In past years, the theatrical release of the Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts has provided a fun peek into intriguing bite-size cinema from across the globe. But for the 2011 edition, the series is at last making room for the five nominated documentary shorts as well. (This year's live-action and animated films will screen at the Lagoon Cinema. The documentary entries play at the Riverview Theater.)
Unfortunately, this year's documentary crop largely underlines the limitations of movies with big subjects but compact running times. Though they're each around 40 minutes, several of the documentaries (no matter how well-meaning) come across as simplistic. Whether it's depicting the Tel Aviv school in Strangers No More that opens its doors to displaced international students, or the Chinese villagers in The Warriors of Qiugang who battle a polluting local company, the filmmaking never rises above an earnest conventionality. Distilling a larger issue through the perspective of an individual helps both Killing in the Name (about a Jordanian Muslim speaking out against Islamic terrorism) and Poster Girl (about a young East Coast soldier suffering from severe PTSD). But the strongest entry in the field is director Jennifer Redfearn's quietly engrossing Sun Come Up, which, maybe not surprisingly, is the least issue-oriented of the bunch, following a South Pacific island community that must relocate after higher tides caused by global warming threaten its homeland.
If the documentary shorts veer toward weighty themes, the live-action entries are a more diverse mix. As the field's more somber entries, the African-set drama Na Wewe is a rather obvious critique of cultural identity, while The Confession is a coming-of-age tale that examines Catholic guilt with a heavy hand. The Crush offers the latest twist on the "young student smitten with his teacher" genre, settling for a darkly comic spirit that's not quite as clever as the filmmakers think. Much better is Wish 143, a modest comedy-drama about a teen cancer patient whose dying wish is to lose his virginity. The clear winner of the pack is writer-director-star Luke Matheny's God of Love, a nicely modulated, deadpan charmer about a singing darts champion trying to woo the girl of his dreams.
Those who follow the animated-shorts field won't be surprised that Pixar made the cut again this year. But unlike its more visually opulent entries of past award seasons, Day & Night boasts a comparatively low-key aesthetic to dramatize the unlikely friendship that develops between Daytime and Nighttime. The Gruffalo is the most traditional of the five nominees, featuring voice work from Helena Bonham Carter and Tom Wilkinson in a fable involving a mouse who outsmarts predators. If The Gruffalo lacks cutting-edge animation, its solid storytelling outranks the glib satire Let's Pollute, a faux-educational film promoting the benefits of consumer excess. Inventive and playful, Madagascar, a Journey Diary is an impressionistic travelogue across the island nation incorporating pencil sketches. Which brings us to The Lost Thing, a deceptively simple remembrance of a boy's encounter with a bizarre orphaned creature. Writer-directors Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan elevate a familiar storyline into something exceptionally moving that touches on friendship, loneliness, and the tragedy of how getting older numbs us to the wonders of the small oddities around us.