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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fair
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Small worlds: Oscar-nominated 2012 shorts lack storytelling heft
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An inventor obsesses over minutiae in <i>Time Freak</i>.
An inventor obsesses over minutiae in Time Freak.

It's always charming to watch obscure filmmakers as they receive Oscars for their short subjects. They look dazed and grateful as they accept their due in front of a massive television audience.

But charm notwithstanding, viewers generally don't tune in for the shorts. If I were charged with streamlining the Oscar broadcasts, I would start by not airing these presentations. Short-form storytelling can be as robust as any other kind, but the Oscar-nominated shorts invariably seem so minor.

That's especially true of this year's crop. As in past years, Sundance Madison is screening short films nominated in the animated, live action and documentary categories. Among the animated and live action films, 10 in all, only one is an unqualified success. (I haven't seen the documentaries.) The others are merely interesting, to greater and lesser degrees.

All of the animated films are appealingly designed, but most don't linger. Dimanche centers on a kid bored by his Sunday routine. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is about a Buster Keaton look-alike who's surrounded by flying, dancing books. La Luna, from industry titan Pixar, is merely an attractive doodle, a whimsical fable about workmen on the moon.

A Morning Stroll, concerning a chicken in New York, has an amusing gag about a youth who's distracted by his smartphone. But the premise borrows too liberally from Chuck Jones' searing 1955 short One Froggy Evening, and the new film suffers from the comparison. Among the animated films, only Wild Life stands out. A poignant tale about a young Englishman who sets out for Alberta in 1909, it has something compelling to say about the Canadian frontier.

Among the live-action shorts, I'm repelled by the bracingly terrible comedy Tuba Atlantic, in which a doomed Norwegian man massacres animals. There is promise in Pentecost, about an Irish altar boy who loves soccer, but it's essentially one not-very-funny joke, and it doesn't offer much insight into religion or sports. In Raju, a German couple confront a horror when they adopt an Indian orphan. It's effective but pat.

The Shore, directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), is the most ambitious short. In it, a character played by CiarÃn Hinds travels home to Northern Ireland and confronts his past. It's warm and sad and the characterizations are vivid, but some of the acting is awkward.

Then there is the wonderful Time Freak, in which a young inventor (Michael Nathanson) builds a time machine and uses it to obsess on minutiae. With good humor and strong characters, this science-fiction story pays homage to Groundhog Day, and tweaks it. Time Freak would make an excellent Twilight Zone episode, right down to the shocking revelation at the end.

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