Butter Lamps (image courtesy ShortsHD)

In our first review of the 2015 Oscar-nominated short films, the imaginative animated shorts led things off. With less than a week to go until the awards themselves, it’s time to get cozy with their often stonier cousins, the live-action shorts.

Comprising misspent celebrity (Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent in Mat Kirkby’s “The Phone Call”), an elegiac and astute pseudo-documentary (Hu Wei’s best-in-class “Butter Lamp”), and a bevy of fine human interest tales (“Boogaloo and Graham Michael,” “Aya,” and “Parvaneh”), the five live-action nominees read out like an ECG line in their critical trajectory: broadly good, with one champion and one plunging also-ran. All feature fine performances and seem to view human relationships as a source for optimism, or at least understanding.

In “The Phone Call,” Hawkins plays a bookish crisis-hotline worker on the line with a sad-voiced, solace-seeking gentleman. He (Broadbent) tearily explains that he just wants to talk: no help, no intervention. Hawkins is kind but not entirely helpless, and in the end, she lands the sweet, cute guy at work. Opening with promise and an agonizing, affecting scenario, the film blows it all up with a silly, feel-good delusion.

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In Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’s “Aya,” the two Israeli filmmakers play with the dynamic of relationships and the eternal question of “what if?” Mistaken for an airport driver, the titular character does not protest and goes along for the ride, exploring the handsome man now in her car as she drives him to Jerusalem. It’s an intriguing portrait of the peculiarity of intimacy, but at nearly 40 minutes it falls somewhere between too short for its characters and too long for its plot. (Binnun and Brezis are at work on a full-length adaptation of “Aya,” their first feature film.)

Two of the nominated shorts offer worldly, sweet takes on childhood and surprise friendships: “Boogaloo and Graham,” directed by Michael Lennox, and “Parvaneh,” by Talkhon Hamzavi. Both are likely audience favorites and potential Oscar winners. In “Boogaloo and Graham,” a surprise friendship sparks up between the eponymous male chickens, swiftly charming brothers Jamesy and Malachy, though not their mother. Amid The Troubles of Northern Ireland, the duos crack up the house, exposing the long trail of their family’s love. It’s a smart, misfit tale of familial battles and quirky conciliation; others should take note.

A Swiss punk and an Afghan refugee pair up in “Parvaneh.” The story could have been cloying, but Tehran-born, Swiss-based Hamzavi and her talented cast imbue the girls with bright, small-scale kindness. The film moves with their invisible rhythm of trust and companionship.

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The simplest and the most magical of all the nominated live-action shorts, “Butter Lamp” (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak), both is and is not an illusion. It’s not a documentary, nor is it a realist film. Inspired by an image from the past, it ends with a picture of an imagined future. Director Wei collaborated with nonprofessional Tibetan actors to shoot these artful, charged vignettes of families and couples performing in front of scenic, quietly complicated backdrops. The images record their subjects’ appearances (and anxieties), but cannot preserve their way of life. “Butter Lamp” is a reflection on a changing world — and arguably the best of the bunch.

Conveniently, the film also provides a neat segue to the next and final Oscar shorts category: documentaries. Stay tuned…

The 2015 Academy Award–nominated live-action 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.

Jeremy Polacek

A son of the Chicago suburbs, Jeremy Polacek has somehow lived in New York City longer than in that metropolis of the Midwest. Often found in the dim light of the theatre or library, he tweets at @JeremyPolacek.

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