The Oscar-nominated short films are always something of a mixed bag, but this year gives us a particularly strange crop. While there’s always at least one sentimental entry among the live-action films, the most recent nominees are notably melancholy — excepting Butter Lamp, a French and Chinese co-production set in Tibet. The camera in this poignant but funny short never moves. A photographer takes pictures of families, groups of children, a couple; he has props and backgrounds, and encounters minor officials and mischievous kids. With each click of the shutter, the scene changes, along with the photographer’s relationship to his subjects.
Parvaneh, from Switzerland, is carried by the tentative friendship struck up between the title character, an Afghan girl living in Germany, and the local girl she enlists to help her send money to her parents back home. Aya, from Israel, begins with a quirky, seemingly random decision made by its title character, then veers off in a new direction — but not convincingly so. Overlong, if effective at conveying the awkwardness of two strangers put in close proximity, it feels like a short story that needed a stronger editor.
Boogaloo and Graham, a cloying little film from the UK, is about two boys whose father gives them a pair of chickens. The father is a softie, while mom is presented only as a shrew, right up to the end, with its well-meant but unsatisfying twist. Also from the UK is The Phone Call, which stars Sally Hawkins as a woman at a crisis center who gets a call from a suicidal elderly gentleman (Jim Broadbent). As good as both actors are, the entire scenario is a cliché, and all the more so at the end, when our heroine decides to live a little.
The animated shorts are much more varied, though Feast, the latest Disney short (it showed before Big Hero 6) wasn’t available to watch. It appears to involve a puppy with a voracious appetite, and is probably a shoo-in to win. But the other films have charms of their own: The Bigger Picture, from the UK, inventively animates the frustrations of a man taking care of his ailing mother while his brother flits in and out, avoiding anything difficult. The two-minute A Single Life, from the Netherlands, is a clever, dark little fantasy in which a mysterious package, containing only a record, throws a woman’s life abruptly into new light.
In Me and My Moulton, from Canada, Norwegian-born Torill Kove tells a bittersweet and endearing autobiographical story about families, envy and expectations. The Dam Keeper turns a familiar story about not fitting in into a gorgeously rendered tale about a young pig who alone works the dam that holds back a strange darkness from his small, animal-populated town. Friendship and art play supporting roles in this American film, which is the one most likely to pull off a Disney upset.
Oscar-nominated shorts start screening Jan. 30 at Bijou Art Cinemas, 492 E. 13th Ave.