As that sublime spectacle the Academy Awards lumbers along each year, you have to pick and choose your bathroom breaks -- you don't want to be caught with your pants down when some packed-in starlet pops out of her dress. That means the awards with less glitz -- like the live-action and animated short categories -- usually get ignored, and besides, who's even seen the nominees, apart from festivalgoers and those lucky S.O.B.s with their names on the Academy screener list? That's just the way it is, but it shouldn't be: The short film can be a fount of innovation, and, by definition, is blessed with brevity. It can offer a nibble of experimental without the unfortunate bloat of avant-garde that goes on too long, or it can offer a traditional but streamlined narrative -- a good story without all the filler. In a sort of retroactive recognition of the many splendors of short films, Apollo Cinemas has packaged last year's five nominees for Best Live-Action Short and the five nominees for Best Animated Short; the selections are touring the country right now, and are stopping off for a limited run at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. The Academy's animated selections are mostly friendly films. Except for the nihilistic irony of the CG “Fifty-Percent Grey,” it's a charmingly frothy batch, three-minute setup-and-punchline sight gags, including “Stubble Trouble,” in which a prehistoric man can't get his girl till he gets rid of his five o'clock shadow; a Schoolhouse Rock-like
retelling of the John the Baptist parable (Ireland's “Give Up Yer Aul Sins”); the loopy little Eraserhead-lite
“Strange Invaders”; and the Oscar-winning “For the Birds,” a Pixar piece that ran before Monsters, Inc.
in its theatrical release. The live-action shorts are more a mixed bag, ranging from the bleak realism of Poland's child-abuse tale, “A Man Thing,” to the inoffensive kookiness of “Gregor's Greatest Invention,” in which an aspiring inventor schemes up ways to give his ailing grandmother new legs. The inky, itchy “Copy Shop” is a Kafkaesque miniature shot first on video, then printed out frame by frame on a copy machine, and finally re-shot using an animation camera for a startling, mimeographed phantasmagoria. Of the lot, the live-actions “Speed for Thespians” and “The Accountant” prove how potent a narrative can be when distilled down to the barest of bones. “Speed” is an adaptation of Chekhov's one-room one-act “The Bear,” only director Kalman Apple ingeniously transposes the action to a moving passenger bus in New York City. Apple transcends the clever but one-noteness of his setting to achieve a funny, emotionally powerful piece that zooms along at about the same clip as its speeding transit host. “The Accountant,” which won the statue, shares the same sensibilities -- humor coupled with crisis -- in its uncommon portrait of the slow death of family-owned farms in America. Writer/director Ray McKinnon plays the Accountant, a Georgia-drawl, Pabst Blue Ribbon-pounding, acerbic man of numbers brought in to try to save a farm from foreclosure. (In his relentless bid to cheat insurance companies, he often prescribes a forcible loss of limb; he figures this particular farm owner will have to forfeit two legs and an arm to cover his debt.) It's a surprising film that manages to have a heart while still staying sharp as a scythe, tackling a subject that doubtfully would have ever seen the light of day at a major studio, in a feature-length film. That in a nutshell is why the short film format is so relevant: It provides a venue for experimentation and a forum for ideas too often neglected by the shake-and-bake factory production of Hollywood studio moviemaking. This bundle of shorts only makes the case stronger.