If it’s February, that means it’s time for our annual, indispensable roundup of the live-action and animated short films nominated for an Academy Award.
Well, maybe “indispensable” isn’t quite the right word. Some of these quickies linger in the mind barely longer than the moments between their closing credits and the next film’s opening titles. But, bottom line, none are real time-wasters.
The five animated films make for the shorter, more whimsical and entirely dialogue-free of the two bills on offer. Let’s get the two least memorable out of the way first:
“Fresh Guacamole” (United States) is the brisk equivalent of a magician’s sleight of hand. Expertly done but lacking a payoff, the stop-motion film demonstrates the making of guacamole — with oddball ingredients. Instead of, you know, avocado, lime and garlic, the objects here are things like hand grenades and billiard balls. It’s more a calling card for the animators than a stand-alone story.
Disney’s “Paperman” (United States) is great-looking, a mixture of black-and-white hand-drawn and digital animation that gives us a mid-20th-century metropolis much more interesting than its tale of a lovelorn young man and woman and the flock of magical paper airplanes that unites them. Ripping off “Brazil” and “The Red Balloon,” it has all the oomph and depth of a Match.com commercial.
The stop-motion “Head Over Heels” (Britain) makes its point quickly with its main metaphor: in a drab house spinning somewhere through space, a middle-aged couple plod through their daily routine. Only he lives on the floor and she treads above him, her feet planted on the ceiling. (It’s kind of what you think might happen to the meet-cute couple of “Paperman” 20 years down the road.) All ends sweetly, though.
“Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare’ ” (United States) follows pacifier-sucking Maggie at the Ayn Rand School for Tots — a nursery that only the 1 percent could love. Her antagonist: a thuggish baby determined to destroy a butterfly that Maggie hopes to save. The short has all the compressed wit you’ve come to expect from the makers of “The Simpsons.”
Finally, maybe it’s because I’m a dog owner, but “Adam and Dog” (United States) is the animated short for me. It’s as simple and poignant as it sounds: in the Edenic wilds of the new-made earth, a happy canine barksbarksbarks as indifferent mastodons lumber past. Then comes Adam. Instant pals, man and dog run joyously together through the unexplored … until Adam pops a rib, and out comes Eve. Jealousy ensues. But, as anyone who loves a dog today knows, the story has a happy ending.
More substantial, in theme and length, is the live-action program. Every year, this group of nominees includes at least a couple of stories focused on children. Maybe it’s because they can evoke emotion in a shorter time than adult characters can. The two kid-centric entries are among the strongest here.
A rare glimpse of the stark landscape of Kabul, Afghanistan — shocking in both its urban squalor and mountainous beauty — “Buzkashi Boys” (Afghanistan/USA) focuses on Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi) and his street-urchin pal Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz). Rafi is the dutiful son, if slightly bummed that he has to become a sooty blacksmith like his father and grandfathers before him. Unattached to duty, Ahmad is the hustling idealist, dreaming of being a buzkashi athlete. (The Afghan national sport, it involves men on horseback scoring goals with the headless carcass of a goat — seriously.) The boys’ bond is severed by a tragedy that gives the film a resonance that belies its shortness.
Likewise, “Asad” (South Africa-United States) centers on a child in a very bad place. A child of Somalia, Asad (Harun Mohammed) is too young to go on pirating excursions with older kids (not make-believe Long John Silver stuff, but real assaults with semiautomatic rifles). And he’s had no luck going fishing with the kind elder Erasto (Ibrahim Moallim Hussein). Oddly enough, the incursion of some crazy young soldiers into his village gives Asad a chance to fish an unlikely symbol of hope from the strangest place. (Asad is a spiritual cousin of Ahmad in “Buzkashi Boys.”) This momentary bit of whimsy only underscores the dire reality of everyday life for Somalian children.
On the other end of the age spectrum, “Henry” (Canada) centers on an elderly pianist (Gérard Poirier), whose comfortable, retired routine with his violinist wife is suddenly upended by strangers confronting him and by confusing memories of his past. Guessing where the mystery is headed doesn’t diminish the film’s wrenching effect.
More about its texture than its tale, “Death of a Shadow” (Belgium-France) is a mix of steampunk imagery filtered through a Jean-Pierre (“Amélie”) Jeunet-like sensibility. Matthias Schoenaerts plays the ghost of a young man confined to a monastic sort of gallery on the estate of a crumbling old abbey. Overseen by a deathlike curator (Peter van den Eede), his task is to sift through files of the dead and film the last throes of their shadows as they die, until he has collected 10,000 images for the collector. There’s a lovely young girl and a noble soldier involved, but the rules and the narrative are as vague as the imagery is lovingly crafted.
Finally, “Curfew” (United States) is the shaggy tale of a suicidal New Yorker named Richie (writer-director Shawn Christensen) whose estranged sister calls, reluctantly, and asks him to baby-sit her nine-year-old (Fatima Ptacek, suitably brattish). Uncle and niece bond, and brother and sis get a second chance. But the film is never again as promising or surprising as in its opening minute.
“The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Animated” and “The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Live Action.” (Two separate programs.) Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.