PICTURE IMPERFECT: A Tibetan family poses before the likeness of an urbanscape they may never see in "Butter Lamp."
When awards season rolls around, everyone spends two months debating the merits of those big, sometimes bloated Best Picture nominees. The 15 short films nominated for Academy Awards — in Documentary, Animated and Live Action categories — tend to fly under the radar.
Luckily for anyone looking to win his or her office Oscar pool — or just to enjoy acclaimed work by up-and-coming directors and animators — you can see the roster of Oscar-nominated shorts starting this Friday, January 30, at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington. (There are several separate programs, so check the theater's schedules carefully.) Here's a partial preview of the offerings.
If you're after indelible, real-life imagery, nothing is quite like "The Reaper," a 29-minute documentary by Gabriel Serra Arguello that takes us into a Mexican slaughterhouse. Narrated by a worker who kills 500 bulls daily, it's alternately beautiful — in an abstract-expressionist way — and hideous, and definitely not for the squeamish.
That doc screens with "White Earth," J. Christian Jensen's 20-minute exploration of the recent oil boom in North Dakota through the unexpected viewpoint of preadolescents. It's another film that finds beauty in ugly places, as Jensen eschews messaging and talking heads in favor of simply immersing us in a once-tiny town swelled with migrant oil workers.
The most exciting thing about this year's slate of live-action shorts is its international flavor. While these films whisk viewers away to Israel, Switzerland, Belfast, London and Tibet, their content isn't so adventurous. A likely front-runner for the statuette is Mat Kirkby's 20-minute "The Phone Call," in which a crisis helpline worker (Sally Hawkins of Blue Jasmine) takes a call from an elderly man (Jim Broadbent). Both actors do heartbreaking work that elevates borderline-mawkish material.
Also on the cornier side is Michael Lennox's 14-minute "Boogaloo and Graham," about two young Belfast brothers and their unusual pets. But it's undeniably a cute crowd pleaser. "Parvaneh" (25 minutes, directed by Talkhon Hamzavi) is a more substantial coming-of-age tale about a teenage Afghan immigrant (Nissa Kashani) struggling to adjust to life in Switzerland. "Aya" (40 minutes, Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis) is a haunting, if overstretched, film about an offbeat encounter between two strangers that begins at an airport.
But my favorite live-action nominee is writer-director Wei Hu's "Butter Lamp." In 15 minutes, without moving the camera, the filmmaker introduces us to a Tibetan village using the device of an itinerant photographer who snaps portraits of local families in front of iconic backdrops. It's an ingeniously simple way to convey the tensions between old and new, between Chinese and Tibetan cultures, while staying grounded in vivid, everyday reality.
"Vivid" is, as always, a good way to describe the animated shorts program. (Since nominees in this category tend to be really short, four additional films supplement them at the Roxy.) I wasn't able to see Disney's "Feast," a likely winner — but anyone who caught last year's feature Big Hero 6 has.
The other nominees are a whirlwind of styles. Daisy Jacobs' "The Bigger Picture" (eight minutes) alternates strikingly between animation in two and three dimensions. Torill Kove's "Me and My Moulton" (14 minutes) is an autobiographical tale of being raised by Scandinavian modernist architects in a world they might have designed. Joris Oprins' "A Single Life" unfolds a clever conceit in just three minutes. And my personal pick in this category, "The Dam Keeper" (18 minutes, Robert Kondo and Daisuke "Dice" Tsutsumi), tells a simple, kid-friendly fable about bullying in a succession of luminous images that linger long after it's over.
The three-hour epics may get all the glory, but this year it's definitely worth giving the Oscar shorts a look.
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.