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February 4, 2013

Is that an Oscar in your shorts, or are you just happy to be nominated?

[img id="104131" align="left"/]With the Oscars only three weeks away, Daniel Day-Lewis is practicing his acceptance speech for Lincoln, Ben Affleck is trying to find a spot where his Best Picture Oscar won’t look too lonely without the Best Director statuette, and Disney is salivating over the prospect of winning two Best Feature categories with Wreck-It-Ralph and “Paperman.”

What’s "Paperman," you ask? An awesome five-minute featurette that’s nominated for Best Animated Short Film. It stands in the company of a Simpsons short featuring Maggie Simpson in daycare hell and a Claymation flick that tells the story of an elderly couple who are literally never on the same level, among others. Audiences should count themselves lucky to have had the chance to see “Paperman,” because the reality is that most years we, the viewers, have no choice but to watch with curiosity as the Best Live Action and Best Animated Short Films are presented and then pushed back into the obscurity they came from. Luckily, though, Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema is periodically screening all the movies nominated for Best Live Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film this year.

The group of Short Live Action films is solid overall. The first to be shown at my screening was the Dutch-language French/Belgian film “Death of a Shadow.” I was instantly drawn into its world, which had tonal and visual similarities to Scorsese’s Hugo, but had a tragic love story at the center of its plot and dealt fascinatingly with the theme of death. It also had influences from Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of any of those films, and it is one of my top two picks for winner.

My top pick, however, is “Henry,” a French-Canadian submission that tells the heartbreaking story of an old man who suffers from dementia. Using innovative storytelling, the film conveys emotion in a much subtler manner than some of its competition. Still, everybody around me was trying to stifle their sobs. Up next was “Curfew,” an American submission that tuned down sadness in favor of drama. It follows the adventures of a depressed drug addict and his niece, whom he hadn’t seen in years, after he is forced to babysit her for a few hours when her mother can’t find anyone else. The little girl has a few requisite sassy one-liners, and even stars in her own Bollywood-esque moment. I doubt it will take home the Oscar.

The other two films in the category were underwhelming. The first was an American/Afghani entry made in Kabul, “Buzkashi Boys,” whose story centers around two young boys, one a fatherless orphan known as Ahmad who dreams of becoming a buzkashi rider (the sport is similar to polo, but the riders use a mutilated goat carcass instead of a ball). Finally, there’s “Asad,” the story of a boy in Somalia who yearns to join a group of pirates (read, Somali pirates). The tone of this one was all over the place, and some scenes were flat-out baffling.

I expected the films in the Best Animated Short Film category to be stronger than the Live Action nominees, but the quality was, in fact, much less consistent. There are some bright spots, among them “Paperboy,” animated by John Kahr. The film is like a master class in experimental animation and has the best score of the bunch by far. The other stand-out is “Head Over Heels,” a Claymation film about an elderly couple that can’t interact because one travels along the floor, the other on the ceiling. The Simpsons submission, “The Longest Day Care,” was insanely clever and well made. The longest entry, “Adam and Dog,” features beautiful old-school 2D animation and shows the touching tale of the original man-dog relationship: the one between Adam and his dog in the Garden of Eden.

The only truly perplexing entry is “Fresh Guacamole,” which draws a fine line between live action and animation in what can best be described as a crash course in making guacamole using dice, chips, light bulbs, and other inedible objects. The fact that it was nominated called into question how fruitful the field of animated shorts really is.

Watching these films, it becomes clear that there are possibilities available in the short film genre that are not available to full-length features. There’s room for offbeat stories that wouldn’t necessarily fit a ninety-minute mold. This can result in charming, creative tales. It’s a shame that audiences are so often unaware of their existence.

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