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Keeping It Short and Sweet

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page WE37

WHILE WE WERE all office-betting, booing and cheering over Best Picture and Best Actor at the Oscars, the good stuff was right under our noses: the shorts.

No, I'm not talking boxers or briefs. I'm talking 2004's Oscar-nominated shorts (live-action and animated), which were staggeringly good this year -- or last year, I should say. And the good news is, you can appreciate what I'm talking about by watching (grandiose title alert): "Apollo Cinema Presents: A Program of Academy Award Nominated Shorts 2005."

The Oscar-winning animated short "Ryan" focuses on the impoverished Canadian animator Ryan Larkin. (Copper Heart Entertainment And National Film Board Of Canada)

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The theater is showing seven of the finalists, plus Alexander Woo's student Academy Award winner for 2004: "Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher."

All eight of these films (four animated, four live-action) range from very good to absolutely super. (For whatever reason, presumably the securing of rights, Bill Plympton's "Guard Dog," and Mike Gabriel and Baker Bloodworth's "Lorenzo" are not part of this collection.)

Under the very good, I'd rank Jeff Fowler and Tim Miller's animated "Gopher Broke," about a gopher whose desire to eat free food by digging a pothole in the path of trucks bearing vegetables meets with regular setbacks that would make even Wile E. Coyote shake his head; and "Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher," a whimsical cartoon set in 1941, when the American government sends heroic, dashing Rex to thwart the dastardly plans of Eval Schnitzler.

Very good and also touching, in the animation category, is Sejong Park and Andrew Gregory's "Birthday Boy," in which a young Korean boy plays with self-made toy weapons while his father is away at real war.

But the best animated film here, also the Oscar winner, is Chris Landreth's "Ryan," a tour-de-force computer-animated portrait of Ryan Larkin, an influential Canadian animator who lives in poverty after struggling with years of drug and alcohol abuse. Larkin is interviewed on the soundtrack, while he is represented by what seems to be a half-missing head, a symbol of the deterioration of his life. It's a very moving film.

The live-action films are uniformly fabulous, including Andrea Arnold's Oscar winner, "Wasp." This movie, set in Dartford, England, is a Mike Leigh-toned drama about a poor single mother (Nathalie Press) who's determined to keep a romantic date, despite having to take care of three children. In the end, she keeps the kids hovering outside the pub, while she tries to find happiness inside. It's a tough, taut drama, one of the best 23 minutes I have seen all year.

Kids are also cooling heels outside the pub in Taika Waititi and Ainsley Gardiner's stunning "Two Cars, One Night." Set in New Zealand, the film (which won the best short film award in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival) is about Romeo (Rangi Ngamoki), a Maori boy of 9 who sits bored in a car with his brother Ed (Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki). He sees 12-year-old Polly (Hutini Waikato), and it's aggression at first sight. He insults her. She gives it back. Ultimately, this leads to a special bond, cemented by a plastic ring. It's a breathtaking mini-drama, which deserved the top prize just as much as "Wasp."

Also in the very good category are the Spanish film "7:35 in the Morning" and the Indian-made "Little Terrorist," both of which address the modern world of terrorism and cultural enmity in different ways. Nacho Vigalondo's "7:35" is a semi-musical, set in a cafe, that goes from romantic dreaminess to political bomb-ticking allegory, and Ashvin Kumar's "Terrorist" is a delightful story set in the no man's land between India and Pakistan in which a child wanders into the minefield on the border and has to find a way out.

Since -- almost by definition -- makers of film shorts have to make every minute count, you can rest assured that these 100 minutes will be time well spent.

APOLLO CINEMA PRESENTS: A PROGRAM OF ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATED SHORTS 2005 (Unrated, approximately 100 minutes) -- Contains violence, obscenity and sexual content. At the Cinema Arts Theatre Fairfax.

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