Every year, my wife and I have an extended date night around the anniversary of our first kiss. Usually, we do something simple, like watch a movie or two. Or, last weekend, about a dozen.
It's no big deal, really. Not when there's a neatly packaged collection of Oscar nominated short films in the theaters.
We started by settling into our comfy, reserved seats at the classy Landmark Embarcadero Theater for the 7:30 p.m. showing of animated fare. I always love seeing these, not necessarily for their storylines, but for the extraordinary variety of artwork set in motion on the screen. The bill shows "honorable mentions" along with the Oscar nominees. I'll share a few of my thoughts on the five up for the Academy Awards:
Me and My Moulton - This Scandinavian/Canadian co-production showcases some fairly basic cartoon characters playing out a pleasant family storyline. I liked its simplicity, and the insight into what it means to fit in when your family is a bit different from the others you see.
Feast - Each year, it seems, there's an offering from a big movie house, and this year it comes from the Walt Disney Animation Studios. They've made an amusing story told from a dog's perspective of love found, grown, lost, and ... well ... you probably get the picture.
The Bigger Picture - Director Daisy Jacobs and producer Christopher Hees have created an abstract look at brothers dealing with an aging parent. In a style I've really come to appreciate, it utilizes the flexibility of the animation medium to express strong emotions through exaggerated (and actually impossible) scenarios.
The Dam Keeper - A remarkably international collection of names based out of Tonko House created this dark, moody, surrealistic view of childhood through metaphor and anthropomorphism. I found this to be an especially effective exploration of the concepts of bullying.
A Single Life - Now this is a real short. As in a really short short. This is a very funny, fast-moving cartoon in the style of "Wallace and Gromit" that finds a way to meld mortality, 45s, and the meaning of life into a memorable two-minute story.
The entire program is only about an hour and 17 minutes. That left plenty of time for my wife and me to step out for a stroll, refill our popcorn and drink, and return to the theater for the 9:30 Oscar Nominated live action shorts. ("Live action" seems like such a strange way to phrase that, doesn't it? It's not live, and there's often little action.) Here are some thumbnail synopses:
Parvaneh - This is director Talkhon Hamzavi's story about an Afghani girl working in a Western country at a bad job to send money back home. It ultimately is something of a coming-of-age/relationship piece that doesn't say much new but says it fairly well.
Butter Lamp - Hu Wei's short is a minimalistic, visual exploration of the character of families living in the rugged Himalaya. It's told through the lens of a family portrait photographer, and it's really a pretty fun view.
Aya - A joint Israeli/French production, Aya is hardly a short, clocking in at 39 minutes. It doesn't move all that fast, either, with a central character whose motives are fairly inscrutable. She essentially kidnaps a music judge, and most of the story concerns their relationship, which is somewhat hard to fathom.
Boogaloo and Graham - Michael Lennox directed this story about Irish brothers who really love chickens. It's cute, lewd, silly, light, and maybe a bit touching. Pretty much what I'm looking for in a short.
The Phone Call - This British film, featuring the acting talents of Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent, feels very much like a one-act play. It's set in a crisis phone center and concerns one particular call. Well made, though I wasn't sold on the ending.
As a class, I thought this year's shorts were weaker than either of the last two years'. I don't know that I'll remember any beyond the Academy Awards ceremony. But even in writing this article, the value of seeing each of these films comes back to me. There's something in each that makes it worth seeing. And since the entire bill has so many films, that adds up to a lot that's worth your while.
If I had to venture a prediction for the Oscars (and what kind of Oscar-preview article would deign to not do that), I'd say "A Single Life" will take it for the animated films, just for its sheer delightfulness, and "The Phone Call" will win as best live action short, because the names associated with it will carry the day.
Want to hear or see more? Check out this video review of the animated films by The New York Times' A. O. Scott or this story for NPR by Tomas Hachard. Or, of course, you can arrange a date and head out to a local theater.