If you need a distraction from fighting over “La La Land,” cheering at “Hidden Figures” or weeping about “Moonlight,” there are 15 Oscar-nominated movies quietly soliciting your attention, along with that of the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The short-film nominees are often unsung awards-season highlights, easily overlooked except for office-pool balloting purposes.
Even in a generally strong year, such as this one, the shorts display a cosmopolitan breadth and a stylistic variety that the other categories often lack. The animated nominees include handmade as well as digital productions, and dark, adult themes as well as child-friendly charm and whimsy. The live-action and documentary candidates tackle painful real-world material with compassion, courage and imagination (though sometimes also with conventional sentimentality). Here is a brief guide:
Before it was a mighty fief in Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Pixar was a plucky and resourceful start-up, and those roots are often most visible in its nonfeature offerings. This year’s “Piper,” directed by Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer, is a technical tour de force of feathers and foam about a fledgling seabird overcoming its fear of water with the encouragement of a firm but loving parent. The parent-child relationship also figures in Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj’s “Borrowed Time,” about a Western lawman dad and his Western lawman son, and Patrick Osborne’s “Pearl,” about a rock ’n’ roll dad and his rock ’n’ roll daughter. All three of these films show how much can be done without dialogue.
The remaining two nominees have dialogue. “Blind Vaysha,” a film by Theodore Ushev, features a narrator’s voice accompanying eerie, woodcut-like images. “Pear Cider and Cigarettes,” the longest, richest and saddest of the films, also uses voice-over narration to tell a painful personal story about the life and death of Techno Stypes, a self-destructive childhood friend of Robert Valley, who directed the film. If I were voting, I’d go for Techno, but if I had to make a prediction, I’d never bet against Pixar.
The predicament of migrants and refugees in Europe figures in two of the nominees, “Ennemis Intérieurs” (“Internal Enemies”) from France, and “Silent Nights” from Denmark. The first, directed by Sélim Azzazi, consists mainly of a tense interview between two men, both of Arab descent, who have lived in France all their lives. The older man is a former convict applying for citizenship, the younger one a government official. Their conversation touches on terrorism, religion and the integrity of “La République,” issues that could hardly be more relevant as France approaches a presidential election.
“Silent Nights” confronts similar questions as it traces the relationship between a Danish woman and a Ghanaian immigrant, whose mutual empathy (and romantic attraction) is tested by the drastically different circumstances they face. The humanism of this film, directed by Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson, is shadowed by an inescapable pessimism, an intimation that kindness, while essential, may not be enough when survival is at stake.
There is nothing overtly topical or political in the other three nominees. “La Femme et le TGV” (“The Woman and the TGV”), from Switzerland, is almost rescued from mawkish triviality by the affecting performance of Jane Birkin as the title character, and nearly ruined by a cloying, aggressive score. The Spanish film “Timecode,” about the clandestine activities of parking garage security guards, might seem equally slight, but it reveals itself to be a sly fable of creative resistance in the face of deadening routine. And Kristóf Deák and Anna Udvardy’s “Sing,” my favorite in this batch, might be mistaken for a sweet story of the friendship between two Hungarian schoolgirls until the last scene, when it becomes a parable of defiance against unjust and corrupt authority. (Hey, teacher! Leave those kids alone!)
The five films in this group demonstrate a commitment to relevance and experimentation. Only one of them, “Joe’s Violin,” follows the conventional, quasi-journalistic template, alternating interviews, archival footage and real-time events as it tells the touching story of a Holocaust survivor who donated his violin to a public school in the Bronx. The film, directed by Kahane Cooperman, proceeds though familiar beats, but its emotions are genuine and its characters are well worth knowing.
“Joe’s Violin” feels downright soothing alongside its competition, which includes some of the most wrenching, unsparing images I have seen on film in the past year. “Extremis,” by Dan Krauss, plunges the viewer into the midst of gravely ill patients and the doctors who must help their families decide whether to continue life support. The reality of death is something we often avoid, and even for half an hour, this film is difficult to watch. But it is also gripping, suspenseful and moving — a hard look at a hard subject.
Those words also describe the three short documentaries about the Syrian war and the European refugee crisis. Daphne Matziaraki’s “4.1 Miles” plies the waters off the Greek island of Lesbos as coast guard officers try to rescue migrants crowded onto inflatable rafts. “The White Helmets,” by Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, and “Watani: My Homeland,” by Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis, both take place in Aleppo and provide a glimpse of the horror that city has endured in recent years. Too rigorous to offer false hope, they nonetheless affirm the necessity of witness and an antidote to despair. I can’t choose between them, but I hope one of them wins.
Not rated. Kentucky.