in sumptuous black-and-white, Methany’s script makes room for a couple of sly observations about a hopeless romantic’s tendency to over-idealize—wondering when we’re in love, and when we’re just in love with the idea of being in love.
Alas, the Animated program is not nearly as consistent this year. Everybody in the world already saw the obligatory Pixar short, Day & Night, when it played before Toy Story 3 last summer. I was, however, surprised this time at how much of this charming little ditty’s visual luster was lost without the deep-focus 3-D effects.
The Gruffalo boasts a marquee cast, with Helena Bonham Carter, Rob Brydon, John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson voicing twee woodland creatures in a rather labored adaptation of a popular children’s book. It feels like a kid’s television special, which later investigation of the press kit informed me that it is.
The keeper here is Andrew Ruhemann’s and Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, a melancholy, impressionistic story of a young boy who befriends an oddball giant that looks like some sort of tea kettle with tentacles. The movie is haunted with an aura of sadness, as a visually stunning world populated by fantastical creatures gradually fades into workaday reality as our protagonist moves toward adulthood. The metaphor is no less powerful for being so obvious.
Remembering Roger Ebert