In brief: Here's your chance to see Oscar contenders for short films before Sunday's ceremony

The Baltimore Sun

The Oscar Nominated Short Films program opens today at the Charles Theatre, just in time to satisfy lovers of the form as well as Academy Award fans hoping to complete their ballot before Sunday's ceremony. It's full of surprises.

Although animated shorts have garnered more attention than live-action shorts in recent years - they're often calling cards for the lucrative world of animated features - the dramatic slates are equally varied, enjoyable and invigorating. Here's a quick rundown:

* Steph Green's New Boy (Ireland) provides a shot of undiluted joy: It's swift, touching, funny and sublimely empathetic. Based on a story by Roddy Doyle (The Commitments), it puts a fresh wrinkle on a familiar concept - a newcomer's first day in school. The new boy of the title is a 9-year-old African settling into an Irish classroom. In 11 minutes, writer-director Green and his ensemble convey the appetite for shared rebellion that goes into grade-school male bonding. And his eloquent star, Olutunji Ebun-Cole, expresses the resilience of a child who's been toughened by devastating tragedy.

* Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont's Manon on the Asphalt (France) beautifully encapsulates its heroine's life within a quarter-hour - roughly the time between her being struck by a car and taken away in an ambulance. The concept of her thinking about her friends, her mother and her lover as she lies between life and death sounds precious, but the execution of it is lyrical, authentic and emotionally complete. It culminates in a love scene of soaring delicacy.

* Reto Caffi's On the Line (Switzerland, Germany) starts as the study of a security officer's crush on a bookstore clerk, then, with an unforced plot twist, becomes an engrossing, soul-quaking portrayal of guilt mixed with compassion and romance undone by bad timing. Unlike most Hollywood features, it has the courage to leave insoluble issues unresolved.

* Dorthe Warno Hogh's The Pig (Denmark) bases a sharp and kaleidoscopic comedy on a hospital patient's affection for a painting of a pig that sports a Mona Lisa smile. It soothes him from the moment he sees it hanging on his hospital room wall; his feeling for it carries him through a cancer scare. So when the family of a Muslim patient has it removed, its absence enrages him. Even when the movie turns political, it's a skillfully balanced, multifaceted study of the potency of art and its imperiled status in society.

* Jochen Alexander Freydank's Toyland (Germany) is the one clunker in the bunch: a Holocaust fable about a German boy who believes his mother when she says that his best friend, a Jew, is being taken to Toyland. Not even the moving climax can justify this film's heavy hand. It's like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas cut down to 10 minutes - shorter, but no better.

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