This Year's Oscar-Nominated Shorts Are Best When True

While many of Oscar's big shots clock in at more than two hours (led by favorite Boyhood, at 165 minutes), some filmmakers remain committed to telling unique and inventive stories that don't require viewers to set aside an entire night to enjoy. The Academy Award-nominated short films—which, for the 10th year, will receive a one-week nationwide theatrical run starting Jan. 30, courtesy of Shorts HD—run the gamut of topics and tones. Yet together they provide a heartening view of cinema's multiple avenues for exploration, investigation and dramatization. Be they animated or live-action, documentary or fiction, these films frequently push the boundaries of the form's potential, and if they aren't always successful—and in 2015, one category's selections definitively stand out from the pack—they continue to show the benefits of prizing experimentation over adherence to formula.

This year's animated shorts boast no true marvel, though that's hardly damning. Of the five, it's the Disney-imprinted Feast that hews the closest to familiar aesthetics, utilizing a beautiful CG style—think Bolt, but a bit flatter and more expressive—for a sweet vignette about a pet dog with a gigantic appetite. Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed's seven-minute gem is an alternately amusing and touching ode to one of the Mouse House's favorite clichés, “The Circle of Life.” That subject is also addressed, more cursorily but with appealing whimsy, by Dutch filmmaker Joris Oprins' A Single Life, in which a vinyl record allows a girl to magically fast-forward and rewind her life. Brief and sly, Life touches upon unpleasant realities with a deft hand, which is more than can be said about The Dam Keeper, Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi's sluggish 18-minute effort, which squanders painterly animation (full of deep, florid brushstrokes) on a pig trying to make a friend at school.

The specter of death hangs over The Bigger Picture, a morose tale of two quarreling brothers grappling with their mother's demise that's the most visually daring of these nominees, thanks to a blend of Claymation environments and two-dimensional hand-drawn characters. A less combative story about siblings is presented by Me and My Moulton, director Torill Kove's stylish autobiographical snapshot of growing up alongside two sisters in Norway with modernist-architect parents. Drawn with bright, colorful lines that faintly recall the classic children's book Madeline, it's a droll depiction of fitting in, as well as how—for kids—the greatest happiness often comes from pleasing one's parents.

Of the five live-action entries, the most insufferable is Aya, an Israeli import about a woman who, while waiting at the airport, is asked to temporarily hold a limo driver's sign, and then decides to impersonate said driver and pick up his customer (Ulrich Thomsen), who's on his way to judge a music competition. What ensues is a torpid car ride between two severely uninteresting characters who've been brought together by laughably unbelievable circumstances. Similarly aimless, but manipulatively mushy to boot, is British directors Mat Kirkby and James Lucas' The Phone Call, in which Sally Hawkins' crisis-phone-center operator stays on the line with a suicidal man as he weeps his way through his final minutes. The maudlin short's self-consciously deliberate camerawork heightens the ponderousness, whereas the static compositions of The Butter Lamp—which is composed of visually identical scenes employing one camera setup, akin to last year's critically hailed doc Manakamana—clearly elucidate modern-traditional tensions felt in rural China, where families are snapped by a visiting photographer in front of various custom backdrops.

While The Butter Lamp elegantly suggests tectonic culture shifts through recurring scenarios, Parvaneh resorts to ho-hum melodrama in tackling the plight of immigrants in foreign lands—in this instance, an Afghan teen living in Zurich who enlists a Swiss girl to help her send money home to her ailing father. Far more moving is Boogaloo and Graham, a charmingly low-key story about two boys who are given pet chickens by their father (much to their mother's chagrin), and then are faced with the scary prospect of having to give them up. Assuredly shot and edited, Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney's short is a witty depiction of parental devotion and sacrifice that, as with the best live-action shorts, refuses to overstay its welcome.

Far outpacing its animated and live-action brethren, this year's documentary shorts offer wrenching views on death, dislocation, hardship and loss. Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry's Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 gets poignantly up close and personal at the Veterans Crisis Line, which receives 22,000 calls per month from military veterans, whom the film claims account for 20 percent of the nation's annual suicides. Despair of a different sort is scrutinized by White Earth, which focuses on the North Dakota oil boom's impact on three different kids/families. In 19 minutes, J. Christian Jensen's short conveys a wide-ranging, mournful sense of how economic and industrial forces shape ordinary lives—a topic also dealt with by The Reaper, a haunting character study of a Mexican slaughterhouse worker struggling to cope with a job that requires him, day after long day, to murder to support his clan.

An even more personal look at mortality comes in Joanna, director Aneta Kopacz's fragmented nonfiction film about a Polish mother dying of breast cancer and spending her final days with her young son (and husband). Though an affected non-chronological style sometimes stymies full engagement with its material, Kopacz's short, especially in a late shot of the woman's son tearfully processing the news that his mother will die, packs an almost unbearable wallop. Still, for pure emotional devastation, even Joanna can't quite match Our Curse, Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki's autobiographical documentary about their early days caring for their baby son Leo, who was born with a rare and incurable condition known as Ondine's curse, which could cause him to stop breathing while sleeping and required that he be attached to a ventilator. With raw, intense immediacy, Sliwinski and Slesicki shine a stark spotlight on their own fears, regrets and hopes, as well as on their infant boy's painful medical struggles. In the process, they come away with an unforgettable portrait of unwavering, indestructible parental love.

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