Calling all Oscar obsessives, fans of world cinema and anyone with an attention deficit: The Oscar-nominated shorts are here.
I watched them all — yes, all six hours of them, give or take — in order to help you navigate the four screening packages appearing in a handful of area theaters: live action, animated and documentary (which has been divided into two separate programs). Here’s my report card:
Not only are the five nominees in this category the most powerful of this year’s 15 offerings, but they’re also among the finest movies I’ve seen this year — of any length. If you can pick only one shorts package to spend your time and money on, make it this one. There’s not a dud in the bunch.
Three of the strongest films deal with the power of intense, if evanescent, human connection. The highest profile of them is “The Phone Call,” thanks to the participation of two world-class British actors. Jim Broadbent plays a suicidal caller (whom we hear, but never see) and Sally Hawkins the compassionate yet increasingly desperate hotline worker who is trying to keep him on the line long enough to talk him out of harming himself. In just under 21 minutes, filmmaker Mat Kirkby accomplishes something miraculous, evoking both hope and hopelessness.
“Parvaneh” is just as good. Set in Switzerland, Talkhon Hamzavi’s story about the brief, unlikely friendship between teenage girls — one an impoverished Afghan immigrant (Nissa Kashani), and the other a middle-class Swiss punk (Cheryl Graf) — manages to touch a universal chord in ways that many more ambitious films only aspire to.
But the oddest and most mesmerizing of the films is “Aya,” a story of a woman (French-Israeli actress Sarah Adler) who, for reasons she can’t articulate, decides on a whim to chauffeur a stranger (Ulrich Thomsen) from Ben Gurion International Airport to his hotel in Jerusalem. Set, for the most part, in her car, over the course of a half-hour drive, “Aya” bears some similarity to “The Phone Call,” in that they’re both hothouse dramas built around people talking.
Yet the inexplicability of Aya’s impulse to pick up a stranger is tempered by Adler’s grounded, if slightly goofy, performance, which carries the film to — perhaps well beyond — its intended destination.
Films in this category also include the Irish charmer “Boogaloo and Graham” and “Butter Lamp,” from Chinese director Wei Hu.
Live action shorts: Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains coarse language, brief violence and mature thematic material. In English, German and Amdo Tibetan dialect with some subtitles. 118 minutes.
The animated shorts program is particularly succinct: a mere 49 minutes of Oscar-nominated material supplemented by a handful of additional, non-nominated cartoons culled by the distributor, Shorts International. Its most fleeting offering, “A Single Life,” clocks in at just over two minutes. That’s barely the length of a pop song.
But light on length doesn’t mean lightweight. “A Single Life” actually centers on a pop tune, playing on an old turntable, whose brevity and technological obsolescence serves as a metaphor for mortality. Similarly, the program’s most powerful film, “The Bigger Picture,” concerns two brothers — one dutiful, the other detached — who are coping with their mother’s impending demise.
Loosely inspired by the death of filmmaker Daisy Jacobs’s grandmother, “The Bigger Picture” is the most visually arresting of the five nominees. A blend of 2-D and 3-D animation — featuring a mix of life-size, David Hockney-esque wall paintings and stop-motion sculpture — “The Bigger Picture” looks like nothing you’ve seen before. Despite the filmmaker’s young age (26), “The Bigger Picture” is a strong contender for the Academy Award, even up against the excellent, equally autobiographical “Me and My Moulton,” by Torill Kove (who took home the Oscar in 2007 for her short “The Danish Poet”).
The program is rounded out by “The Dam Keeper,” a sweetly hand-drawn collaboration between Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi — studio veterans who worked on such major releases as “Monsters University” — and “Feast,” a so-so Disney production that accompanied the theatrical release of “Big Hero 6.”
Animate shorts: Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some mature thematic material, but otherwise nothing offensive. 77 minutes.
“Joanna” is the film to beat in the documentary category.
It focuses on Joanna Salyga, a young Polish woman whose frankly confessional blog — inspired by her own terminal cancer — conferred a certain level of notoriety on her before her death in 2012, at age 36. (She jokes, on camera, that she’s considering “auditioning” prospective second wives for her husband on her blog.) But “Joanna” never feels voyeuristic. Rather, Aneta Kopacz’s film presents a portrait of courage and grace.
It isn’t the only film in this vein. “Our Curse,” by Polish director Tomasz Sliwinski, is an unflinching look at how the filmmaker and his wife coped with learning that their newborn son, Leo, has Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome, an incurable disease sometimes known as “Ondine’s curse.” Like an extreme form of sleep apnea, it necessitates a tracheotomy and respirator whenever their son goes to sleep.
If at first the film seems self-indulgent — and it is, a little — it is ultimately, like “Joanna,” a story of strength.
Neither documentary package is for the faint of heart. In a category known for depressing content, this year’s offerings are particularly tough, and feature a film about the epidemic of veteran suicides (“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1”) and a look inside a Mexican slaughterhouse (“The Reaper”), the latter of which may turn more than one viewer into a vegetarian. In this gloomy company, “White Earth” — a mid-winter visit to the bleak oilfields of North Dakota — feels like a pick-me-up.
Program A: “Joanna” and “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.” 81 minutes.
Program B: “Our Curse,” “White Earth” and “The Reaper.” 79 minutes.
Both programs are unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains mature thematic material, disturbing imagery, coarse language and brief nudity. In English, Polish and Spanish with subtitles. “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” may also be viewed through HBO Go.