Short films are more available than ever, what with specialized festivals celebrating the form, frequent programming on IFC and the Sundance Channel, DVD compilations and the Internet ready to stream them into our homes or onto our iPods, 24/7. However, with so many other entertainment alternatives vying for our attention, it's easy for us to forget about the little guys.
Which is why I look forward to this time of the year when there is an all-too-brief window during which we can focus on the short films that have been nominated for Academy Awards. As in recent years, the films are being bundled and given theatrical distribution -- an otherwise rare destination for these succinct narratives.
The live-action nominees for this year's Oscar screen this week as part of the 2006 Academy Award Nominated Shorts programs (the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts will screen at the Laemmle Grande beginning March 2) and include two films from Spain and one each from Australia, Denmark and the U.S. Not as dramatically strong as last year's field -- which included Martin McDonagh's macabre Oscar winner, "Six Shooter," Ulrike Grote's affecting "Ausreisser" (The Runaway) and Runar Runarsson's bleak but moving "The Last Farm" -- this year's nominees nevertheless convey a broad range of emotions.
The front-runner, at least according to British oddsmakers, is the UNICEF-produced crowd-pleaser "Binta and the Great Idea." Binta is a small girl living in a Senegalese village who narrates the parallel stories of her father (who has the grand idea he hopes will change the world) and her less fortunate cousin who fights for the right to go to school. Directed by Javier Fesser and produced by Luis Manso, the uplifting film delivers a message of unity while managing to earn a few laughs along the way.
More pointed is the Australian satire "The Saviour," in which a young missionary's growing obsession with a married woman threatens to ruin him. A deadpan comic facade hides the film's deeper theme of questioning faith, and its story is consistently surprising. Peter Templeman wrote and directed, with Stuart Parkyn producing.
The Danish film, "Helmer and Son," directed by Soren Pilmark and produced by Kim Magnusson (a three-time nominee who won eight years ago for "Election Night"), is a tidy comedic drama about Jess, a middle-aged man summoned to the nursing home where his father, Helmer, has been living for a month. By locking himself in a closet, Helmer triggers a family catharsis of pent-up hostilities. Funny and moving, the film taps into the guilt experienced by the growing number of adult children responsible for the care of their parents.
The similarly themed "Eramos Pocos," about a middle-aged man who retrieves his mother-in-law from a nursing home after his wife leaves him, touches on our need to believe certain things to survive. Filmmaker Borja Cormeaga creates a familiar scenario with the man and his slacker son and their need to be cared for, but it also provides a twist on the elasticity of the nuclear family.
The program's wild card is the wacky musical comedy "West Bank Story." Completed by Ari Sandel as his master's of fine arts thesis at USC, the parody pits rival Gaza Strip falafel joints against one another with a Palestinian Maria named Fatima falling for a Jewish Tony -- actually, an Israeli soldier named David. Broadly satirical, the film builds toward a climax that suggests Middle East peace through show tunes is not such a farfetched idea.
"2006 Academy Award Nominated Live-Action Shorts." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223.