Similar to the selections of vanilla nominees in virtually every other category at this year's Academy Awards, the sheared list of Best Animated and Live Action Shorts is a decidedly mixed bag. Sidestepping the silly qualifying requirements these films must complete in order to be eligible (a convoluted process worthy of its own thinkpiece), the Academy branches who nominate these categories oftentimes favor social issues and sentimentality over the daring and difficult. It's no surprise that this consensus weeds out artistic innovation.
The most glaring examples of this trend come in the Best Live Action Short category. Day One, a "ripped from the headlines" war story from director Henry Hughes, was produced at the esteemed American Film Institute in Los Angeles, a program meant to seamlessly segue students into the Hollywood ranks. Watching this overbearing and melodramatic drama, one gets the sense that Hughes and his crew wanted to appeal to the Academy's basest liberal guilt.
An Army interpreter (Layla Alizada) experiences the horrors of war during her first day on tour in Afghanistan. The American soldiers she accompanies to a bomb maker's residence end up causing more collateral damage, and she is forced into an unimaginable situation with a pregnant Muslim woman. It's a manipulative look at every complexity involved in a conflict where religion, ideology and professionalism are all at odds.
Less insulting but equally inert is Ave Maria, a socially aware comedy of errors about a bubbling Jewish family that crashes their car into a church in Palestine, decapitating a Virgin Mary statue and upsetting the silent routine of five nuns. Not much is gleaned from this scenario about the ongoing regional conflict; just that those who are so indebted to religious practices often compromise these values when it suits them best. For a nice musical alternative, check out the 2005 nominee West Bank Story.
Taking place during the Kosovo war, Shok looks at the friendship of two young Albanian boys whose innocence is destroyed thanks to the volatile and devastating military occupation. Directed by Jamie Donoughue, the film is less sensational than Day One but often reeks of the same calculating, cloying structure.
Leave it to the least complicated film in the category, Benjamin Cleary's melancholic romance Stutterer, to remind us that simpler is often better. Matthew Needham gives an endearing performance as a socially awkward man with a speech impediment attempting to navigate the uncertain waters of online dating. It's fleeting and lovely.
The films are far more interesting in the Best Animated Short category, where director Richard Williams' Prologue efficiently sketches out a close-contact battle between Athenian and Spartan warriors. Due to its precise understanding of action, this was the one short I wished was longer.
If you've seen The Good Dinosaur then you've already had the pleasure of watching Sanjay's Super Team, the short film that preceded it, a subtly powerful fantasy about generational communication, identity, and hero worship.
In We Can't Live Without the Cosmos, Russian director Konstantin Bronzit traces the intimate relationship between two cosmonauts training for a mission into space. The enduring and magical qualities of friendship eventually undermine the suffocating effects of institutional bureaucracy.
Overshadowing all comers is Don Hertzfeldt's masterful, mind-bending World of Tomorrow, which clearly stands out as the most formidable and lasting film of the group. Using his patented stick figures and kaleidoscope of shifting shapes and spaces, Hertzfeldt's luminous sci-fi effort follows a young girl and her future clone as they traveling across time periods, examining both the devolution of species and self.
While the juvenile protagonist sees it all as a visceral adventure, the audience witnesses a forthcoming apocalypse. Memory, trauma and sorrow all collide in clever anecdotes juxtaposed with a mosaic of colorful, fluid backdrops. "I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive," says the clone. World of Tomorrow has more life in 16 minutes than most features. See it.
Both Oscar shorts programs open Friday, Jan. 29, at the Ken Cinema.