There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of short films made every year. You have to wonder if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences knows where the best ones are. Tonight at the Coolidge, shorts addicts and Oscar completists can catch up on this year's nominees in the live-action and animated categories; they're separate programs, and while the films will play for two weeks at the ICA after the awards ceremonies on Feb. 24, here's your only chance to be smarter than everyone else in your office Oscar pool. (Maybe next year they could include the documentary shorts, too?)
Of the five films in the live-action program, there's one out-and-out stunner: the 35-minute "The Tonto Woman," based on an Elmore Leonard short story and directed by Daniel Barber as a miniature Western epic. Francesco Quinn (Tony's son) plays a Mexican cattle thief who falls for a wealthy rancher's wife (Charlotte Asprey), exiled to a distant ranch after years in Mojave captivity. The romance between this confident stranger and the stoic, weathered woman with tribal tattoos on her face proceeds quietly and with a grave heart; if this is Barber's bid for a feature, he deserves one.
His film deserves to win, too, but I have a feeling "At Night," a stark 40-minute drama about the relationship between three dying women in a Danish cancer ward, will press more voters' buttons. The actresses deliver honest, harrowing performances; the film itself is self-consciously, almost smugly grueling. Easier to take are Italy's "The Substitute," a splattery comedy about an odd substitute teacher, and Belgium's "Tanghi Argentini," an O. Henryesque tale of an office drone learning the dance of passion. From France comes "The Mozart of Pickpockets," a humorous criminal caper that might win simply because it has a cute kid. (Yes, it's that easy.)
The two best shorts in the animated program couldn't be more different. "My Love," from Russia, is a pre-Revolution period piece about a poetically inclined teenager torn between a servant girl and a mysterious woman from his own class; it's gorgeously animated in a style best described as dynamic Impressionism, with pastel washes of colors coalescing to form stunning images. Canada's "Madame Tutli-Putli," by contrast, combines stop-motion characters and matted-in human eyes to disquieting effect; it's intentionally, fascinatingly ugly.
"Peter & the Wolf" is an ambitious attempt to update Prokofiev with computer-generated characters and modern settings that fails to impress; the anti-clerical "Even Pigeons Go to Heaven" is short, funny, and minor. That leaves "I Met the Walrus," in which animator Josh Raskin illustrates a teenager's 1969 interview with John Lennon using phantasmagoric illustrations that constantly mutate. It's a lovely little movie that doesn't really go anywhere; given how many superior short films there are out there, maybe the Academy selection committee doesn't go enough places either.