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Short and sweet Oscar films

Nominees show the beauty of brevity

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Pity the poor, neglected Academy Award nominees in the short-film categories. Every year they're relegated to the basement level of the Oscar ballot, just as the nominated filmmakers get seats in the nosebleed section of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the ceremony itself.

Landmark Midtown Art Cinema's twin programs of Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts -- a joint effort between Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International -- give some long-deserved attention to the oft-overlooked categories. Usually, shorts programs tour the art-house circuit after the Oscars are over (if at all), but Landmark's anthologies present all five nominees in each category ahead of the Feb. 25 award show.

This year's live-action program helps correct the misconception that shorts may be painfully serious artistic exercises, when they're more likely to offer nimble and pointed little comedies. All five of the live-action shorts go for laughs, none more broadly than "West Bank Story," a musical tale of competing Middle Eastern falafel stands, Kosher King vs. Hummus Hut. Dancing, crooning and snapping fingers like the Jets and the Sharks, "West Bank Story's" rival Palestinians and Jews offer some refreshing levity in a grim, seemingly hopeless real-world situation.

Most of the others display low-key, pitch-perfect comic timing, particularly Australia's "The Savior," in which a Jehovah's Witness-type sleeps with a woman he should be trying to convert. Denmark's "Helmer and Son" and Spain's "Eramos Pocos" offer surprising snapshots of adults' relationships with their elderly parents. While "West Bank Story" may be the most memorable, I have a hunch the likely winner will be "Binta and the Great Idea," a cheerful, affectionate portrait of village life in Senegal. Director Javier Fesser reveals quirky humor worthy of early Spike Lee, as well as a tendency toward preachiness reminiscent of, well, early Spike Lee.

Counterintuitively, the animated shorts can be more grim than their live-action counterparts. Disney's "The Little Match Girl" offers a beautifully delicate but unavoidably downbeat interpretation of the Hans Christian Anderson fable. In addition to the five nominees, the program includes some of this year's short-listed animated films, such as the grim but redemptive urban tale "The Wraith of Cobble Hill."

The Norwegian/Canadian film "The Danish Poet" provides lighter fare, and the unremarkable animation style shouldn't detract from its pleasant memory story of love, chance and destiny. "Maestro's" computer-animated depiction of a bird's backstage routine builds to a hilarious punchline. Perhaps the Academy should explicitly reserve a slot for "Best DVD Extra," here represented by "No Time For Nuts," a slick, silly time-traveling slapstick farce starring Scrat from the Ice Age: The Meltdown disc. I'm not sure which of the nominees is most likely to win, but feel that the exclusion of Don Hertzfeldt's superb "Everything Will Be OK" from the final five casts doubt on the validity of the award itself.

One final question though: Where are the Academy Award nominated Short Documentary films? Some short movies still have to make do on the margins, apparently.

The 2006 Academy Award Nominated Animated Shorts and the 2006 Academy Award Nominated Live-Action Shorts. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. 678-495-1424. www.landmarktheatres.com.

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