Quick, can you name the short-film Oscar winners from this past March? Me neither. Instead of belatedly parading the nominees around the country, Sundance is featuring eight live-action entries from its own January festival—some possibly to figure in the coming fall awards season. (The separate animation package is a sampler from several recent years.) Impressively atmospheric and murky, suggesting both folklore and fairy tale, Frances Bodomo’s Afronauts imagines a fanciful 1969 effort to compete with the American space program. Tin cans and scrap are improvised into a rocket with more symbolic import, or possibly totemic power, than any chance of reaching the moon. The astronaut is to be a teenage albino girl, which further pushes Afronauts into the realm of wishful magic and myth. (Bodomo is from Ghana and trained at NYU.)
I also liked I’m a Mitzvah again (having seen it during SIFF), the humorous tale of a poor schlemiel trying to retrieve his friend’s body (and dignity) from Mexico. Drunk on tequila, pondering his pal’s strange adventures, he has to look up the Hebrew prayers on the Internet to sit shiva with the deceased. Part of the comic charm here is that, as our hero lugs the coffin with him wherever he goes, his flight home delayed, the locals are utterly accepting of their gringo guests—the living and the dead are treated with equal courtesy.
From Germany, another standout has an awkward title, even in English: MeTube: August Sings Carmen “Habanera.” That famous aria gradually expands like a Transformer, visually and musically, undergoing an electronica remix launched from the breakfast table of what seems to be a sad, lonely lip-syncher (with a portrait of Maria Callas nailed to the wall behind him, like an icon). It’s a giddy, silly five-minute paean to Bizet, Carmen, and the transformative power of music. Seattle Opera should play it on a monitor in the lobby of McCaw Hall during intermissions.
Among the eight animated efforts, the ratio of keepers to clunkers is also fairly high. The English Belly has a storybook aspect suggesting Maurice Sendak, with an elephant-headed young hero exploring mortality, a journey that takes him to the bottom of the ocean. There’s a petite surrealism at work as human and animal identities blur. Limbs are lopped off and entrails spill, yet a friendly talking whale provides reassuring words to young Oscar.
Speaking of violence, the early stick-figure animations of Don Hertzfeldt were known for bloody, sadistic humor. Yet his 23-minute It’s Such a Beautiful Day reaches for a kind of peace and acceptance of suffering. Poor afflicted Bill has had a stroke, so his past and present fuse into a transcendent synesthesia, Hertzfeldt’s primitive pencil work combining with swirling CG effects, like looking through one of those old View-Masters to childhood and beyond.
Finally, by apt coincidence, the paranoid Cold War collage animation of Voice on the Line warns of a new surveillance state. It was made back in 2009, before Edward Snowden and his NSA revelations. Yet prophetically, with Citizenfour also opening today, the narrator grimly declares, “It was the beginning of times to come.” Opens Fri., Oct. 31 at Sundance Cinemas. Not Rated. 94 and 90 minutes.