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Ranking The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action, Animated & Documentary Shorts

Ranking The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action, Animated & Documentary Shorts


We’re now ten days or so from the 2015 Oscar ceremony, and in the features categories, the narratives have been crystalizing. Will there be any surprises in the acting categories? Will it be Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne? Can “Boyhood” manage to break away from the guild surge of “Birdman” and take Best Picture?

But there are three categories that mostly remain mysteries to even the most ardent Oscar-watchers: the shorts. With a very, very small handful of exceptions, these are films that go unseen by everyone but regular festival attendees or those that actively seek them out. However, more and more have been doing the latter as it’s become easier to attend the roadshow screenings of the shorts, or find the films on iTunes or elsewhere.

But for most people, they’re the biggest question marks, and the point in your Oscar pool where you just have to blindly guess based on the title. Alas, have no fear: we’ve watched all fifteen of the films, and have ranked each category — the typically bleak documentaries, the typically mediocre live-action films, and the typically invented animated ones — based on their quality, plus talked about their chances of taking away the prize. Take a look below, and let us know what you think if you’ve seen the films yourselves. 

Documentary

5. “The Reaper”
What Is It? From director Gabriel
Serra Arguello
, a student at the Centro de Capacitacion
Cinematografica, this is a portrait of a Mexican worker in a
slaughterhouse, who over nearly thirty years has killed close to 500
cows a day.
What’s It Like? One of the more formally interesting of
the nominees, “The Reaper” is sort of a non-fiction version of the slow
cinema movement, closer to “Leviathan” (the fish one, not the Russian
one) than to Alex Gibney, with a meditative pace and images that approach something like abstraction. It’s well-achieved, but is also
something of a trial to watch, particularly because you come away with a
very good idea of its subject’s methods, but less so of what he’s
really like as a person.
What Are Its Chances? Virtually none: other
films have much more button-pushing subjects or work the tear ducts
more efficiently. The nomination was the prize here, particularly given
that Arguello’s still a film student.

4. “White Earth”
What
Is It?
The briskest of this year’s nominees at a mere twenty minutes, J.
Christian Jensen
’s film looks at the titular North Dakota town, as it
undergoes something of a minor boom due to the oil industry. Yes, it’s
similar territory to the widely acclaimed (but Oscar-snubbed) feature
The Overnighters”) 
What’s It Like? Beautifully shot and the least
bleak of the nominees here (though that’s like saying that one of
nominees in the Animated category is the most realistic), “White Earth
is a solid film that ultimately suffers slightly from both “The Overnighters” comparison, and perhaps more importantly its brevity,
which makes it feel like a sketch more than a full-on portrait.
What
Are Its Chances?
Relatively low: it’s a good film, but there are more
emotional, or more obviously political, movies that feel like they’ll be
much more attractive magnets for voters.

3. “Our Curse”
What
Is It?
The first of two Polish films here, hailing from Warsaw Film School and
director Tomasz Sliwinski, this follows the filmmaker and his wife in
the early days of dealing with their newborn, who suffers from an
incurable respiratory condition called Ondine’s curse, that will cause
the child to spend the rest of his life on a ventilator.
What’s It
Like?
Another solid-gold tearjerker, “Our Curse” is like chopping onions
for parents (or children of parents), as you watch the love,
frustration and desperation of Sliwinski and his wife as they struggle
with both the day-to-day, and the problems of the health system. It’s
bleak, almost as much as “Joanna” (see below), and isn’t as well-made, but makes up
for it with its intimacy, and by being made by one of its subject,
manages to avoid feeling exploitative too.
What Are Its Chances?
“Joanna” feels like the better bet of the two Polish films, but there’s
no question that this is in contention in a serious way. Not a
front-runner, then, but don’t rule it out.

2. “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1”
What
Is It?
Emmy and Peabody wiinner Ellen Goosenberg Kent takes a look at
the care of soldiers returning from war through a unique lens, that of
the Veterans Crisis Line, a call center set up to field calls from
soldiers suffering from PTSD or similar situations. The film’s likely
the most widely viewed in the category: it aired on HBO in November, and
is still available to watch on HBOGo.
What’s It Like? Pretty damn
good. Kent’s an old hand at this sort of thing, and ‘Crisis Hotline’ feels unusually substantial for a film in this category (it’s the
longest of the nominees), handles an important subject with sensitivity,
and wrings genuine tension out if the calls with veterans (much more so
than live-action nominee “The Phone Call” does), without ever feeling exploitative. No
wonder HBO picked it up.
What Are Its Chances? Very, very good: this
and “Joanna” are the undoubted front-runners in the category, and the
edge might just be with this one, thanks to the recent highlighting of
military PTSD from “American Sniper” and the narrative that emerged
around it.

1. “Joanna”
What Is It? Like several others, a
genetically engineered machine to make you sob: hailing from Wadja
Studios in Poland, it’s a portrait of a young mother in the final stages
of terminal cancer chronicling her day-to-day life in her final weeks
with her family. Aneta Kopasz directed the film, though it’s very much
its subject’s film.
What’s It Like? Devastating even by the
standards of this category, and doubly so if you’ve had to watch someone
go through a similar process to Joanna, the film is an incredibly raw,
indelibly human portrait of the final days of life, but for the most
part, it steers clear of voyeurism, and proves to be genuinely artful in
the process. Far from an easy watch, but an enormously powerful one all
the same.
What Are Its Chances? Strong. ‘Crisis Hotline’ might be
the more politically relevant to American voters, but almost everyone can relate to “Joanna,” and its tasteful approach, which never
shirks from the truth at the same time, should win some admirers.

Click over for the live-action and animated line-ups

Live Action

5. “The Phone Call”
What Is It? From commercials and music video helmer Mat Kirkby, and the winner of Best Short Film at Tribeca, this twenty-minute film sees an employee at a ‘Samaritans’-like call-center (Sally Hawkins) receive a phone call from an elderly, grieving man (Jim Broadbent, in a voice-only performance). “Anonymous” and “Jupiter Ascending” actor Edward Hogg pops up as well.
What’s It Like? You’d think that a chance to sit back and watch the great Sally Hawkins, who’s in almost every frame here, act for twenty minutes or so would be sort of irresistible (and don’t get me wrong, both she and Broadbent are excellent here), but the film here, while it looks alright, is mawkish, manipulative, cheap, overlong and lacking in anything even remotely close to surprise. The film’s coda is especially misjudged.
What Are Its Chances? Fair. Being in English and having recognizable faces often helps (plus Hawkins is an Oscar nominee), and this is the only one this year that qualifies in that way (though “Aya” comes close). That said, as a two-hander performance piece, there might be other, worthier films that are ahead of it, but don’t count it out.

4. “Aya”
What Is It? The longest of the nominees by some distance at nearly forty minutes, this broke new ground as the first Israeli short film to gets its own stand-alone release in the country’s theaters. Directed by newcomers Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun, it’s an enigmatic picture mostly set within a car (sort of “Locke”-ish in some ways), about a woman (Sarah Adler of “Self Made”) who impulsively pretends to be the driver of a Danish concert pianist (Ulrich Thomsen, from “Festen” and “Banshee”).
What’s It Like? Perfectly fine: it’s well made, and very well acted by both leads, but at twice the length of any of the other films, it feels hopelessly over-extended, and like “The Phone Call,” doesn’t quite add up to much. As finely tuned as the film is, an intimate conversation piece like this needs to be really fascinating to hold the attention, and we don’t quite dig into the characters enough to make the drive feel totally worthwhile.
What Are Its Chances? Not bad, especially given its popularity on the festival circuit, and its solid, well-made nature. I’d like to think something more substantial would take the prize, but it’s very possible.

3. “Parvaneh”
What Is It? A coming-of-age tale from Swiss-Iranian director Talkhon Hamzavi which was actually completed in 2012, but has taken this long to come down the eligibility pipeline, “Parvaneh” is a student film about a young Afghan woman in Switzerland who asks a new friend to help her wire money to her father.
What’s It Like? Pretty solid: there’s a confident, neo-realist feel to the film, it’s beautifully shot with a sort of Germanic steeliness, it has a lovely feminist streak, and it’s beautifully acted, especially by lead Nissa Karshani. I wouldn’t call it exceptional or anything, but given some of the questionable films that turn up in this category, it’s definitely on the better side of things.
What Are Its Chances? Pretty good, I’d say. English-language films have dominated the last few years, but this has a combination of worthiness and humanism that definitely feels like it could resonate with voters, and the film also won a prize from the Student Academy Awards last year, I might change my mind before final predictions next week, but my money’s on this one for now.

2. “Boogaloo And Graham”
What Is It? Directed by Northern Irish helmer Michael Lennox, “Boogaloo And Graham” is a little charmer about two young boys growing up in Belfast during the Troubles whose father gives them a pair of chickens, with the titular names. It’s the only film of the five to pick up a BAFTA nomination as well.
What’s It Like? A little charmer. Falling somewhere between “71” and “Kes,” but much lighter and sweeter than either, it’s wittily scripted, directed by Lennox with real verve and energy, and has two of the best performances by young actors that I’ve seen recently. It’s a big-hearted crowd-pleaser and, though perhaps not the must traditionally substantial film here (its setting is mostly used for specificity, but the one time it actually plays into the story, it feels a bit cheap), might be the most entertaining.
What Are Its Chances? Possibly one to watch: as I said, voters might find it a bit light to go for against something like “Parveneh,” but it’s one that they’re likely to warm to. The film also won the BAFTA in its category last weekend, which does suggest it’s got some love from voters already.

1. “Butter Lamp”
What Is It? The real outlier of the nominees, from Beijing-born, Paris-based filmmaker Hu Wei, “Butter Lamp” involves essentially a single set-up, as a traveling photographer takes portraits of Tibetan nomads in front of a series of changing backdrops, from the Great Wall of China to Disneyland.
What’s It Like? Almost impossible to describe properly to someone you haven’t seen it, “Butter Lamp” is one of the most original shorts I’ve seen in a long time, a beguiling fifteen minutes or so that falls somewhere between Tsai Ming-Liang and Roy Andersson. Witty, abstract and full of life, it’s by some distance the best of the five.
What Are Its Chances? Unfortunately, it’s also the least likely to win: Tsai and Andersson are hardly names that get the Academy hot and bothered most of the time, and it’s virtually a miracle that it even got nominated. Still, the nomination is enough to bring the film to a wider audience, and hopefully launch Hu into the features world.

Click over for the Animated line-up

Animated

5. “Me And My Moulton”
What Is It? From
Norwegian/Canadian animator Torill Kove, who won the Oscar in this
category in 2007 for “The Danish Poet,”  this is an autobiographical
tale, told in Kove’s trademark simplistic, almost preschool-kids-cartoon
style, about her upbringing as one of three children to eccentric,
modernist-architect parents.
What’s It Like? Unlike in the other
categories, don’t mistake the last place-placement of this one for
dislike: it’s a pretty strong category this year, and everything here
has its strength. “Me And My Moulton” is a charming, and very
Scandinavian, coming-of-age tale that’s often visually inventive. But
it’s also somewhat unfocused and wooly in its structure, and while
traditionally animated, its simplistic look means its the least visually
distinctive of the five.
What Are Its Chance Of Winning? It
shouldn’t be ruled out due to Kove’s previous win, and it’ll certainly
charm voters, but it feels like a longer shot to me, with more lauded
films elsewhere in the category.

4. “A Single Life”
What Is
It?
The briefest of the nominees at barely three minutes, “A Single
Life
” sees a young woman discover that she can travel through time by
skipping through a vinyl record. The film hails from young Dutch
animators Job Roggeveen, Joris Oprins and Marieke Blaauw, who’ve mostly
worked in the commercials world until now.
What’s It Like?
Inventive, sweet and funny, this is a definite antidote to some of the
other shorts, in part because of the brevity: it feels like a real
tonic, especially when it comes to the hilarious kicker. That said, it
might feel like an extended advert rather than a full-flung film,
especially due to the animation style.
What Are Its Chances Of
Winning?
Slim: it’s one of the more entertaining films here, but it
probably feels slight in comparison to something like “The Dam Keeper.”
The filmmakers are definitely ones to watch if they mount something
longer at some stage, though. 

3. “Feast
What Is It? If
you’ve seen any of the shorts in any of the categories, it’ll be this
one: Disney’s latest played in theaters before “Big Hero 6” in November
(director Patrick Osborne was co-head of animation on that film), and
ticks the category’s “big studio” box, filled in recent years by Pixar,
but for the last couple by Disney Animation Studios. The film uses a
similar visual style (and the same technology) as “Paperman,” the winner
from two years ago, for its tale of a young Boston terrier, the food he
eats, and the love life of its owner.
What’s It Like? Since reviving
their shorts program, Disney gave us one hall-of-famer with “Paperman,” and the
more disappointing Mickey Mouse short “Get A Horse!.” “Feast” is
definitely closer to the former than the latter (particularly because of
the visual similarities), and production value is obviously through the
roof (especially a lovely score by “All Is Lost” composer Alex Ebert).
It’s heartwarming and funny stuff, but it sometimes feels a little like
it’s trying to re-bottle the “Paperman” magic (it’s also vaguely
reminiscent of the opening of “Up,” by way of “Boyhood,” so again
sometimes feels like old ground).
What Are Its Chances Of Winning?
None of that’s likely to matter too much: Disney or Pixar films tend to
be the front-runners in the category, in part because they’re normally
so good (and don’t get me wrong, “Feast” is good). The film’s already
picked up the Annie Award, so
“Feast” is probably the front-runner: the only question is whether
something else could upset it, as happened last year.

2. “The Dam Keeper”
What
Is It?
The longest (nearly twenty minutes) and darkest of the nominees,
The Dam Keeper” proves that there’s life after Pixar, coming from
animators Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, who worked as art directors on
films like “Ratatouille” and “Monsters University.” Definitely
influenced by Miyazaki, it’s a fable about a young orphan Pig who’s has
to operate a dam that stops his town from being flooded with poisonous
clouds, but is ostracized by his classmates for his dirtiness.
What’s
It Like?
Done in a beautiful, hand-painted style, “The Dam Keeper”
feels decidely European (down to narration by Lars “brother of Mads,
adversary to Sherlock” Mikkelsen), and tells a satisfying, if
surprisingly bleak, tale. Despite the darker tinge, it probably skews
the youngest of the nominees, with a moralizing, fairytale feel (THIS IS
WHY BULLYING IS BAD, CHILDREN), but it’s still gorgeously achieved
stuff.
What Are Its Chances Of Winning? Pretty decent. It’s by
ex-Pixar employees who went out on their own, making it both an insider
and outsider (in a category that alternates between the two, it seems),
it’s visually innovative, and generally charming. It’s not the
front-runner, or the dark horse, but could definitely challenge for the
win.

1. “The Bigger Picture”
What Is It? A student film
(director Daisy Jacobs made it while at Britain’s National Film And
Television School), “The Biggest Picture” uses an innovative blend of
stop-motion and wall-painted animation to tell the story of two brothers
caring for their elderly and infirm mother.
What’s It Like?
Brilliant, honestly my favorite of all the shorts this year, and one of
the best films full stop nominated for an Oscar. There’s a level of
imagination and ingenuity of execution that trumps everything else in
this category (and on a more meager budget than most), but it’s also
marred with an immediately identifiable story that’s truthful without
quite becoming despairing or overly bleak. Jacobs is definitely one to
watch.
What Are Its Chances? It’s a definite dark horse: the film’s
won more awards than anything else here, including a BAFTA in this
category just last weekend. It’s the underdog, and the film might
perform better with animators than with wider audiences who are more
likely to be wowed by Disney, but the film’s beating heart could end up
causing an upset.

Did you see any of the Oscar shorts? What are some of your faves? Sound off below.

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