2016: Oscar Nominated Short Films

It may be Hollywood’s biggest night, but the Academy Awards are much more than a TV show that trots out Hollywood’s elite and validates a life spent making movies. In a very real sense, those little statues open big doors. And not just for the top echelon but for those lost in the thick of a long broadcast.

Which is why the three short film categories—Animation, Live Action, and Documentary—are the ones to seek out. All of these filmmakers have big dreams, but due to financing and distribution, they must start small. If they prove themselves on this stage, then doors open where there weren’t doors before.

However, tracking down shorts is no easy task for the non-festival going public, which is why ShortsHD is giving a theatrical release of the year’s nominees. There are four total packages—due to its length; the documentary category is split into two programs—to cover all 15 nominees.

Your animated show of shows

Of the three categories, animation stands strongest, with entries from Pixar, Aardman, and genuine independents.

Pixar’s entry, Sanjay’s Super Team, is a child’s eye into the fantastical world of television and religion, connecting generations through storytelling. A reminder that for true believers, be they religious or commercially devoted, no matter how far-out the story seems, it is always true to those whose hearts are open to wonder.

But Sanjay’s Super Team is not the best nominee for this year’s Oscar. Nor is it the second-best. The Russian film, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos lacks the computer-generated wizardry of Pixar’s entry but manages to achieve a greater sense of empathy with a cruder animation style. Here, two lifelong friends push each other and compete against one another for a chance to go to outer space. It builds slower than Sanjay, but Cosmos proves that sometimes simplicity makes deeper connections.

Simplicity is the hallmark of Don Hertzfeldt’s work, and with World of Tomorrow, Hertzfeldt’s achievement isn’t just the best of the bunch but one of the year’s best movies altogether. Combining simple stick-figure drawings with dazzling abstract backgrounds, Hertzfeldt bites off the whole of humanity by employing time-traveling clones to remind past selves that the world we inhabit is a beautiful one, but that beauty is transient. The end result is as funny as it is heartbreaking.

World of Tomorrow may be the best, but the other nominees aren’t anything to shrug at. Bear Story—a Chilean computer-generated animation—tells the story of a melancholic street peddler whose coin-operated diorama tells the story of a bear who wishes to escape the circus and return to his family. It is as touching as Prologue is violent. Prologue—hand-drawn animation from Bristol’s Aardman Studios—is a marvelous study of human anatomy in the form of graphite sketches that come to life and recreate the horrors of ancient battle in unnervingly graphic detail.

A material world

The Oscars are historically unkind to comedy, and that rings true in the live-action shorts as only one of the nominees contains a laugh. Ave Maria—a co-production of France, Germany, and Palestine—finds a Jewish family stranded in the West Bank, where they must rely on a convent of nuns to get them home. It is the Sabbath, forbidding the family from operating any technology, and the sisters have all taken an oath of silence. The result is a humorous conflict of restrictions as the family and the nuns attempt to find a solution to their problem.

Interestingly, Ave Maria is not the only nominee where social conventions and prohibitions form the crux of drama. Day One follows an Afghan American woman on her first day as an army translator, a day that explores the miracles and complexities of life during wartime and the loss of humanity on both sides.

That humanity is not featured in Shok, the U.K.-Kosovo joint production that is as bleak as its title. As is the ironically titled, Everything Will Be OK, a Germany/Austria domestic drama concerning child custody.

Stutter is a somewhat uplifting and intimate drama about a man’s struggle with his speech impediment in a world dominated by the ability to speak one’s mind. By itself, Stutter is treacle, but surrounded by heavier entries, the movie takes on a breath of fresh air. A chance for the audience to catch their breath before being plunged once more into the dark matter of the world we inhabit.

Stories from the real

That deep dive into the dark recesses of our world continues with the documentary nominees—a dive that is as necessary as it is taxing. Particularly, Last Day of Freedom, which addresses mental health issues, PTSD in returning soldiers, capital punishment, and a brother’s struggle to do right by his own.

HBO Documentary Films has three nominees vying for this year’s award: Body Team 12 from Liberia, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness from Pakistan, and the U.S.-produced, Claude Lanzmann: Specters of the Shoah. Though these three wade into difficult subject matter—the horrors of Ebola in Body Team 12; behind the scenes of the seminal Holocaust documentary in Claude LanzmannGirl in the River, about a young woman who survived an “honor killing” from her father and uncle, is the story that speaks the loudest, addressing the ugly contradictions of life with brutal honesty.

There is an uplift to her resolve, as there is in Chau, Beyond the Lines. Chau, a Vietnamese boy, aspires to be an artist and designer despite his birth defects from the gallons of Agent Orange dumped on villagers during the Vietnam War.

Cinema is a humble reminder that the world is bigger than you think, and these 15 short films offer a variety of perspectives and aesthetics to match. All in bite-sized chunks that are easy to manage but difficult to forget.

The above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 26, “Big movies come in small films.”