- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

It’s hard for even the most die-hard film fanatics to see every Oscar-nominated film. There are, however, two categories you can knock off in a single afternoon or evening: live-action shorts and animated shorts. Landmark Theatres’ E Street Cinema today starts screening the five nominated films in each category in two separate programs.

Live-action shorts:

I’m glad I’m not a member of the academy who has to vote for one of these films. They’re all so very good and so very different that it would be impossible to choose a favorite.

Il Supplente (“The Substitute”) is a hilarious Italian comedy. A group of high-school students gets a rather extraordinary substitute teacher one day. He seems tough at first, disciplining a student with the line, “As Mao said, ‘Punish one to educate 100.’ ” But when he immediately adds, “Even if you, Fatty, are more than one,” we see he has a sense of humor. The short is “dedicated to those with difficulties with conduct,” and I leave it to you to decide who has more of those difficulties here, the students or the teacher.

The Belgian film Tanghi Argentini is just as fun. A middle-aged man makes a date to meet a woman with whom he’s been corresponding online at a tango event. He has just two weeks to actually learn the dance he claims to already know, and desperately enlists the help of a dance-crazed colleague to teach him. The ending of this film is surprising and fabulous, but chuckles abound along the way.

It’s hard not to laugh at the exploits of a couple of incompetent criminals in the French short Le Mozart Des Pickpockets. Richard and Philippe (played by Philippe Pollet-Villard, who also wrote and directed) are separated from their pickpocketing gang when the police catch the others. They’re followed, though, by a child who may or may not belong to one of the arrested lowlifes. Though seemingly deaf and mute, the child soon earns his keep with a new scheme to steal wallets. As Philippe says, “We were pathetic. By God’s grace, the child came to us.”

The final two entries are compelling dramas. The Tonto Woman is a British Western based on a story by American writer Elmore Leonard. A cattle thief comes upon a white woman shunned by her community after she was kidnapped and spent 11 years as a slave to the Mohaves. He is immediately intrigued by her, but the woman’s husband, who can’t even look at her, refuses to let her go.

The Danish film At Night could teach self-indulgent American directors of three-hour-long movies a thing or two: It packs a feature film’s worth of feeling into just 40 minutes. It centers on three young women living in a cancer ward — or as one of them calls it, “death row” — over the winter holidays. As I said, it’s hard to pick a favorite amongst these five, but “At Night” was the only one that brought tears to my eyes, and it did so more than once.

Animated shorts:

With a long tradition of excellence in animation, Canada is often represented in this Oscar category. This year, it has two entries. In I Met the Walrus, the animation is not the main draw, though. The film is a five-minute excerpt of an interview the 14-year-old Jerry Levitan conducted with John Lennon in 1969. The enterprising Mr. Levitan, who produced the short, managed to finagle his way into the Beatle’s hotel room in Toronto with a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Politics was very much on Mr. Lennon’s mind at this time — as it was for many people around the world. Mr. Levitan asked about the musician’s immigration problems, and he responds that the American government is worried he’ll foment revolution. But Mr. Lennon says he’s opposed to one. “Ask them,” he says of militant revolutionaries, “to show you one revolution that turned out to be what it promised. Take Russia, France, anywhere.”

Mr. Lennon comes off as thoughtful and generous, even when his poor interlocutor forgets the name of George Harrison. The historical document is clearly the reason for the film, but the hand-drawn and digital illustrations do provide something nice to look at while you’re listening.

The other Canadian entry, Madame Tutli-Putli, doesn’t have any words. Here it is the animation that’s the attraction, since the story itself is pretty weak. A beautiful young woman with an awful lot of luggage takes a train journey that travels into the unexpected.

Meme Les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (“Even Pigeons Go to Heaven”) also involves a trip. In this French film, a priest visits an old man, offering him the use of a machine that will take him to heaven. The old man doesn’t really want to die just yet and tries to get a better deal, but as the priest says, “With your past, you are in no position to make demands.” This short features a fun twist and a fun score performed by the Orchestre Cinematographique de Paris.

The music is famous in Peter and the Wolf, with its dramatic Prokofiev score. There’s just as much of interest to look at, however. The animation in this United Kingdom and Poland co-production is of a very high quality, and while the story of a boy and his animal friends who face off against a frightening wolf is familiar, there’s still plenty of excitement and tension in this film, another wordless entry.

Russia’s Moya Lyubov (“My Love”) was also inspired by another work of art, this time Turgenev’s novella “First Love.” The beautiful animation here looks like a Renoir painting, fitting for its 19th-century setting. This is a pretty involved, sometimes melodramatic tale about a 15-year-old boy looking for a pure love. The young aristocrat is taken with two older women, one an aristocratic neighbor, the other an orphaned servant girl. Unsurprisingly for a Russian tale inspired by Turgenev, tragedy ensues.

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