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Every year, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences get things wrong. Filmgoers’ righteous protests—which nominations are unworthy, which snubs are unfathomable—are subjective, of course, and the misguided picks usually few enough to prevent all-out Sturm und Drang.
But then the 2015 nominations were announced. Total Sturm und Drang.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the animated and live-action shorts chosen to compete this year are, for the most part, a whole lot of meh. The live-action collection is the bigger disappointment, with even the bestof the lot—a suicide story starring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent called The Phone Call—failing to connect enough dots for a satisfactory conclusion. Boogaloo and Graham is more lighthearted, focusing on two young brothers in 1978 Belfast whose father gives them baby chicks to raise. Again, there’s a question mark or two left at the end, but the resolution of the family’s bickering over the chickens when they get older feels truthful and loving despite the incomprehensible arguments.
Aside from one touching moment, the Tibetan-language Butter Lamp, a collaboration between France and China, also leaves you shrugging. It’s about an itinerant photographer who schleps around various backdrops and persuades Tibetans to let him take their photo. The hinted-at message of the film is that the photographer, with his multitudes of exotic scenery, is bringing a bit of joy into the lives of people too poor to travel. But it’s too slight to make an emotional impact.
The two final live-action candidates, Parvaneh and Aya, center on young women who make new friends—one out of necessity, the other out of dissatisfaction with her life. You root for Parvaneh, an Afghan who, in the snoozy start of the film, is living in Switzerland, timid and unfamiliar with her new home. When she asks an outgoing, enterprising blonde to help her wire money to her family back home, the woman brings out Pari’s inner badass. The title character in Aya, however, is clearly unhinged, deciding while she’s waiting for someone else at the airport to pose as a professional driver for a foreign man traveling to Jerusalem. Aya won the Israeli version of an Oscar for best short, but through its entire 40-minute runtime, this woman and her refusal to be honest—or give a reason for her action—will make you as batty as she is.
The animated shorts may not have stronger messages, but they do have stronger storytelling. A Single Life is full of charming touches, opening with a 20-ish woman about to eat pizza right out of the box when a delivery arrives. It’s an album, and when she puts it on the record player, she discovers that time moves back and forth along with the needle—so, naturally, she checks out different periods of her life.The film doesn’t end on the best note, but its earlier whimsy stays with you.
In capturing the life of an orphaned pig who’s in charge of running a windmill dam that keeps pollution out of his animal-populated town, The Dam Keeper is tinged with loneliness. The pig is mocked for being dirty and shunned at his school, supporting a message about the power of friendship. Though it could use a bit more cheer to better counter the bleakness, well, it’s about a little piggie—it’s cute even when it’s sad.
There’s no joy at all in The Bigger Picture, a story about an ill elderly woman cared for by her two adult sons who don’t get along. Add the title to that summary, and you’ll see where this one’s heading. Disney’s Feast, meanwhile, follows the company’s laugh-and-a-tear formula with a clever story about a puppy whose frequently human diet changes from junk food to greens—much to his displeasure— as his owner trades bachelorhood for married life.
Though the sight of a bouncy dog diving into a bowl of popcorn is adorable, the Canadian Me and My Moulton is the best of the lot, a 14-minute portrayal of a family as narrated by the middle of three daughters. Her voiceover describes her jealousy of the traditionally-minded tenants who live below them. (Watching the girls sporadically topple over in art-deco kitchen chairs while no one pays attention is rather hilarious.) The film is simply drawn, the narration deadpan: “We’re off-topic,” the daughter interrupts a family discussion to tell us. Me and My Moulton may be less than a quarter of an hour long, but it delivers everything you look for in a good film.
All in all, it’s a laudable lot, but if this selection parallels the rest of the Oscar nominations, just imagine: Somewhere out there, there’s a short-film equivalent of the shameful Lego Movie snub.
Screenings of the Oscar-nominated shorts begin Jan. 30 at E Street Cinema.