While many of Oscar's big shots clock in at more than two hours, 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 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. (See the Animated and Live-Action categories below; find Documentary entries online at westword.com.)
This year's animated shorts boast no true marvels, 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 I 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's "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 eighteen-minute effort, which squanders painterly animation (full of deep, florid brushstrokes) about a pig trying to make a friend at school.
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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, and of 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, 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 shared 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's "The Phone Call," in which Sally Hawkins's crisis-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, like 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 are then 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, like the best live-action shorts, refuses to overstay its welcome.