The Academy Award-nominated short films are sometimes dismissed as the Raisinets of the Oscars: bite-sized portions of cinematic sweetness, with only nominal nutritional value. The reality is quite different. Despite films that do, sometimes, hew to the gently inspirational and uplifting, particularly in the category of animation, which Pixar has historically dominated, Oscar shorts are more often than not deeply serious and powerfully moving works of storytelling.
That’s never been more obvious than this year, when even the animated program — now being showcased in area theaters, along with live action and documentaries — is sprinkled with seriously grown-up content: sex, nudity and even bestiality; police-state violence; loneliness, suicide and the aching alienation of modern life.
Here’s what to expect from the three Oscar short showcases that arrive in theaters this week (and in some cases, as noted below, online).
Aardman Animations’ “Robin Robin” (available on Netflix) is the closest thing to what people have come to expect from this category: a whimsical, stop-motion fable about an abandoned robin that has been raised by mice — and hence behaves like one, sneaking into people’s homes for crumbs of food. With characters sculpted from felted wool (rather than clay), and voice work by Richard E. Grant and Gillian Anderson, it’s the sole family-friendly offering this year.
At the other end of the spectrum is the deeply disturbing Chilean film “Bestia,” which uses stop-motion ceramic characters to tell a surreal tale of torture and psychic rupture under a secret-police state. It’s a bizarre, violent and virtually wordless nightmare. A more conventional narrative can be found in the Russian “Boxballet,” about the romance between a spaghetti-thin ballerina and a muscle-bound boxer, but it’s a far cry from a stereotypical love story. “Affairs of the Art,” a hand-drawn sequel to three earlier animated shorts by Joanna Quinn — all featuring a character called Beryl — follows, appropriately enough, a woman’s obsession with making art.
Critic’s pick Using a collage of dialogue, part improvised and part scripted, and gorgeous Photoshop “paintings” by Spanish director Alberto Mielgo, “The Windshield Wiper” is a meditation on love — or, rather, its impermanence, perhaps even its impossibility. The shortest of the five nominees at 15 minutes, it bites off the largest theme: the pain of separation and disengagement in a world mediated by electronic screens and virtual relationships.
Unrated (treat as R). The animation program contains violent images, strong language, nudity, sexual situations, animal abuse, bestiality, mature thematic elements, including suicide, and smoking. 97 minutes.
The Danish film “On My Mind” is perhaps the most sweet and poignant of the five nominees, and yet it deals with a tough subject: A man (Rasmus Hammerich) recording a karaoke version of “Always on My Mind” for his wife, who is about to be removed from life support. It’s a weeper.
From there, the program gets progressively darker and more unsettling, with a Kafka-esque sci-fi parable about the unfairness of the criminal justice system (“Please Hold”); a drama about a sudden burst of anti-immigrant violence in Britain (“The Long Goodbye,” starring and co-written by Riz Ahmed); and “The Dress,” a depressing Polish tale, centering on a lonely woman with dwarfism (Anna Dzieduszycka) and an incident of date rape.
Critic’s pick The drama “Ala Kachuu — Take and Run” picks up on the broad theme of violence against women with a shocking story, set in the Kyrgyz Republic, that spotlights the little-known practice of ala kachuu, or bride kidnapping. Its heroine is Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova), a 19-year-old student who is abducted from the capital city of Bishkek by a group of rural men — all strangers — and taken to the hinterlands to enter a forced marriage.
The fact that the practice still takes place today gives the film, by German-Swiss director Maria Brendle, a sense of real urgency that is well captured by this thriller-like mini-movie. Brendle, who often focuses on women’s issues, tells a story that feels not just watchable but necessary.
Unrated (treat as R). The live action program contains violence, including sexual assault, strong language, mature thematic elements and smoking. 125 minutes.
Themes of suicide, homelessness and addiction color three of the five documentaries (all three of which are available on Netflix). “Audible” tells the story of students at Frederick’s Maryland School for the Deaf, who are coping with the suicide of a former classmate. “Lead Me Home” looks at the growing number of unhoused people in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. “Three Songs for Benazir” follows a young man living in a displaced person’s camp in Afghanistan, and his fall into addiction after he takes on a job harvesting poppies for opium and heroin, to support his wife — the titular Benazir.
“Audible,” which also focuses on overcoming adversity through football, is perhaps the least bleak of those three films. But “The Queen of Basketball” (available at nytimes.com) is the real sports charmer: The film is a portrait of Lusia “Lucy” Harris, a pioneer in women’s basketball, who, as the star player at Mississippi’s Delta State University in the pre-Title IX 1970s, led the team to three national championships, and who played in the 1976 Olympics — the first appearance by a women’s basketball team.
Critic’s pick “When We Were Bullies” really stands apart here. Made by Jay Rosenblatt, an experimental filmmaker known for “collage documentaries” that incorporate archival footage, “Bullies” is a deeply personal essay about the director’s childhood, centering on an instance of bullying in which Rosenblatt participated when he was in fifth grade. It’s an exhumation of the long-buried past, told with a mix of found footage, animation, first-person voice-over and traditional interviews.
It may not be the most topical or newsy of the documentary selections, but it is, hands down, the most artful.
Unrated (treat as R). The documentary program contains strong language and mature thematic elements, including bullying, suicide and drug addiction. 160 minutes.