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Short and Silent

Oscar-nominated animated shorts continue the year's theme.

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The unlikely year of silent films at the Oscars — with the silent The Artist and silent-homage Hugo leading nominations — extends to the animated shorts category, the nominees of which will be screening locally at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art this week (with the live-action shorts nominees following next week).

All four of the nominees that were available to screen as of press time are dialogue-free. (The fifth, unavailable as of deadline, is La Luna, from Pixar, a seven-minute fable about a young boy's coming of age.)

The best of the four I've been able to screen is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, an extraordinary film that incorporates different types of animation — hand-drawn, computer, and photographed miniatures — and a host of compelling cultural influences — The Wizard of Oz, Buster Keaton, kid lit.

The 17-minute film — which won a Special Jury Prize for Imaginative Storytelling at the Nashville Film Festival, among many other festival awards — was written and co-directed by Louisiana author and illustrator William Joyce. It opens on the balcony of a New Orleans hotel, where a Buster Keaton look-alike sits surrounded by a stack of books. Soon a wind comes that's so strong it blows letters of the page off the man's book and then pulls the entire building into the middle of a twister that lands it — reverse Wizard of Oz-style — on a black-and-white ashen plain.

Adrift in this purgatory, the man happens upon a building which turns out to be a color-restoring library, where the books are alive.

The film works this conceit from many angles: Books fly in flocks, like birds, and are fed alphabet cereal in the morning. A giant book folds open to become the man's bed. Book jackets are put away on hangers. A book with torn binding is repaired in a literary surgical unit. At one point, the man is sucked into the pages of a book, much as movie projectionist Keaton is pulled into a film in Sherlock Jr. It's a dazzlingly inventive film that gradually tackles mortality in increasingly touching ways.

The sharp seven-minute British film A Morning Stroll replays a simple scenario: A man walking down the street in New York City encounters a chicken across three time periods — 1959, 2009, 2059 — using three animation styles. The film uses the visual differences — from hand-drawn sketch, to blocky, pixellated computer animation, to hyper-real futuristic video-game style — and, even more so, the different ways the man reacts to the chicken to comment on past, present, and vision of the future. A Morning Stroll won the Jury Prize for Best Animated Short at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

The 14-minute Canadian film Wild Life uses painterly, impressionistic animation to tell the story of a British immigrant who moves, alone, to the Canadian frontier in 1909.

The upper-crust young man — "He's got a whole lot of dollars and no sense," one local surmises — is ill-suited to his new landscape, and the film juxtaposes his struggles against the sunnier reports he sends to relatives back home. It's a mordantly funny story of one lonely, desolate life.

Rounding out the nominees is another Canadian film, the nine-minute Dimanche/Sunday, a kid's eye view of life in a small village along a railroad track, done in hand-drawn, sketch-like black and white. The film is full of observant notes. A favorite is that, to the young boy, the chatter of drunk old men and the chirping of blackbirds on a wire sound the same.

Altogether, even without access to the Pixar contender, this is an enjoyable collection. That it will help you with your Oscar picks poll is just a bonus.

Oscar Nominated Short Films — Animation
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Saturday, February 11th, 2 p.m.
$8, or $6 for members

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