Oscar's short-film races could surprise

Nick Park leads ani category; doc, live-action hard to predict

Set aside the showdown between "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker" for a moment. Stop obsessing over whether Sandra or Meryl will take home the best actress trophy.

Further down the list of nominees for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards, there are several other races brewing that could result in genuine Oscar Night surprises -- even if those surprises will be fully appreciated only by those aficionados who track the three short-film categories.

To its credit, the Academy has resisted pressures to eliminate the low-profile categories from the broadcast. At the same time, it has enhanced efforts to make the short films -- which this year range from the latest bit of Wallace & Gromit whimsy to a wrenching look at the parents who lost their school-age children in the earthquake that devastated China's Sichuan province in 2008 -- more widely available to the general public.

On Feb. 19, as part of what is now a 5-year-old tradition, Magnolia Films and Shorts International will release two programs -- one devoted to the live-action shorts and the other to the animated shorts -- to theaters in more than 100 cities. Two of the five doc shorts, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichaun Province" and "The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant," already have appeared on HBO. A third, "The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner," is awaiting an airdate.

The Academy also will hold an evening dedicated to the animated and live-action shorts March 2 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills and another -- a new event this year -- devoted to both feature and short docs March 3. Related programs also are scheduled for New York and Washington. The shorts eventually will make their way to iTunes as well.

So what can viewers expect?

As always, the animated program is the most entertaining. Nominees include "French Roast," a Gallic jape set in a bistro where an uptight gentleman, having given a fly-covered beggar the brush-off, suddenly realizes he doesn't have any money to pay for his espresso; "The Lady and the Reaper," a bit of Spanish slapstick in which a doctor and the Grim Reaper fight over the soul of an old lady; and "Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty," an Irish-made tale in which an old woman terrifies her granddaughter with a fractured retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story.

"Granny" represents the second short film nom for Darragh O'Connell, who shares credit on the film with Nicky Phelan. But the prohibitive favorite in the category is Nick Park, receiving his sixth Oscar nom for "A Matter of Loaf and Death," in which cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his loyal dog Gromit set themselves up in business as bakers who offer "dough-to-dough delivery."

Park not only has taken home the animated feature Oscar for 2005's "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," he also has translated three of his four short-film noms into wins. And his one loss, "A Grand Day Out," came about only because he was competing against himself with the winning short, "Creature Comforts."

If there's a wild card in the animated pack, though, it's the brash, French-made "Logorama," a clever cultural critique which imagines Los Angeles as a town constructed of nothing but corporate logos (a skyscraper's windows, for example, are made of Microsoft Windows) and peopled by corporate mascots (pedestrians are little AOL men). The action follows a couple of Michelin Man-looking cops who, after trading some Tarantino-esque banter, set off on a high-speed pursuit of a profane, gun-toting Ronald McDonald.

Screening the film at Sundance, the filmmakers, who didn't seek out any approvals, said they hadn't received any cease-and-desist letters from corporate attorneys "yet. We hope there's no CEO of McDonald's here tonight." But with a nom raising its profile, "Logorama" looks like an Oscar controversy in the making.

The other two categories are harder to sort out: The Academy's official screenings, at which members vote, are just beginning to take place.

In the doc lineup, "China's Unnatural Disaster" packs the most raw emotion as distraught parents protest the shoddy construction of the schools that entombed their children during the earthquake. Coming on the heels of the Haiti disaster, it's especially wrenching stuff.

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"Booth Gardner," which follows the former Washington governor, who has Parkinson's, as he successfully campaigns for a legalized-suicide initiative, and "The Last Truck," which celebrates the workers at a car plant in Moraine, Ohio, that was forced to close its doors last year, are solid, fresh-from-the-headlines journalistic records.

The most inspiring arguably is "Music by Prudence," the portrait of Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena, who turns to music to transcend her crippling handicaps. And the most idiosyncratic certainly is "Rabbit a la Berlin," an account of the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, built around the story of the wild rabbits who lived in its shadow.

Among the live-action shorts, "Kavi," a USC thesis film by Gregg Helvey, could serve as a companion piece to "Slumdog Millionaire": It looks at modern-day slavery through the eyes of an Indian boy working in a brick factory.

"The Door" follows at a family uprooted by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Set in Australia, "Miracle Fish" re-creates a school shooting as experienced by one boy. "Instead of Abracadabra" opts for laughs at the expense of an inept, would-be magician. And "The New Tenants," with a cast that includes Vincent D'Onofrio, Kevin Corrigan and David Rakoff, concerns two men who are met with a series of unsettling surprises when they move in to a New York apartment.

"Tenants" marks the fifth nom for Danish company M&M Prods., which has shown an affinity for this particular category since picking up wins for 1998's "Election Night" and 2002's "This Charming Man."

But the live-action category can be notoriously difficult to predict -- which is why office Oscar pools were born.