At Oscar time, short films are both an afterthought and a corrective. Office-pool hustlers will hope for a lucky break or an inside line (Is there a Pixar cartoon? Something with cute kids? A Holocaust theme?), while more casual observers will brace themselves for disproportionately long, achingly sincere speeches from filmmakers nobody has ever heard of. But if the shorts are inevitably upstaged by the main show, they also offer a vision of what the Academy Awards should and could be but very rarely are: eclectic, cosmopolitan, scrappy and surprising.
As the white, male, aesthetically conservative and commercially cautious biases of the main categories come (once again) under critical scrutiny, the shorts offer (once again) a glimpse of genuine diversity. Maybe they don’t quite encompass the full range of modern cinematic styles and sensibilities, but most of them show a willingness to take chances with genre and dig beneath the surface of reality. Not everything is original or prize-worthy, but nothing here is what you would call Oscar bait. (The nominees for best short documentary, short animated film and live-action short are being released in three separate anthology features.)
Start with the documentaries, which are traditionally the longest of the shorts, their running times stretched to 20, 30 and 40 minutes by the complexity of real life and the protocols of television, increasingly the native habitat of nonfiction filmmaking. Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 comes from HBO’s formidable documentary enterprise, and it displays some of the cable channel’s signature attributes. It’s polished, tough-minded and topical, delivering a strong, clean emotional punch without feeling manipulative. Filmed in a crisis center in upstate New York that handles calls from military veterans — many of them threatening suicide or violence — Crisis Hotline, directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent, provides a haunting reminder of the toll war exacts from those who fight as well as the assurance that at least some help is available.
This is the kind of movie that exists partly to bring attention to a problem, and it’s somewhat surprising that Crisis Hotline is the only nominee that embraces the awareness-raising task so prevalent in documentary today. (This civic commitment, along with its unimpeachable patriotism, may make it a favorite to win.)
White Earth, about children living in a North Dakota town transformed by oil drilling, might have taken a similar tack, but its director, J. Christian Jensen, prefers to explore the social and environmental implications of his subject with artful detachment. He offers a straightforward, lyrically edited snapshot of a complicated, rapidly changing landscape: a tiny town flooded with newcomers seeking to cash in on the petroleum boom, or at least just to climb out of debt and improve their children’s chances of upward mobility.
La Parka (The Reaper), a film from Mexico directed by Gabriel Serra Arguello, also looks at an industrial workplace, in this case a slaughterhouse where the title character has been employed for many years. Like some other recent Mexican documentaries — notably El Velador (The Night Watchman), Natalia Almada’s astonishing tour of a cemetery for drug traffickers — La Parka brings serene, patient curiosity to a place of almost unimaginable, largely invisible violence. The moral and existential gravity of what the Reaper does — “It’s my nickname because I’m a killer,” he says — is implicit in every shot of this quiet, beautiful film, and so is his own taciturn and peculiar grace.
The struggle for grace in the face of tragedy is the shared theme of two films from Poland: Aneta Kopacz’s Joanna, about a young mother facing terminal cancer, and Our Curse, about a couple whose newborn baby has a rare, incurable and potentially fatal breathing disorder. Both films are closer to memoir than journalism and collapse the distance between filmmaker and subject almost entirely. (Tomasz Sliwinski, the director of Our Curse, is the father of the baby, and much of the film consists of late-night conversations between him and his wife as they sit on the couch facing the camera.) Their aim is not advocacy but intimacy, and a measure of their success is the extent to which they elicit both empathy and discomfort.
The animated shorts aren’t all fun and games either. They are, as you might expect, livelier and briefer than their documentary counterparts, but in contrast to the cheery sentimentality that dominates feature-length commercial animation, these little movies tackle some pretty dark and grown-up themes. The one exception, naturally, comes from Walt Disney Animation Studios, in the form of a delightful waggy-dog story called Feast, directed by Patrick Osborne. It’s a life-cycle story, racing through a dozen or so dog years in the life of its fast-growing, perpetually hungry protagonist — in other words, a kind of canine companion to Boyhood.
Conveying the passage of time was Richard Linklater’s great challenge in that film, and his success gives the film much of its power and novelty. In animation, though, a character can age in the space of a few frames, and the process can even be reversed. That’s what happens in A Single Life, directed by Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen, in which a 45 r.p.m. record of the title song sends a woman skipping forward and backward through the milestones of her existence. The movie winks at mortality but also has a melancholy graveyard chill.
A Single Life and Feast both make use of the rounded figures and three-dimensional spaces that dominate commercial animation. But the older disciplines of stop-motion and hand-drawn animation (usually with digital enhancements) still flourish. They coexist in The Bigger Picture, Daisy Jacobs’s somber, witty study of two brothers squabbling and seething as they care for their dying mother. The images, at once flat and tactile, crude and subtle, serve the psychology of the story perfectly, tying an anecdote of family strife into knots of difficult feeling.
The two most complex and rewarding of the nominated animated films — and those that, I have a feeling, are therefore least likely to win — are about the terrors and regrets of childhood. The Dam Keeper, directed by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, is a wondrous allegory of ecological and emotional woe wrapped in a tale of bullying and betrayal. Its penciled colors and sometimes sharp, sometimes smudgy images of anthropomorphized animals (the main character is a misfit pig, his only friend a mischievous fox) are charming without being especially cute.
The live-action, nondocumentary shorts swim a little closer to the mainstream, with a few familiar faces and voices in the casts (Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent in The Phone Call, for instance) and simpler, more accessible emotions in the stories. Boogaloo and Graham, by Michael Lennox, is a sweet, almost-credible story of two young brothers in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the Troubles whose devotion to their pet chickens causes havoc in their household. “The Phone Call,” directed by Mat Kirkby, consists of a long, agonized conversation between a crisis-hotline counselor (Ms. Hawkins) and a suicidal caller (Mr. Broadbent). Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’s Aya, from Israel, is an interesting, smoothly-shot entry in the two-strangers-talking-in-a-car genre.
The two standouts are Hu Wei’s Butter Lamp, a deceptively simple film in which a Tibetan photographer interacts with his clients in front of a series of picturesque backdrops, and Parvaneh, directed by Talkhon Hamzavi, which follows a young refugee from Afghanistan through a difficult day and night in Zurich. Both films convey a sense that human beings are endlessly mysterious, and the cinema has only just begun to explore their mysteries. That’s not exactly the feeling you get on Oscar night, but it’s worth seeking out.