Big Screen Berkeley: Oscar-nominated short subjects

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A frame from Minkyu Lee’s Adam and Dog, John Seal’s animated favorite for the Oscars

This time last year, I handicapped the Oscars. Not, of course, the ones that everyone actually cares about – no, I was concerned with the ones only a mother (or a film obsessive, or perhaps a film obsessive’s mother) could love: the short subjects. How’d I do, you ask? Well, so-so: in the animated category the film I suspected would win did, while in the live action category the film I considered the bottom of the barrel ended up at the top of the heap.

But this, of course, is a new year, so it’s time to play the guessing game once again – especially as the Animated and Live Action contenders will be screening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas beginning this Friday, Feb. 1. (2013’s nominated Documentaries will only be playing in San Francisco and San Rafael.) 

This year’s cartoon category features three legitimate contenders, a middling effort, and a mediocre entry that will get more votes than it deserves because of its big studio roots. That film is Paperman, a traditional hand drawn work from Disney Studios that tells a cute but pointless tale about a lovelorn cubicle worker in early ‘60s New York. One suspects it would never have been nominated if not for its origins in the Magic Kingdom.

Also unlikely to win is Head Over Heels, a sweet confection about an old married couple’s unique living arrangements and their efforts to rekindle their relationship. Produced by Britain’s National Film and Television School, the film features some impressive puppet animation but ultimately left me shrugging my shoulders.

Blending live action, claymation, and stop-motion to create a delightfully surreal bowl of everyone’s favorite green treat (assuming, of course, you don’t prefer those awful St Patrick’s Day milkshakes), PES’s Fresh Guacamole is the most innovative of this year’s nominees. On that basis it would win easily, but at less than two minutes in length Fresh Guacamole is probably too short to impress voters.

For unrestrained belly laughs, the entry of choice is my first runner-up, Maggie Simpson: The Longest Daycare. From its Looney Tunes inspired intro to its final fadeout, this is the best and funniest Simpsons “episode” in a very long time, and a pleasant reminder of how subversive and pointed the show was during its first few seasons.

Finally there’s Minkyu Lee’s Adam and Dog, far and away the most artful and attractive entry in this year’s field. Examining the developing relationship between man’s best friend and his master in the Garden of Eden (and ending on a refreshingly bittersweet note), it’s an exceptional piece of work with the sort of gravitas Academy voters typically respond to favorably.

The live action nominees are a less auspicious bunch. There’s an elegantly made but been-there-done-that French-Canadian take on Alzheimer’s (Henry, featuring a fine performance by Gerard Poirier as an aging pianist), a promising but somewhat shallow film about love and addiction (Curfew), and a clever Dutch examination of death’s icy grip (Death of a Shadow) that tries just a little too hard to be deep and meaningful.

That leaves Buzkash Boys and Asad, a pair of films by western directors set in impoverished Muslim countries. Uncharitably, both could be accused of peddling poverty porn, with the Afghan-set Buzkash Boys further burdened by the taint of political propaganda. Produced with State Department funds, the film looks great but somehow manages to avoid any references to the wars, the occupation, the Taliban, or even women.

Last film standing, then, is Asad, a shot-in-South Africa look at the life of pirates and fishermen in Somalia. Director Bryan Buckley is, apparently, known as the ‘King of the Superbowl’ for his award-winning commercial work, but there’s nary a muscle car or bag of snack treats in sight here. Thanks to gorgeous cinematography, an all-Somali cast, and the presence of a completely ridiculous cat, I’m giving Asad the edge come Oscar night.

Starting Friday, the animated short films will be shown three times each day and the live-action short films will be shown twice a day at the Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave. 

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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