A chicken rules the roost in "A Morning Stroll"

It’s still a little hard to believe that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to eliminate the short subject categories back in 1992, arguing that the awards had “long ceased to reflect the realities of theatrical motion picture exhibition.” The ensuing outcry compelled the Academy to reverse course, and today short films continue to garner well-deserved, if brief, exposure on Oscar night.

If you consider that exposure too brief, however, this year’s Animated and Live Action nominees will be screening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas beginning this Friday, February 10th.

2011’s nominees for animated short subject are a particularly impressive bunch. Best of show is Grant Orchard’s A Morning Stroll, a hyper-stylized blend of computer and hand-drawn animation that, in seven minutes, travels through a hundred years of New York City social history, the only constant being a chicken completely at ease on the sidewalks of Manhattan — even when confronted by zombies (break-dancing and otherwise).

As bizarrely wonderful as A Morning Stroll is, however, I suspect that after the votes are counted the Oscar will ultimately go to The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the charming tale of one man’s love affair with the written word. This beautifully made short has widespread appeal for both book lovers and admirers of silent-screen clowns Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon, whose influences can be spotted throughout. It’s a lovely if ever so slightly cloying film.

Bringing up the rear is the annual Pixar entry, La Luna, a beautifully animated but less than engaging tale of mining on the moon; the droll Sunday, a muted French-Canadian cartoon in which a young lad suffers through the endless agonies of the Lord’s Day; and Wild Life, an unfocused examination of an Englishman’s life and death in the desolate wastes of rural Canada.

There are two strong contenders in the live action category, but I’m putting my money on Raju, a German film that manages to tell a complete story in less than half an hour and tell it intelligently and sensitively. Superbly written by Florian Kuhn and Max Zähle, and beautifully shot on location by cinematographer Sin Huh, the film follows a middle-class German couple in the process of adopting a four-year old Kolkata orphan and the heartbreaking complications that ensue. Raju should (and I think will) take home the honors on February 26th.

Almost as good is Norway’s Tube Atlantic, the sardonic tale of a man who wishes to share news of his impending demise with his brother in New Jersey via a gigantic tuba the size of Big Bertha. First, though, he must come to terms with the visiting Angel of Death as well as deal with seagull abortions and dynamite-stuffed fish. It’s quietly quirky, very Scandinavian, and probably just a little too odd for the Academy’s notoriously conservative voters.

Unlikely to win is Time Freak, an amusing but inconsequential time travel comedy happily free of hot tubs, and a pair of Irish films: Pentecost, in which a soccer-mad altar boy finds himself trapped in a morass of football metaphors, and The Shore, which has a big name star (Ciaran Hinds) but precious little else to recommend its tedious “time heals all wounds” tale of an expat returning to Belfast with his American daughter.

Three films are nominated for best documentary short subject this year, and while none of them will be screening in Berkeley I’m going to handicap the race anyway. The almost dead cert winner is The Barber of Birmingham, a heartfelt if shallow salute to civil rights activist James Armstrong. The film unwisely ties Mr. Armstrong to the mast of the sinking Barack Obama presidency, leaving an aftertaste more bitter than bittersweet. Nevertheless, the subject matter — and the fact that co-director Gail Dolgin passed away shortly after completing the film — almost guarantee a gong for The Barber of Birmingham.

The prize, however, really belongs to The Tsunami & the Cherry Blossom, a wrenching 40-minute documentary about the tidal wave that devastated northern Japan last March 11th and the role of cherry blossom in Japanese culture. Shocking, tragic and beautiful in turn, this deeply moving meditation on nature’s ability to both destroy and heal was directed by Londoner Lucy Wilson, whose short doc Waste Land was an Oscar nominee last year.

Bringing up the rear is Incident in New Baghdad, the story of a G.I. who found himself in the midst of 2007’s now infamous Apache helicopter massacre. The film’s heart is in the right place, but it’s neither terribly engaging nor particularly well made.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...