Every year those who live near suitable art house theaters are gifted with a leg-up in Oscar pools: the films nominated for the animated and live-action short categories actually get screened for the public. (In some cities, including New York, they get the documentary ones, too.) It’s your chance to know a bunch of titles as more than anonymous names on a giant sheet of paper — and even to see some great cinema. Though not in all cases. Here’s our category-by-category breakdown:
Let’s cut to the chase: The title that should win this Oscar is “World of Tomorrow” (which you can also stream on Netflix).Filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt, who was nominated back in 2001 for the brilliant “Rejected,” draws in exaggerated stick figures, by hand, on actual paper, then animates them, old school. He’s increasingly integrated computers, as he did, to an extent, on his peerlessly insane Simpsons couch gag.
So too did it go with his latest, which finds a third-generation clone meeting her original, when she was a little girl. She’s too little, in fact, to grok the importance of her clone’s message: that life is short and fleeting, and not to be wasted on petty distractions. Along with its cold, gutting message — and its fount of darkly clever bits, like a brainless clone who grows old in public as part of a museum exhibit — there’s the look: harshly drawn characters against a riot of bold, beautiful colors. At 16 minutes it’s perfect, and perfectly balanced: equal parts depressing and hilarious.
No other short comes close, though it would be fine if the trophy went (as it likely will) to “Sanjay's Super Team,” the one the masses may have likely seen. It was the mini shown before “Inside Out,” and it’s very Pixar in the way it melds the wild with earned sentimentality, showing an Indian boy trying to unite his love for Western-style superheroes with his traditional father’s yen for faith and no less exciting Hindi gods.
Elsewhere, there’s the fairly gutting “Bear Story,” from Chile, in which a lonely anthropomorphic beast recreates his tragic life as an elaborate diorama for kids. “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” brings back the glory days of Russian cosmonauts, its childlike animation grounded by a tale of undying friendship. Longtime Canadian animator Richard Williams shows off his stuff in “Prologue,” which starkly recreates a brutal ancient war in elegant brushstrokes — perfect in its own way, too.
There’s a bonus this year: as animated films tend to be short, the program is padded out with four titles that almost made the cut. The best of these is “The Loneliest Stoplight,” another fluid wonder from the ever-out-there Bill Plympton, featuring Patton Oswalt as an alternately lonely and excitable inanimate object who very briefly finds himself popular before returning to uselessness. If we could all be so lucky.
Live Action Shorts
The animation wing of the Oscars favors versatility and expression. The live action portion prefers a specific type of film: maudlin tales, usually with a twist. “Shok” is the most typical of these (read: mark it on your Oscar party ballot), relating Serbian and Albanian strife from the childs’ eye view — “Fox and the Hound,” but with kids getting guns put to their head.
More noble is “Ave Maria,” another clash of cultures — this one more prone to gallows humor — with Palestinians forced to team up with nuns to solve a relatively mundane problem. More thumb-twiddling is “Day One,” about a fresh fish interpreter new to a war zone. The English “Stutterer” is at least a good calling card for its director, Benjamin Cleery, who crams us inside the head of a lonely man (Matthew Needham) whose severe speech impediment keeps love at bay, but whose head teems with eloquent and mordantly anguished patter. It’s all overwhelming until its token, groaning 11th hour plot turn.
Some years these wan entries are all we get. Occasionally there’s a treat. In 2013 it was the quietly intense “Just Before Losing Everything.” This year it’s the quietly intense “Everything Will Be Okay,” which follows as a father (Simon Schwarz) essentially kidnaps his young daughter from his ex, plying her with toys as he badly tries to spirit her out of the country. It’s done in a patient, observant style typical of many European dramas (with a darkly comic bent reminiscent of the Romanian New Wave, though it’s German/Austrian). Damned if this style, when done right, doesn’t work every time.