2006 Oscar-nominated Shorts

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Magnolia Pictures/Shorts International

Providing a valuable service to Oscar pools everywhere, Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International have teamed to demystify those tricky live-action and animated shorts by packaging this year's nominees together and playing them in 39 engagements this weekend.

As a result, armchair Oscar prognosticators won't have to rely on traditional selection methods such as throwing darts or closing their eyes and (hopefully) landing their index finger on one of them.

Here's what they should know about this year's crop.

Among the live-action nominees, both the Spanish and Danish entries happen to be comedies that deal with elderly parents in retirement homes.

In Soren Pilmark & Kim Magnusson's "Helmer & Son," a harried businessman has been summoned to the rest home where his recently admitted father has locked himself in an armoire. His feeble attempts to talk his strong-willed dad out of the closet are met with outrageous and ultimately touching results.

In Borja Cobeaga's "One Too Many" (Eramos pocos), meanwhile, a man wakes up one morning and discovers that his wife has finally left him. He and his son, unable to fend domestically for themselves, come up with a solution involving springing long-forgotten Grandma from the old folks home.

Also from Spain comes Javier Fesser & Luis Manso's "Binta and the Great Idea" (Binta y la gran idea), a strikingly photographed portrait of a 7-year-old Senegalese girl who is determined to alter the destiny of her young cousin. Produced in collaboration with UNICEF, the 30-minute film is a gentle call for greater solidarity among Third World children.

From Australia comes Peter Templeman & Stuart Parkyn's amusing but rather slight "The Saviour," about a Mormon missionary whose door-to-door recruiting has led to his being in a rather uncompromising position with a married woman.

Offering the greatest production value for the money is Ari Sandel's "West Bank Story," an all-singing, all-dancing satire -- with apologies to Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins -- of the Middle East conflict as represented by a pair of competing falafel stands, Kosher King and Hummus Hut. The American production, with its feuding Israeli and Palestinian families making like Semetic Jets and Sharks, is a bona fide crowd-tickler.

All of this year's live-action nominees are first-timers.

Over on the animated short front, several filmmakers are no strangers to Oscar nominations.

Leading the pack is "Lifted," a typically inventive Pixar film directed by Gary Rydstrom, who has collected 14 Oscar nominations (including seven wins) as a sought-after sound editor. The entertaining five-minute Buena Vista release follows the botched alien abduction of an unsuspecting sleeping Earthling at the shaky hands of an alien "driving student."

Buena Vista also is handling "The Little Matchgirl," a gorgeously animated rendering of the Hans Christian Anderson tale directed by first-time nominee, "The Lion King's" Roger Allers, and Don Hahn, a best picture nominee for "Beauty and the Beast." Where "Lifted" is state-of-the-art all the way, "Matchgirl" represents the end of an era -- one of the last films to utilize the first digital ink-and-paint compositing and rendering program known as CAPS, which made its debut on "The Little Mermaid."

The third American nominee, "No Time for Nuts," comes from Blue Sky Studios animators Chris Renaud & Michael Thurmeier and follows the further adventures of "Ice Age" character Scrat, who uncovers a frozen time machine while trying to bury a nut. The witty CG short was included on the DVD release of Fox's "Ice Age: The Meltdown."

Rounding out the animated titles are "The Danish Poet," from Canada and Norway and "Maestro," from Hungary. The former, by Torill Kove, who was nominated for 1999's "My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts," tells the lyrically droll story of a blocked poet who finds inspiration through a famous Norwegian writer. "Maestro," by first-time nominee Geza M. Toth, follows the behind-the-scenes preparations taken by a birdlike character about to take his big bow. It packs one clever little kicker.

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