It's wonderful that the live-action and animated short-form noms are becoming so accessible (in art-house theaters, online), because they offer a welcome antidote to the "bigger" fare on Oscar night. Bigger–as the conventional wisdom of a bloated America collapsing under its own weight would have it–isn't always better. In a year dominated by an extended chase sequence front-runner (Slumdog Millionaire) and a too-epic-for-its-own-epic-good runner-up (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), these bite-sized gems (for the most part) address their issues more effectively and enjoyably than their feature-length counterparts.
So for instance, while The Reader fumbles with the excitement and inherent difficulties of an apparently doomed relationship, the live-action short On The Line (Reto Caffi) is much more grounded in its portrayal of a love that is cluttered by myriad conflicting emotions. Its story of a mall security guard dating a woman he follows on security cameras is all the more successful for being sparsely shot and scripted. The animated Russian short Lavatory Lovestory (Constantin Bronzit), after a delightful process of pushing and pulling, envisions a humbly uplifting ending to what it initially portrays as an impossible happiness for its bathroom attendant heroine.
German Holocaust short Toyland (Jochen Alexander Freydank) also offers an impossible happy outcome that makes its surrounding misery all the more extreme. Like Milk, Toyland plunges us into a beautifully rendered period setting fraught with apparently insurmountable differences and socialized prejudice. Unlike Milk, it doesn't seek to posit the present as a safe haven from where we can look back proudly at all we've accomplished. The effects of long-standing inequalities are addressed more lightly, more hopefully in the Irish short New Boy (Steph Green), which locates hope with youth in its story of peer group initiations bridging vast cultural breeches.
In what comes off as the Academy's major strategic misfire among the Oscar Nominated Short Films 2009, the closest equivalent to the deceptively lopsided politics of Frost/Nixon are the tricks pulled on a magician by the rabbit in his hat in Disney/Pixar's Presto (Doug Sweetland). Surely there are animators more deserving of official recognition than these big-budgeted mashers-up of The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Warner Bros.' Bugs Bunny and Michigan J. Frog, no? Presto's animal cruelty revenge story is plenty cute and spectacular, but its plot of the little guy getting back at the big bad seems a little slimy coming from Disney.
As with Slumdog Millionaire though, 2009 appears to be the year that stories of individuals overcoming un-overcomeable odds resonate far and wide no matter who's putting up the big budget production dollars. In the case of the French animation school Gobelins's Oktapodi, though, two enamored octopi's flight from a Greek fishmonger towards the sea suddenly seems like great shorthand for a "students versus Disney" computer-animated short showdown. Another digital chase, the BBC-produced This Way Up (Foulkes and Smith), darkly parodies stiff-upper-lip Britishness and protestant work ethics in its story of father-son funeral parlor operators going the extra mile for a client.
Death and the passing down of sociocultural traditions, incidentally, are the subject of three of the best Oscar Nominated Short Films 2009. If The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems unfocused as it looks back from its hero's death/birth bed, the beautiful and calmly poetic animated Japanese short House of Small Cubes (Kunio Kato) seems perfectly focused in its vision of life as a series of steps, moments and stages that stack up to a tower of memories. Similarly, though addressing a life truncated early on, French short Manon on the Asphalt (Elizabeth Marre, Olivier Pont) explores how memories, relationships and the objects and activities they're associated with continue to reshape the departed person for those left behind. The delightful Danish short The Pig (Dorte Høgh), meanwhile, has an aging potential cancer patient finally realizing that existence isn't meant to be lived in fear of death. That is, life is too short to be wasted on overblown adventures and epics, especially when the shorter stories have so much more to tell us.