The films nominated for this year's Best Picture Oscar are all over the map. But the short-film categories tend to be a little different. When you watch all the nominated films every single year, you start to see specific themes or ideas that apply to them. All five live-action films this year weigh in with heavy drama, while the animated shorts, esoteric and introspective a year ago, are generally light. All of this year's animated nominees share at least one thing in common, too—they're wordless. All 10 nominees open at the Ken Cinema on Friday, Feb. 20, split into two programs—live-action and animated. There's not a stinker in the bunch, and the live-action films are collectively very strong. Here's my take on each of the shorts, and which ones I think should take a walk to the podium.
Lavatory Lovestory (Russia): It's simply drawn and almost entirely in black-and-white. But the emotions of a lonely woman who cleans a men's restroom, while she's trying to determine if she really has a secret admirer, are full of color.
Le Maison en Petits Cubes (Japan): The animation isn't as crisp as it is in the other pictures, but that makes it stand out. And when the movie is about an old man who explores and avoids his own memories by building one house on top of another on top of another, fuzziness is appropriate.
Oktapodi (France): When octopi fall for each other, there's plenty of arms for heavy petting—and also for rescuing each other from becoming the next seafood special. The computer animation is lovely, but it doesn't have the breadth or depth we've come to expect from Pixar.
Presto (U.S.): And speaking of Pixar, if you saw Wall-E, you saw this one play in front of it. It's gotten easy to take what they do for granted. This film, about a rabbit who declares mutiny against his magician in hopes of finally getting a carrot, is terribly funny, but it also has a sweet ending that ties it together.
This Way Up (U.K.): Here's my pick for the Oscar. Adam Foules and Alan Smith manage to touch on life, death, the afterlife and the way we relate to our parents, all in nine short minutes. To top it off, the animation is gorgeous, illustrating the story of a father-and-son undertaker team determined to deliver a body after their hearse suffers a death of its own.
On the Line (Germany / Switzerland): Move over, Paul Blart. A plainclothes department-store security guard has his eye on a woman who works at a store on his beat. But he makes a terrible decision when he sees what he thinks is another guy vying for her attention. Terrific performance from Roeland Wiesnekker.
Manon on the Asphalt (France): My close second for the Oscar. It's a simple story—a young woman involved in an accident wonders what will happen to her family, her friends and her boyfriend if she dies—but it's beautifully shot, brimming with emotion and held together by the perfect song.
New Boy (Ireland): Taken from Roddy Doyle's short story, this film looks at the first day of school for an African immigrant in Ireland. Yeah, he's picked on by the other kids, but the movie doesn't wallow in sentimentality.
The Pig (Denmark): The weakest of the bunch is still very good. An old man in the hospital takes comfort in a painting of a pig, until his Muslim roommate's family has it taken down. All questions over who's right or wrong go by the wayside when the two old men finally connect with each other.
Toyland (Germany): There have been plenty of Holocaust films this awards season, but this one expresses what they all tried to do and does it in less than 15 minutes. It's about a German woman who searches for her son on trains bound for the camps—and what happens when she comes face-to-face with her Jewish friends who have been rounded up. Both devastating and hopeful, and if I had a vote to give, it would be for Toyland.