We don't know about you, but until the last few years, whenever it came time to make our picks for Oscar pools/wagers, there's always one section of the awards that so often comes down to luck — the short films. In the years since shorts stopped playing widely before features, it became harder and harder for the layman to actually watch nominees, and even harder to predict what would actually win.
But these days, things are better. Many of the films make their way online in advance of Oscar night, or are shown at special screenings around the world. But if you haven't managed to catch the films in time for next Sunday's awards, no fear, because we have. So, whether you're an Academy member wondering what to put on your ballot, or someone looking for the edge in your annual office Oscar pool, check our our verdicts on the films, and their chances of winning, below. And if you have seen the films concerned, let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
Best Animated Short
"Adam & Dog"
In any other year, we suspect that "Adam & Dog" would be the runaway winner. As it is, it still has a good chance, even if it has stiffer competition from Pixar. Directed by CalArts graduate Minyun Lee (who worked for Disney doing character design on "Winnie The Pooh" and "Wreck-It Ralph," it's the beautifully animated 2D tale of the friendship between the first man and the first dog. More substantial than most in the category at fifteen minutes, the lo-fi (and yet reminiscent of classic Disney) look is pretty stunning and painterly, and it's the kind of non-traditional fare that so often does well in the category. With voting now open to the wider membership, we wonder if it might be too meditative for general tastes, especially up against "Paperman," but if anything can beat the Disney film, it's this one, especially given that it won the 2012 Annie award for animated short subject. [A-]
Directed by American animator PES (Adam Pesapane to his ma), "Fresh Guacamole" is notable as the shortest film ever to be nominated for an Oscar, at only one minute and 45 seconds. A stop-motion walk-through of how to make the titular avocado-based dish, using household objects, it's funny and inventive, but suffers a bit if you've seen PES's predecessor "Dirty Spaghetti," which does the same thing, but first and better. There's a lot of damn fine craft at work here, but it feels much too slight to be a potential winner this year. [C]
"Head Over Heels"
Winning the Best Student Film award at the Annies this year, "Head Over Heels" is very much the underdog here. It's not made by established studios or their employees, but by American animator Timothy Reckart, who produced the effort at the National Film And Television School in London. Made on a dime in traditional stop-motion style, it follows a middle aged couple who have grown distant enough that they now live on different planes of gravity, he on the floor, her on the ceiling, in a floating house. It's a touching and intimate little film, with some top-flight production design, even if it's a bit on-the-nose, and rough around the edges (and, it should be said, somewhat reminiscent of "Up"). Will Academy members respond to a film from such a total newcomer? Our gut says that in a tough year, this would struggle to hit first place, but it's one to keep an eye on. [B-]
"Maggie Simpson In The Longest Daycare"
Fox failed to get an Animated Feature nomination in 2008 for "The Simpsons Movie," but Springfield's finest finally got some recognition this year with this film, the first ever Simpsons theatrical short, which played initially before "Ice Age: Continental Drift" (and got a recent re-release in front of "Life Of Pi"). Directed by series veteran (and "Monsters Inc" co-director) David Silverman, the wordless short is probably the best thing to involve Simpsons characters in years. But even then, despite the higher-profile, it's unlikely to really figure. It's actually using many of the same techniques as "Paperman," but it's unlikely to get similar credit, and ultimately will probably feel too slight and corporate. We don't envision many Academy members going for this over the Disney film. [B-]
The Walt Disney Animation Studios short is the one you've likely seen if you've seen any. It played before "Wreck-It Ralph" in theaters, and racked up a few hundred thousand hits on YouTube when Disney placed it online. Directed by John Kahrs, the incredibly sweet tale of a couple's missed connection, before they're brought together by paper airplanes, is genuinely progressive, formally speaking, cunningly blending Pixar's CGI animation with a 2D look that's reminiscent of classic Disney, and it's this that may give it a leg-up over the competition. Traditionally, winners in the category have been smaller, more independent productions, but with the rules changing this year, opening up voting to all Academy members, the Disney name, and the overall quality of the short look likely to pay off for them. Plus, it won the 2013 Animated Short award at the Annies, who are traditionally reluctant to vote for Disney fare. [A]
Best Live-Action Short
As technically impressive as you might expect from a commercials veteran called "King of the Super Bowl" in the New York Times, with "Asad," director Bryan Buckley suggests his tastes lean closer to Mark Romanek than Michael Bay when it comes to promo-helmers-turned-proper-filmmakers. Set in a Somalian fishing village, using non-professional actors, it's admirable, and hugely confident directorially, but feels a bit too much like cultural tourism. That said, it's the kind of thing that the Academy eat up in this category, so despite its somewhat pat conclusion, this could very well be the winner. [C+]
Like "Asad" an internationally-produced human interest tale from an American director, "Buzkashi Boys," from helmer Sam French, was shot in Afghanistan, using cast and crew from the region, and that's certainly an admirable thing. The plot revolves around two young boys from different backgrounds who hope to grow up to play in the local game of buzkashi, a task that ends in tragedy. Again, we're glad the film exists, but even more so than "Asad," it's somewhat labored and self-important, and somehow feels a touch exploitative. Plus the filmmaking certainly isn't of the same caliber. None of these are necessarily an obstacle to the film winning, though; weighty subject matter like this could well earn favor with voters and the young leads Jawanmard Paiz and Fawad Mohammadi are excellent. [C]
Of all the Oscar nominees this year, Shawn Christensen might be one of the least likely. He first came to fame as the frontman for never-quite-got-there post-Interpol indie band stellastarr*, and more recently has moved into screenwriting, with his biggest produced credit so far being Taylor Lautner vehicle "Abduction," marking the first time that that film has been mentioned in the same paragraph as the Oscars. Christensen didn't just write "Curfew," he directs and stars in it too, but the film suggests he should focusing on some of these skills more than others. The film's tonally awkward, and self-consciously quirky and Christensen, in the lead role of a drug-addict forced to care for his niece, is comprehensively out-acted by his younger co-star (unsurprising, as she's the voice of "Dora The Explorer"). But he does at least have a good eye. Even as the only English-language nominee here, it's probably too slick to win. [C-]
"Death Of A Shadow"
Unless you're a huge stellastarr* fan, "Death Of A Shadow" certainly toplines the most reconizable figure of any of the nominated films, in the shape of Matthias Schoenaerts, unrecognizable from the bruiser he played in breakouts "Bullhead" and "Rust & Bone" (he looks more like Mads Mikkelsen here, frankly). It's also by some distance the best film of the five. From Tom Van Avermaet, it sees Schoenaerts play an eerie photographer who's employed by a mysterious, demonic figure to take picture of silhouettes at the moment of their death. Reminiscent of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it's visually spectacular, but has an emotional backbone to it that makes it about more than just impressive production design and lighting. Van Avermaet just got signed up by CAA, so expect him to move into features soon. [B+]
A narratively tricksy film from Quebecois actor-turned-director Yan England, "Henry" serves a curious counterpart to "Amour" — it focuses on an elderly musician in the last part of their life. That said, the comparison doesn't do it many favors. While the structure is ambitious, the audience are ahead of England's game, and it's easy to see where it's going from early on. It's undeniably emotionally wrenching in places, and Gerard Poirier is very strong in the title role, but it feels manipulative and somewhat cheap, and wears out its welcome long before the ten minutes are up. [C]
Best Documentary Short
The first film up is the one that we think is the best bet in the category. From Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, who were nominated for "War/Dance" in 2007, the doc follows the tital character, a 15-year-old aspiring artist who also happens to be a homeless undocumented illegal immigrant. It's got the right mix of grit and uplift, with a great "character" at the center of it, and it's very well made but Fine and Nix (though the joints show a bit sometimes). Executive produced by John Leguizamo, this feels like it has a very good chance at winning the category, and it'd be a deserving win. [B+]
Sari Gilman's "Kings Point" is a wryly funny look at the inhabitants of a retirement community in Florida. Technically rougher around the edges than some, it's nevertheless incisive, honest and sturdy in the way it builds up its subjects, and doesn't outstay its welcome. We reckon that, were the whole Academy voting on the category, it might appeal to the older demographic, but unlike the live-action and animation awards, the docs are still decided by a smaller selection, so it won't necessarily get that boost. [B]
"Mondays At Racine"
Like "Inocente," "Mondays At Racine" has, in co-director Cynthia Wade, a veteran of the category (she won with "Freeheld" in 2008). This film, directed with Robin Honan, follows a beauty salon that, once a month, opens specifically for women who are undergoing chemotherapy. I'll be honest; this one, for personal reasons, turned me into a quivering wreck, and it's certainly the most nakedly emotional film in the selection. But Wade and Honan walk a delicate line in following the patients, sticking away from mawkishness or sentimentality, and I'd argue it's the finest of the five. Certainly one to watch – my head says "Inocente" will win, my heart "Mondays At Racine." [A]
From directors Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern, this film follows eight children from Rwanda traveling to the only hospital in Africa that provides free open heart surgery, in Sudan. It's as worthy and noble in its cause as any of the films here, and the filmmaking is as technically solid as any film bar "Inocente." But it somehow feels a touch more bait-y and less sincere than the competition, even if it's undoubtedly moving in places. As the least of the five nominees, it feels to us like the least likely winner, but will surface similarities to last year's winner "Saving Face" help, or harm its case? [C+]
Nominated in 2010 for their film "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears Of Sichuan Province," Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill are back with "Redemption," which focuses on four homeless "canners" — people who collect recyclables from trashcans to make a living — in New York City. Made for HBO, the film is arguably the most of-the-moment of the nominees, thanks to its ties with economic collapse, and has some interesting formal techniques (the subjects interview each other, which leads to some interesting results). It's a strong piece of work, if lacking the narrative drive of some of its competitors in the category, and has an outside shot to win. [B]