Often lost amid the Oscar season hype parade, the Academy Award–nominated short films are the lagniappe of the affair, a little extra dose of movie popcorn to munch on and enjoy, even if you skip out on the actual award show. (Let’s be honest, the Oscars pretty much skip the shorts.)
Once part of movie-house lineups — the days when Mickey Mouse and newsreels shared the stage with their feature-film brethren — short films became short on exposure and notice, and largely limited to the festival circuit, after the old model died long ago. With the rise of the internet and VOD options like Vimeo and iTunes (and signs of falling attention spans), however, a space is now emerging for viewing them once again. As an example, Academy Award–nominated documentary short “Our Curse” is a New York Times Op-Docs selection, while “Parvaneh,” a live-action short, will be appearing on iTunes, completing a long journey that began in 2012, when it was originally completed.
The arrival of the Oscar-nominated shorts — split into three programs: animated, live-action, and documentary — in theaters across the country offers a rare opportunity to sit down and take in a thicket of films in which detail, precision, and a certain amount of risk matter more because they’re in miniature. When you’re small, mistakes and flaws can seem all the more grave, as some films makes clear. (“The Phone Call,” for example, but more on that later; this entry will focus on the animated shorts, with takes on the live-action and documentary shorts to come.) At the same time, beauty and feeling can also shine brighter when bound up inside nutshells.
“The Dam Keeper” by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi (formerly of Pixar) is such an example. Painterly with scratchy, tactile strokes, it’s the lovingly rendered story of an anthropomorphic pig whose job is to keep a storm of smoke at bay by regularly running a windmill. While he’s able to protect the village, the same cannot be said for himself, as crocodiles, hippos and other animals harass him at school. Mixing ecological omen with schoolyard bullying and the worth of oneself with the value of each other, “The Dam Keeper” is lovely little allegory.
Sharing the subject of childhood’s small but numerous cuts and woe, “Me and My Moulton” is another strong entry among the five animated nominees. Directed by Torill Kove, this Norwegian short offers a colorful, bright-eyed recollection of her childhood in the 1960s, as the ambivalent middle child of three girls raised by a pair of somewhat myopic modernist parents. Bittersweet, “Me and My Moulton” explores memory’s tinges of love and regret.
In the “The Bigger Picture,” family matters are a darker, more difficult thing. Arguably the best and certainly the most dramatically inventive of the bunch, this British student film by Daisy Jacobs takes a thorny, humorous look at two at-odds brother and their dying mother. Using stop-motion and life-size painted animation, Jacobs conjures a mercurial environment of overlaid, disjunctive forms, reflecting the hard but intimate ties and the raw, seething feelings of family strife.
The two remaining shorts are more light hearted, though the Dutch “A Single Life,” directed by Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen, has its whimsy and its memento mori too. Delivered a new 45 rpm record, our curious character discovers to her amazement, and some dismay, that she and the record are existentially bound; skip ahead with the needle and she jerks forward through time, suddenly older with one in the oven. “Feast,” by Patrick Osborne, is the perennial Pixar entry — a good thing. A winner with 2012’s sweet “Paperman,” Osborne here offers the tale of Winston, an ever-hungry, ever-loving pooch that eats his way through a lifetime of tossed table scraps.
Rounding out the five official selections are four “highly commended” films, some pleasant bonus shorts selected by ShortsHD, most likely to give the overall screening more length.(Without them, the running time without be a thin 47 minutes.)
“Footprints,” from the great animator Bill Plympton, is an addled gun parable. “Sweet Cocoon,” by Matéo Bernard, Matthias Bruget, Jonathan Duret, Manon Marco, and Quentin Puiraveau, is a sort of French, forgettable A Bug’s Life. “Duet” is a stylistic, fleeting portrait of the dance of life and partnership by veteran Disney animator Glen Keane, and Tali’s “Bus Story” tells the quirky, dopey tale of a newbie school-bus driver in rural Canada.
No single animated short is heads above the others this year, which is just as well. Whereas the regular Oscars are about winning, the short film category is arguably more eclectic and egalitarian, content with seeing and being seen.
The 2015 Academy Award–nominated animated short films are currently playing at IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue, West Village, Manhattan), BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave, Fort Greene, Brooklyn), and on Vimeo, as well as in select theaters around the country.