Tampa Theatre presents Oscar's short (films) list of nominees
Each year Tampa Theatre does Academy Awards predictors a favor by showcasing two categories few know much about.
Short films are rarely booked in multiplexes, and seldom in independent venues unless they're Oscar nominated. Heck, the documentary shorts aren't even included here, just the live action and animated contenders.
Starting Saturday through Feb. 10, Tampa Theatre presents each collection of shorts on a schedule you'd better double-check before going. The venue alternates the live action and animated sessions, and sometimes combines them in double features, filling dates between concerts and private events.
Visit Tampa Theatre's website for tickets ($11, with discounts available) and scheduling.
After reviewing both collections, I'd suggest leaning toward the live action finalists, three of which cram feature-length quality into a fraction of the running time.
Best in show is Day One, written and directed by Henry Hughes, an Afghanistan war veteran turned AFI film school student mentored by none other than George Lucas. His polish and Hughes' wartime experience shows in each frame of this gripping 25-minute drama, in which a U.S. Army interpreter (Layla Alizada) on her first day is called upon to deliver a baby during a bomb cache raid. It's a stunner.
Yet Day One isn't that far ahead of Patrick Vollrath's Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be OK), starring Simon Schwarz as a divorced father spending a day with his 10-year-old daughter Lea (Julia Pointner). Things begin with toy store shopping and rides at the fair, but little touches add up to something more desperate in mind. Vollrath sets thin layers of tension with unshowy precision, and the performances - especially by young Pointner - are terrific.
Also admirable is Shok, the first Oscar nominee from Kosovo, where two boys grow up in wartime, their village bullied by Serbian troops. One boy sells drugs to the soldiers, the other disapproves, making this less of a political story than a sad memory of friendship, loyalty and atrocity.
The remaining two nominees amuse in safer ways. Ave Maria is the collection's lone comedy, a collision of bickering Israeli travelers and Catholic nuns under a vow of silence, in Palestine's West Bank territory. Benjamin Cleary's Stutterer stars is a sweetly manipulative romance, starring Matthew Needham as a man whose speech disorder keeps him socially withdrawn, even faking deafness to dodge conversation. Now, his online-only romance wants to meet.
While the live action collection is comprised entirely of Oscar finalists, the animated showcase is padded to feature length with four "highly commended" selections, including one I'd substitute into the final nominees, for either of two lesser works.
The academy's glaring oversight here is Cordell Barker's If I Was God, using several animation techiques - 2D, stop motion with puppets and papier mache - to recall his memorable frog dissection lesson in junior high biology class. It's a charming tale, imaginatively filmed and informed by Barker's ironic nostalgia.
Among the other non-nominated titles, The Loneliest Stoplight carries the best name recognition, with Bill Plympton animating and Patton Oswalt contributing the voice of a traffic signal made obsolete by a freeway. The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse is a sweet, wordless tale of natural enemies becoming friends. Catch It plays like an audition reel for Fox Animation or less, with its meerkat cuteness and Ice Age-level wit.
Many moviegoers already have seen one nominee, Disney-Pixar's enthralling Sanjay's Super Team, a blend of Avengers-style action and Hindi theology that was attached to The Good Dinosaur. It's the likely Oscar frontrunner, simply because of the brand.
We Can't Live Without Cosmos is a long, wordless haul - 16 minutes - to an underwhelming conclusion. Two lifelong bros are neck-and-neck at astronaut training camp, competing for a one-man mission. Their friendship isn't broken by the space agency's choice, or a tragedy that ensues. Something Twilight Zone-y is bound to happen. Not as soon as it could.
The same might be said of Don Hertzfeldt's minute-longer World of Tomorrow, a series of stick-figure drawings connected to a philosophical treatise on the future, delivered by the grown clone of a 5-year-old girl asking too many questions. Hertzfeldt's absurdist take on progressive technology demands full attention it doesn't always merit.
The absolute gem of the bunch is Bear Story, a stop motion character study of a toymaking bear, carrying his sad biography in a boxed, mechanical diorama, earning coins on the street by sharing it with strangers. His tale invokes a myriad of tragedies - lost loved ones, animal abuse, police-state oppression - yet retains a fantasy optimism. Don't be surprised if this title is on the Oscar night envelope card.
The fifth nominated short is one the kiddies shouldn't stick around to see.
That's Prologue, with an interesting pencil sketch approach to brutal, bladed combat that would squarely fit into The Revenant (plus gory punctuation straight out of The Hateful Eight). On one side are naked Athenian warriors, with armored Spartans on the other. Striking but If I Was God could replace this or We Can't Live Without Cosmos on Oscar's short list without complaint.
Frontal nudity and red gushes push Prologue to the final slot in the collection, with a parental warning issued to remove children before the short begins. I'd suggest heeding it.