Call me a Philistine, but for me one of the great virtues of older films is their brevity. The "two-reelers" made famous by the clowns of the Silent Era remain today some of our most prized pieces of motion picture history—epic tales of love, loss, and revenge, and all told in about 20 minutes. Today, that same movie would be a bloated 112 minutes, and feature Robin Williams in a role described as "dark and edgy" by most critics. Sometimes less really is more.
Which is why I love this time of year, and the lead-up to the Oscar ceremony. At this time of the year, critics and general audiences alike are bombarded with movies that might be politely described as longish. Take all the time needed to tell your the tale, by all means, but you can't expect everyone to sit still for a two-and-a-half-hour movie about a horse that fights the Germans. Even Hugo, the Scorsese picture up in this year's race, breaks the two-hour barrier, and it was based on a children's book. However, amid all the pomp and seriousness of the big races, the season also brings us an annual treat that's just the right size: the Oscar-Nominated Shorts. Consider it an amuse-bouche.
Screening now at Northampton's Pleasant Street Theater, the series (and the Oscar race) is divided up into two parts: Live Action and Animated. Each series is made up of five nominees—part of the fun, of course, is trying to pick the winners each year—and you can be in and out before the horse in that other movie even reaches the front. Here are some of this year's highlights.
In the Animated series, Patrick Doyon's Dimanche is winningly drawn picture of a rural village bisected by the arrival of a Sunday train, with a look reminiscent of cartoons from The New Yorker. And William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg's The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a paean to the power of a good read, and one that—even in its title—acknowledges that leaving some things out can leave room for the imagination to creep in. Other films feature an urban chicken, a family's odd profession, and an Englishman at odds with the Canadian wilderness.
On the Live Action side, the subject matter is usually a bit more serious if still essentially light-hearted. This year's crop features a missing orphan in Max Zähle's Raju; two old friends trying to reunite in Northern Ireland in Terry George's The Shore; and a young boy torn between soccer and the Church in Peter McDonald's Pentecost. To learn more about this year's nominees or to watch trailers—even short films have trailers—visit amherstcinema.org.
Also this week: Film returns to the big screen in Shelburne Falls with Richard Donner's 1978 classic Superman. A superhero movie before superhero movies were cool, Donner's film—with Christopher Reeve as the man in tights and Gene Hackman as his arch-enemy Lex Luthor—is in many ways one of the best distillations of what first made superhero stories such a hit. Filled with an innocence that more modern takes on the genre lack, this Man of Steel is decidedly more "comic book" than "graphic novel." Pothole Pictures screens it Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the town's Memorial Hall.
Finally this week, a call to arms. Amherst Cinema is pulling together a Movie Trivia Bee to benefit the nonprofit group's two theaters. Longtime Pleasant Street Video employee and man-about-town Bill Dwight will emcee the affair, with author and humorist John Hodgman putting in a guest appearance. The event is slated to take place on the Smith campus in early March, but the deadline to register your team of film buffs (which you can do at the theater's website) is Feb. 27. That should leave plenty of time to come up with a pithy name for the team T-shirts.
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.