The recent practice of theatrically releasing short films nominated for Academy Awards has a number of salutary benefits. It gives you a leg up in the office Oscar pool, for one thing, which is probably why most people will head over to the Kendall Square for the double slate of live-action and animated nominees debuting today. (The films get additional screenings beginning Feb. 17 at the ICA.) Just as important, in a world in which great short films spill out from every corner of the Internet, these programs provide a window into what Academy members think are the best.
While there are few genuine knockouts, the 2013 crop is an improvement over last year. The animated short film category features a reasonably wide spread of techniques, attitudes, and sources. There’s a mini-“Simpsons” episode, the agreeable 5-minute quickie “The Longest Daycare,” in which baby Maggie endures the terrors of the Ayn Rand School for Tots. Even more hit-and-run is “Fresh Guacamole,” from the anarchic animator PES (real name Adam Pesapane), whose 2001 debut, “Roof Sex,” remains the only porn film for chairs. “Guacamole” envisions avocados made of grenades, tomatoes that get diced into actual dice — an entire microcosm of transfiguration in two minutes.
Minkyu Lee works in Visual Development for Disney, but there’s nothing Mickey Mouse about his “Adam and Dog,” a gently stunning work of visual poetry about the first mutt in the Garden of Eden and the eternal bond between man and dog. More overtly ambitious is “Head Over Heels,” a haunting handcrafted work of stop-motion from England’s Timothy Reckart, about a married couple grown so far apart that they live upside down from each other in the same house.
“Head Over Heels” is impressive, but my heart goes to “Paperman,” a mainstream but blissfully inventive Disney short (with a touch of Pixar magic) about a young couple who meet on a subway platform and try to reconnect via a squadron of paper airplanes from one office tower to another. It’s the definition of short and sweet.
The live-action category gets off to a somewhat shaky start with two shorts that are superficially identical. Both Bryan Buckley’s “Asad” and Sam French’s “Buzkashi Boys” are about friendships between two young boys in far corners of the world. “Boys,” set in the streets and shops of Kabul, has the bigger budget and the more humanist message, but it’s slick and sentimental next to the scruffy pleasures of “Asad,” which features a real sense of community and a delightful lead performance from Harun Mohammed as a Somali kid navigating a treacherous world.
“Death of a Shadow” is an arresting work of fantasy from Dutch filmmaker Tom van Avermaet that concerns a WWI soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts, of “Rust and Bone”) trapped in an afterlife where he’s forced to capture dead souls for an eerie collector (Peter van Den Eede). There are aspects of steampunk and “The Twilight Zone” here, and Guillermo del Toro is an obvious influence, but “Death” works quite nicely on its own.
Perhaps the most interesting of the live-action shorts is “Curfew,” set in the seedier neighborhoods of New York. Writer-director Shawn Christensen also stars as a recovering addict forced to baby-sit his 9-year-old niece (Fatima Ptacek), a jaded little sophisticate who turns out to be a normal kid underneath the beret. As the film whipsaws between black comedy, near-tragedy, and mawkishness, you wonder if Christensen is going to be able to hold it all together. He does — just barely.
“Henry,” a French-language Canadian short from writer-director Yan England, is more straightforward than “Curfew,” but it’s a heart-wrencher all the same. Told from the point of view of the title character (Gérard Poirier), an elderly man trying to navigate through a fog of Alzheimer’s, the film slips deftly, sometimes harrowingly, from present to past and back again. This is clearly a personal project, complete with an epigraph from the director’s father about the indignity of losing one’s memories, and it’s tremendously affecting. In a year in which the struggles of old age have been onscreen as never before, don’t be surprised if “Henry” takes the gold.