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Once again the Academy Award-Nominated shorts will be playing in theaters around the country. You can buy a separate ticket for each of three programs: Animated, Live Action, and Documentary.

It seems audiences have finally caught on to the entertainment value of short films. Makers of short films are often desperately creative people with a lot to say. Maybe they don’t have the time or budget to commit to a feature film, but they manage to express themselves and tell their story within their means.

Parents fret over their first child in the short documentary Our Curse
Parents fret over their first child in the short documentary Our Curse

A lot of shorts get made every year. Many are submitted to film festivals and posted on-line. A few get selected to screen at festivals. And only 15 get nominated for an Oscar. So by the time the field has been narrowed down, you can be sure that a ticket to the Oscar Shorts is going to be pretty good.

Good: Yes, Best: Maybe

Having prepped you for the best, I’m now going to reveal my heartless puppy-kicking side by saying: I’ve seen better batches of shorts than this year’s contenders. (Caveat: I’ve only seen 13 of this year’s 15 nominated shorts — two were not readily available for review.) Rather than pick on individual films, I’ll generalize.

The documentary shorts are well produced and contain good — sometimes striking — photography. They reveal what’s going on in the world at both the personal and societal level. However, a great documentary will also have a story arc or some other formal structure that reveals a cunning filmmaker, not just an observer, and none of this year’s documentaries really caught me by surprise and blew me away.

The best live-action shorts, like the best short stories, usually have some sort of devastating punch line that sends you off with an entirely new perspective on what you thought you were seeing. Most of his year’s live-action shorts lack that powerful conclusion. What they have instead is still quite good: well realized characters, slice-of-life stories, and interesting locations. It’s interesting to note that there is not an American film among them — they are from Israel, Ireland, France/Tibet, Switzerland, and England.

Your ticket to the Animated Shorts program will let you see the five nominees, plus several “Highly Commended Films” to pad out its length. One of the most crucial aspects to an animated short is characterization. The best cartoons have likeable or empathetic characters. Yes, an interesting visual style is important, and so is a good story, but without someone you can root for, it’s all just so much color and motion. Luckily, most of the shorts in this program — including the non-nominees — will engage you.

... And The Winner Is...

If you can only buy one ticket, my recommendation is to buy a ticket to the Animated shorts program. The other programs have 5 films each, and this one has 9. So if there’s one you don’t like, you have that many more chances to make up for it. I also think the animated program has more excellent shorts than either of the other programs.

My two favorites from the animated program — the ones that have lodged most firmly in my mind — are The Dam Keeper and Me and My Moulton.

The Dam Keeper has a charcoal-and-pastel style to it. It features a young pig whose job is to run the windmill on the dam that keeps the darkness from inundating the cheerful European-looking town where he lives. By the end the dam becomes a moving metaphor for emotional control — not just for people like the little pig but for all of us.

Me and My Moulton has less of a story; instead it’s the reminiscence of the middle girl of three sisters, growing up with progressive (read: “weird”) parents in Sweden. The simple, child-like drawing style is complemented by vivid primary colors and loud, “mod” patterns. Though the narrator wishes her family were “normal,” it’s easy to be charmed by the inspired defiance of convention by her parents who are both architects.

Runners Up

If you decide to buy one more ticket, I’d recommend choosing the Documentaries program next. It’s the longest of the programs, at 160 minutes. At the very least, the program will move and inform you. One of the shorts, about a slaughterhouse worker in Mexico, might even make you squirm.

My favorite from this program is Our Curse, which features a young couple facing the prospect of raising their first child who will have to be attached to a ventilator and monitored very closely. Of course, most first-time parents will face the same challenges and worries: will my child be okay, will I lose my mind from lack of sleep, what if I blow it as a parent? Great production and carefully controlled editing make this one stand out.

My favorite from the Live-Action program is the odd little French/Tibetan one that tries to look like a documentary, called Butter Lamp (in English). It’s short, sweet, visually interesting, and it actually has a minor surprise at the end that you might not “get” if you don’t know about modern Chinese/Tibetan news. (Read up on it if you aren’t sure; my news-junkie wife filled me in.)

Actually, my favorite live-action short from this year didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. Since I may not get the chance again, I’ll tip my hat to Helberger in Paradise, which in a short matter of minutes created a completely believable character, an entire back story, and a fully realized world in which these characters could live. Good acting, pacing, and tension were the icing on the cake. Too bad it’s not making the rounds. As we all know, sometimes, the Academy gets it wrong.