The Oscar-nominated animated short "The Gruffalo" follows… (Studio Soi )
Often lost in the hoopla of Oscar night are the shorts categories — live action, animated and documentary. These films and videos can capture years in the lives of their subjects (and take up years in the lives of their makers) while running no more than 40 minutes — or they can draw indelible sketches in mere moments.
Previous winners include such industry figures as Keystone Studios founder Mack Sennett and producer Claude Berri, more recent Hollywood players such as Taylor Hackford and Christine Lahti, early efforts by the future Pixar, and rising directors Martin McDonagh and Aaron Schneider.
This year's nominees in all three shorts categories will be screening at local theaters and then available via streaming or video on demand. For now, here are capsule summaries of the first ones out of the gate, the animated and live-action shorts, which hit theaters Friday:
"Day and Night" has a simple but well-coordinated idea: Personifications of day and night meet, butt heads and eventually come to appreciate each other. The Disney/Pixar production comes with a standard message of tolerance; what makes it special is its detail and interesting mix of '60s-style animated figures with computer technology. You may have already seen it — it opened theatrically with "Toy Story 3."
"The Gruffalo" is a charming fable about outsmarting one's fears. It's beautifully designed but runs on the long side due to stylistic repetition. Among its vocal performers: Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson.
"Let's Pollute" is in the style of a '50s instructional film that "promotes" polluting as the American way of life. It's jaunty and funny with slick, Looney Tunes-style timing, but its criticism of consumerism, planned obsolescence and other easy targets hits the nail on the head.
"The Lost Thing" is the work of a strange and benevolent imagination: the story of a boy finding a stray that happens to be a weird machine-y, tentacle-y, alien-y thing. It's a kind of cockeyed trip to the Island of Misfit Toys, which this time is an isle in the sun. Sweet and wistful, it's ultimately about the openness to experience that lives only with innocence.
"Madagascar, carnet de voyage" is a first-person travelogue of Madagascar without the talking animals but with memorable details — the sky reflected in rice fields, the unsynchronized beating of two birds' wings. Beautifully drawn and painted in a number of styles (generally appearing rotoscoped), it feels like an impressionistic postcard.
"The Confession" reaches for something difficult to achieve: a horrifying tale of snowballing guilt in 26 minutes. How far it succeeds is up to the viewer. It is, at least, beautifully shot and scored.
"The Crush," concerning a schoolboy's fixation on a teacher, benefits from strong acting and dialogue, achieving touching moments in only 15 minutes. Effectively straddling character comedy and extreme drama, it closes with a lovely original song.
"God of Love" writer-director Luke Matheny is perfectly cast as his own crooning, dart-throwing lead in this comic questioning of whether even the gods can force love to happen. The entire cast's sharp timing and the filmmaker's taste in pop-jazz standards make the black-and-white film play like a Woody Allen absurd short story.
"Na Wewe" depicts the interrogation of a busload of passengers in the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic cleansing in Burundi (bordering Rwanda). The Belgian drama is well-acted but somewhat heavy-handed; nevertheless, it has the kind of obvious social importance the academy so often favors.
"Wish 143" follows a dying 15-year-old's quest to lose his virginity. Rather than something zany à la the Farrelly brothers, this sensitively handled short is very seriously directed from a solid script. Well-acted with a good premise, it feels like it could have been a feature-length film.
The animated and live-action programs of "The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2011" open Friday at the Nuart in West Los Angeles and at the South Coast Village Plaza in Santa Ana.