Every year, movie nuts do their best to see every nominated film before the Oscars. The ceremony's been bumped up by a couple of weeks this year, which cuts down the amount of time film fanatics have to get to the theater. The toughest movies to see before Oscar night are the foreign-language films—many of which don't get theatrical releases prior to the ceremony—and the shorts. But, once again, the Oscar-nominated live-action and animated films will play the Ken Cinema for at least a week staring Friday, Feb. 1.
I've seen all 10 nominated shorts, and though some are better than others, and some are a bit precious, there really isn't a bad film in the bunch.
The five animated films have two things in common. First, they're all American, and, second, none has spoken dialogue, which makes for an interesting dichotomy.
It's sort of surprising to see a short that comes out of The Simpsons in this mix, but Maggie Simpson is the star of The Longest Daycare, which is a terrific look at the way different people respond to society, be it good, bad or ugly, and the different ways in which we group and treat our children. (Bear in mind that this takes place at the Ayn Rand Daycare Center.)
Adam and Dog by Minkyu Lee examines man's relationship to his best friend, which dates as far back as the Garden of Eden.
Director and animator PES has been making smart, quirky, stop-motion films for ages, but Fresh Guacamole marks his first Oscar nomination. It's easy to dismiss what he does here, combining everyday objects into a dish (this is a follow-up to his previous film, Western Spaghetti), but the way he times his sequences and edits them together just makes it look easy. It's not.
The other stop-motion animated film here is Head Over Heels, a sweet little allegory about an older couple who've grown so far apart that Walter lives on the ceiling while Madge still walks around on the floor. The stop-motion work is impressive, and there's an emotional backdrop to it that's palpable.
But I believe my favorite of this batch is Paperman, a Disney short that ran in front of Wreck-It Ralph. Made in (mostly) glorious black-and-white, it wordlessly tells the story of a urban office drone who meets the girl of his dreams and uses paper airplanes to get her attention and free himself from his cubicle hell. It looks great, has a wistful feel to it and is sweetly romantic.
While all five animated films hail from the U.S., the live-action shorts come from around the globe. The sole American movie, Curfew, was one of my favorites, though. It tells the tale of a black-sheep uncle who's tasked with looking after his niece for a few hours, an encounter that will change at least one of them—in a good way—for the long run.
I wasn't as crazy about Henry, the French-Canadian short about an elderly pianist desperate to hold on to his memories.
I thought the most ingenious of them was Death of a Shadow, which is smart and odd, a weird-ass look at Nathan, who's made a deal with the devil to document 10,000 deaths in hopes of earning back his life. The movie stars Matthias Schoenarts, who was so damn good in last year's Oscar-nominated Bullhead, but is unrecognizable in this entirely different movie.
Still, my guess is that the award will end up going to the Somali film Asad or, more likely, Buzkashi Boys. The former is about a boy who wants to be a modern-day pirate and has a cast made up entirely of Somali refugees. The latter was shot on location in Kabul and is also about children; it's not a perfect film, but the backdrop of that broken country is both beautiful and startling, to the point where you almost stop watching the actors because you're so immersed in what's happening around them.