Just in time for the Oscars, and as a bit of catnip for those who are desperate for fresh nominees to dissect, this weekend sees the releases of the Oscar shorts. They're being screened in four programs in alternating repertory at local theaters: one program of live-action shorts, one of animated shorts and two of short documentaries. We weren't able to review the docs, but there's plenty to recommend among the other titles.
There's a strong crop of Animated Short Film nominees this year, and unusually, none of the nominees are CGI. In fact, there's a welcome return of old-school animation in the shorts, with hand-drawn and stop-motion animation among the candidates. That's not to speak ill of computer-animated features, but it's good to see a variety of styles coming back into vogue. Here are thoughts on the nominees:
The most-seen of the shorts and odds-on favorite is Paperman, a Disney animated short that ran before Wreck-It Ralph and in many ways overshadowed that feature. It's a "boy meets girl" charmer that gradually moves into a sly homage to the classic short The Red Balloon. The black-and-white look of the film creates a world that's both retro and warm in its sun-filled aesthetic.
The dark horse candidate is 27-year-old Minkyu Lee's self-funded Adam and Dog, which uses gorgeous watercolor backgrounds to tell the story of the First Man's first man's best friend (as with most things, a girl comes between them). The effect is like the characters wandering through a painting, with echoes of such Studio Ghibli films as My Neighbor Totoro. At 15 minutes, it's longer than the others, but it has the most substantial narrative and visual surprises of any of the shorts. Lee's background is propitious, too, for he worked on Wreck-It Ralph.
Another short familiar to most moviegoers is Maggie Simpson: The Longest Daycare, a slight but amusing number in which the youngest member of the Simpsons has to protect a butterfly from a hammer-wielding classmate. As on the show, many of the funniest bits are from throwaway sight gags, such as a bin full of "Raggedy Ayn Rand" dolls.
There's no major theme among the live-action Oscar shorts this year, other than that they're all character studies from around the world, ranging from the realistic to the fantastic, and have much in common with many acclaimed feature-length films ... though that's not always a good thing.
A highlight of the shorts is Henry by Yan England, actor on the French-Canadian TV series Trauma. It's an odd combination of thriller and memory play about a concert pianist (Gérard Poirier) whose wife mysteriously vanishes, sending him into flashes of his past. The twist is predictable, but there's a touching, human quality to the story and to Poirier's performance that makes it work.
The Somalia-filmed Asad has some aspects in common with Oscar favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild in that it uses real fishermen in a fictional story about a little boy tempted toward piracy. It's not exactly The Wire with pirates, but it does show how children can be indoctrinated into this world, and when the title character does set foot on a yacht, it's an unnerving contrast from the gorgeously photographed finishing village he's arrived from.
Most visually interesting of the shorts is Death of a Shadow, about a man capturing shadows of the dead with a steampunk camera for a supernatural collector. It's the weirdest of the program, and it has excellent cinematography and production design reminiscent of The City of Lost Children.
Another strange entry is Curfew, about a junkie whose attempt at slitting his wrists in the bathtub is interrupted by a request to babysit his niece. Writer/ director/ star Shawn Christensen, who scripted 2011's Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, uses a number of Scorsese-esque touches (jump cuts, mumbly dialogue, opera on the soundtrack), but it's a weird hodgepodge of styles (a dance fantasy at a bowling alley looks like a David Fincher remake of Grease 2). Fátima Ptacek, who plays the little girl, is quite good—look for this film to boost her already-impressive résumé.
The longest and most award-hungry of the shorts is Buzkashi Boys, a tale of friendship set against the backdrop of an Afghanistan game of polo played with a headless goat carcass. Let's let that sink in, shall we? As with Asad, the location photography is gorgeous—bombed-out buildings, cragged hillsides, a junkyard with destroyed buses piled into mountains—though the coming-of-age story and string-heavy score is all too traditional. I have a sinking feeling this will be expanded into a Kite Runner-esque awards-bait Miramax flick in a few years, and this nomination already has it halfway there.
Also slight-but-amusing is Fresh Guacamole, a two-minute number that combines Claymation, live-action and trick photography to show a rather unusual recipe for a favorite snack.
Finally, there's Timothy Reckart's charming stop-motion short Head Over Heels, the dark flip-side of Pixar's Up, about an elderly couple who've literally grown apart (one spouse lives on the floor, the other on the ceiling). The short gets plenty of great gags out of the couple's crank-and-pulley-filled household—and makes a sly point about the compromises of cohabitation that might go over the heads of some younger viewers but will have many parents nodding in acknowledgement.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Short lives."