Sunday, November 22, 2009

Oscar Shortlist: Animated Shorts

While Best Animated Short is often one of the first Oscars awarded, viewers frequently dismiss it as part of the ceremony’s typically tedious first hour. Yet, it can be tremendously significant for the nominated filmmakers. After all, Shane Acker was able to parlay his Oscar nominated short 9 into a full length theatrical feature. The Academy has just released a shortlist of ten animated shorts, winnowed down from thirty-seven qualifying films. Though the pleasant Partly Cloudy probably has a lock a nomination coming from perennial Oscar favorite Pixar, the rest of the field looks wide open. Two films that made the list deserve special consideration.

Canadian Cordell Barker’s animated Runaway (trailer here) might look light-hearted and whimsical, but at its core, it might be the most gleefully macabre film of the shortlist. Nine minutes of madcap humor, Runaway involves a cow, an out of control train, a little fur ball of a dog, and an engineer’s assistant trying desperately to save the day.

It all hurtles down the track to the propulsive rhythm of Benoit Charest’s soundtrack. Best known for the score of Silvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville, Charest’s music for Runaway has a similar spirit, sounding something like a mutated form of early hot jazz on some serious acid. Charest also brought in many of the same jazz musicians who recorded Triplets, including the drummer Jim Doxas and his saxophonist brother Chet, both of whom have played with the highly regarded Canadian jazz pianist Oliver Jones.

Music also factors prominently in Eddie White and Ari Gibson’s The Cat Piano, but in this feline fable, jazz is seen but not really heard, with Benjamin Speed’s soundtrack effectively evoking a once-upon-a-time vibe. Piano is a noir fairy tale, in which an evil force kidnaps the jazz chanteuses, crooners, and street buskers of an exotic city of cats that was once distinguished by its thriving nightlife. Eventually the narrator, a reclusive writer voiced by Bad Seeds frontman Nick Cave, tracks the missing musical cats to the infernal title contraption.

Runaway is an inspired act of lunacy, whereas Piano is stylishly moody. Both would be worthy nominees and even ultimate winners of the Oscar for Best Animated Short. Members of the Academy’s animation division will be screening the shortlist films in January, and the final nominations will be announced on February 2nd.