Of all categories worth scrutinizing during the chaos of Oscar season, none provides a more diverse overview of recent cinema than the short film categories. While the documentary shorts tend to offer fairly conventional examples of the form (and some of them, like this year's HBO-produced "Prison Terminal" even have broadcast deals in place), the animated and live action short films are different beasts: international in scope and stretching across multiple genres, they provide a diverse contrast to the largely straightforward crop of feature-length projects in contention.
Of course, "12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” and “Her” alone represent a range of complex narratives, and the inclusion of “The Act of Killing” in the best documentary category marks the rare occasion of truly radical cinema entering mainstream consciousness. Overall, however, Oscar hype homogenizes the conversation around the best movies of the year, turning the whole charade into a mishmash of celebrity faces and snark. By virtue of receiving less attention than the other movies in contention, the short films become the ultimate underdogs of the race, which raises the question: Do they deserve it?
With all the nominees now in theaters at New York’s IFC Center — in three separate programs, for live action, documentary and animated shorts — now’s the ideal time to dive in.
Usually, the animated shorts provide the best juxtaposition to the feature-length category, which is usually dominated by large scale productions. The latest selection of animated features nominated for the award are noticeably broader, ranging from the mainstream-friendly "Frozen," "Despicable Me" and "The Croods" to the quirky French children's tale "Ernest & Celestine" to Hayao Miyazaki's allegedly final work, the subtle "The Wind Rises." Still, the animated shorts provide a much more extensive overview of international sensibilities.
The certain frontrunner, Disney's 3-D "Get on a Horse!" (which screened nationwide ahead of "Frozen," but premiered at the Telluride Film Festival before "Gravity") tussles with the studio's history using a complex blend of early twenties animation and modern CGI. Its zippy plot, directed by Lauren MacMullan, involves a fast-paced slapstick adventure involving Mickey saving Minnie from the scheming Peg-Leg Pete, who actually manages to hurl both mice through holes in the front of the movie screen framing them — allowing the action to erupt into a lively mixture of vibrant colors and black and white as Mickey, Minnie and an ensemble of Disney staples constantly shift between the two worlds. While some critics have taken issue with the short's dubious relationship to Disney history, there's no doubting the technological complexity of the its execution and the way it provides a keen statement on the progress of the medium.
However, what "Get on a Horse!" wins in impressive formalism it loses in emotional intelligence. That honor goes to the sweetest of the nominees, French directors Laurent Witz and Alexandre Epigares' steampunk tale of a lonely robot who rescues a mechanical dog from the dangerous streets outside his apartment — only to cope with the critter growing larger than the space can handle. Set in a beautifully realized science fiction universe devoid of dialogue but filled with a blur of technological details, "Mr. Hublot" magically combines its complex visuals with a small, gentle story about companionship. I'd call it the dark horse if it weren't so lighthearted.