A still from Pixar’s La Luna, nominated for the Best Animated Short Academy Award. Photograph courtesy of Pixar.
One of the most welcome features of Oscar season is the opportunity to see short films in an actual theater, rather than on YouTube or a DVD extra. Shorts don’t have much of a life outside festivals, since they don’t lend themselves to lucrative distribution. But every year the nominees in all the short film categories for the Academy Awards get packaged together and screened in cinemas nationwide, and the full houses are testament to just how much people enjoy these pithy presentations.
This year, Landmark E Street is showing the animated and live-action nominees. The animated shorts include two selections from Canada, two from the US, and one from the UK. There’s the usual Pixar nominee in the bunch—La Luna, a film about the Canadian frontier in the early 20th century—as well as one film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, that promises reference points to sources from The Wizard of Oz to Buster Keaton.
The live-action nominees are often dominated by films that have serious messages or attempt to uplift, and this year appears to be no exception, with a movie about an altar boy choosing between faith and football, one about a missing child, another about boyhood friends divided for 25 years, and one about an old man looking to make amends with his brother. The odd film out here would seem to be Time Freak, about an inventor who creates a time machine and merely travels to the day before. Last year’s quirky God of Love beat out its more serious competitors, so that could bode well for that last title.
West End has the documentary shorts, including one film that screened at last year’s Silverdocs festival, The Barber of Birmingham, as well as films about the following: a successful actress who left her career behind to become a nun; an air strike in Baghdad; women in Pakistan who have been attacked with acid, a depressingly common occurrence there; and survivors of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
In collaboration with the National Building Museum and in conjunction with its “Unbuilt Washington” exhibition, this weekend the AFI starts a series that runs through April and looks at visions of the future in cinema throughout the 20th century. First up is Just Imagine, a 1930 musical that theorizes what New York City might look like 50 years in the future. I wasn’t very old in 1980, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t have personal flying machines and rockets. The film is notable for its meticulous production design; the futuristic vision of New York was created in a miniature city built in a massive dirigible hanger. One can only wonder if Charlie Kaufman had ever seen the film when making Synecdoche, New York, which also features a replica (albeit a life-size one) of New York built inside a warehouse.
View the opening sequence of Just Imagine. The series opens on Saturday, and continues through April 5.
One of the bigger surprises of this year’s Academy Award nominations was the acting nod for Demián Bichir for the little-seen A Better Life. The film, largely overlooked despite quite good reviews, had a very brief theatrical run at Bethesda Row way back in July of last year, but with the renewed attention on the film, the Avalon is bringing it back in advance of the awards. Directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy), the film centers on a Mexican gardener (Bichir) living in Los Angeles and attempting to provide the titular better life for his son, who is beginning to get too close to East LA gang violence for comfort.
If the Oscar shorts have whetted your appetite for more short films, the Alliance Française has a well-timed special event featuring 20 shorts spread out over six screenings. The shorts come from “Les Lutins du Court-Métrage” (Leprechauns of Short Film), an annual festival of shorts that reviews more than 2,000 submitted films each year to come up with a list of the 25 best examples of French shorts from the previous year.
Starts Monday and runs through February 19 at a number of different venues. Check the Alliance Française website for details. $8 per program.
African filmmaking doesn’t often find an audience in the US, but one of the most famous films to gain recognition is this 1973 Senegalese film about lovers on the run attempting to hustle their way out of Africa and into France, where their romantic visions tell them life will be much better. The film premiered at the Cannes film festival in 1973, where it won the International Critics Award, and director Djibril Diop Mambéty took some of his stylistic cues from the films of the French New Wave, which could help explain some of its success outside of Africa. This screening marks the second week of the month-long African Art House Film Festival at the African Art Museum, with two more films coming up in the next couple of weeks: from Zimbabwe, 1996’s Aristotle’s Plot, and from Ghana, the 2010 documentary The Nine Muses.
DVD Pick of the Week: Project Nim
Finally, you can do that home double feature of last year’s two entries in the canon of simian cinema: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (which came out on DVD in December) and now Project Nim. While the former film takes a fantastical view of the potential negative consequences of monkeying around with the minds of apes, Nim looks at the real-world case of Nim Chimpsky, a test chimpanzee who was raised under human conditions by Columbia University researcher Herbert Terrace in the mid-1970s, in an attempt to teach him sign language and communicate like a human. Director James Marsh, who previously directed the excellent Man on Wire, uses both archival footage and reenactments to show the development of the project, which may have ended up revealing a lot more about human psychology than that of any chimpanzee. Through the combination of present-day interviews and footage from the research, the infighting at the time and the varying recollections of how things actually were provide a fascinating portrait of a group of scientists who really should have known better, as well as the heartbreaking fallout for Nim himself. I recommend watching Nim first, then Rise; after seeing the way Nim is treated by humans in the documentary, the ape vengeance of the fictional film may be just the ticket. You can read my complete review of Project Nim at the DCist here.
Special Features: Director commentary with James Marsh, two featurettes about the making of the film, and the theatrical trailer. View the trailer.