Oscar noms for 2009 a mixed bag

Pure magic from Pixar: A scene from <i>Presto</i>

Pure magic from Pixar: A scene from Presto

Those who have never attended the annual festival of Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts should be advised: Don't expect all 10 entries to be mini-masterpieces. Nonetheless, there's some lovely artistry to be found.

The live-action selections largely reject tight narrative to engage in meditations on guilt, cultural differences, and aging. The closest these films come to a page-turner is On the Line, a twisty drama about a tentative friendship between a German security guard and a pretty bookstore employee. By comparison, New Boy is a small shrug of a film, tracing the touchy-feely misadventures of an African boy enduring his first day in an Irish school. Cynical Oscar handicappers will note that the familiar Toyland is the sole short set during the Holocaust, but the film manages to find some poignancy in a Gentile mother's search for her missing child in Nazi Germany. The biggest missed opportunity is The Pig, an initially intriguing Danish deadpan comedy about an older man's odd attachment to a painting of a pig. The clear winner is Manon on the Asphalt, a moving rumination that turns a young woman's serious bike accident into an existential discussion on the fragility of connection.

The animation nominees are a battle between the deeply personal and the playfully freewheeling. Somewhere in the middle is This Way Up, a soulful British comedy about a father-and-son undertaker team who brave boulders, rivers, and Satan to get their assigned casket to the cemetery on time. Oktapodi is a forgettable Pixar-like adventure yarn about one determined octopus's quest to save its true love from becoming dinner; actual Pixar's Presto is dazzlingly animated, but its nimble craftsmanship lacks the heart of the final two nominees. The minimalist Russian Lavatory-Lovestory looks like a New Yorker cartoon, and its fable about a lovelorn bathroom attendant is satisfying romantic goo. Finally, there's Japan's La Maison en Petits Cubes, which follows an aging man whose towering house is being consumed by a flood, forcing him to enter the submerged floors and confront the memories held within them. A heartbreaking treatise on the inescapable clutter of life, this film is one of the most modest in this entire series, but in terms of emotional resonance, it's among the best. —Tim Grierson

Azur & Asmar

With its delicate, fairy-tale bones and layer of politically conscious muscle,Azur and Asmar is a sleek and yet slightly unwieldy animal. The fourth animated feature from French director Michel Ocelot, Azur's hybrid appeal should be one of its strongest selling points but proves its weakest: The lessons of cultural intolerance are pitched simply enough for children to understand, yet the execution lacks the schmoozy wit and splashy visuals to keep them entertained; adults will find the elegant combination of cut-out and CGI animation bewitching but the thematics unsubtle, at best. Azur and Asmar are introduced as babes at the breast of an Arab woman (nanny of the former, mother of the latter) in an unspecified Anglo land. Raised as brothers, Azur is an Aryan wet dream, while Asmar is brown like his mum. The boys are separated by Azur's unaccountably evil father, but meet years later in an unspecified Arab land, both chasing a childhood fable that involves freeing a fairy princess. Azur is feared by the Arabs because of his blue eyes, a sort of reverse racism that causes him to feign blindness, and all of the Arabic dialogue is untranslated, heightening his feeling of isolation. Aside from a visual shout-out to Jesus and a mention of madrasas and mosques, Ocelot skirts religious questions altogether, offering a moral about ethnic differences, with interracial dating as "the answer for a harmonious future." —Michelle Orange

Fired Up

Getting high and mighty on teen-sex comedies is a sucker's game, but it's worth noting how particularly abhorrent a movie like Fired Up is. Not content to be just another dumb high school flick, it's actually teaching young, virginal viewers to treat women like stupid, submissive slut-cattle for the rest of their lives. Bored of banging every last chick in school, horny football studs Shawn (Nicholas D'Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) ditch their team for a couple of weeks of cheer camp, where they will be the only straight dudes in a sea of 600 tits, er...300 cheerleaders. They're basically the same insipid conquistador, except Nick is the more officious schemer, and Shawn is the science whiz who helps all the (brainless) girls with their homework. Learning a few cheers, but never punished for their piggish insolence (the third-act inspirational speech, literally: "Be a cocky asshole"), Nick eventually wins over an older coach (Molly Sims) with his secret poetry, and Shawn falls in love with squad leader Carly (Sarah Roemer) because she's the only girl who didn't want to whore around on first sight. We're light years away from Animal House, sure, but who ever thought we would long for the richer, funnier dignity of American Pie? —Aaron Hillis