This year's batch of Oscar-nominated shorts, whether animated, live action or documentary, deal primarily with sadness and strife, but a handful do so sublimely.
Of the animated films, most clock in at under 10 minutes, save Robert Valley's noirish half-hour epic "Pear Cider and Cigarettes," a spiky, skewed-angles memory piece about helping a hard-drinking, self-destructive friend secure a new liver in China. Bulgarian-born Theodore Ushev's "Blind Vaysha" uses a hypnotic, churning woodcut-like technique to tell the gloomy fable of a village girl born with one eye that sees the future, while the other sees the past. Similarly steeped in loss, the Pixar-inspired (but darker) "Borrowed Time," directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, depicts a sheriff's son returning to the cliff where the tragedy of his youth played out.
Two gems address individuating from parents. Perennial nominee Pixar has "Piper," directed by Alan Barillaro, in which a sandpiper hatchling learns how to feed itself by figuring out the beautiful tandem of sand and surf. 2015's Oscar winner Patrick Osborne ("Feast") returns with the music-driven, time-collapsing masterpiece "Pearl," wherein a young woman playing an old tape recorder in a beat-up hatchback ignites a montage of memories. The car is the setting, as we see a busking, country-crossing young musician turn into the suburban father of a budding rock star. It's the animated equivalent of the perfect three-minute pop song (even if it's six minutes).
The documentaries tread typically heavy ground, the exception being the sentimental "Joe's Violin," directed by Kahane Cooperman, which chronicles a Holocaust survivor passing down his musical instrument to underprivileged Bronx schoolgirls. Dan Krauss' "Extremis" — which directly and compassionately observes end-of-life decisions in a hospital's ICU — is more indicative of this field's coverage of grimmer topics.
For the rest, that means refugees and Syria. Daphne Matziaraki's immersive "4.1 Miles," part of the New York Times' Op-Doc series, shadows a sleepy Greek island's coast guard captain over one day as he's called upon almost hourly to rescue Afghans risking death at sea to cross over from Turkey. "Virunga" filmmaker Orlando von Einseidel's "The White Helmets" follows a handful of oppressed Syrians in the titular humanitarian organization — motivated to wield a stretcher over a gun — who juggle training, rescue missions and fear for their own families' safety.
The standout here is Marcel Mettelsiefen's "Watani: My Homeland," which spends three years tracking a war-torn Aleppo family as they leave an increasingly unrecognizable Syria — and a husband and dad who is captured by Islamic State — for calmer pastures in Germany. There are many moments of charm, heartbreak and hope, but the prevailing takeaway is that to ignore the challenges of people struggling just to be safe is to deny a fundamental human right.
This is the rare year when the live-action collection is strongest, even if Denmark's "Silent Nights," directed by Aske Bang, is the clunkiest entry, packing a season's worth of soap opera story lines into its romance between a Ghanan immigrant and a homeless shelter volunteer. More confidently winning is Timo von Gunten's "La Femme et le TGV," a Swiss confection about a lonely, train-loving boulangerie owner (Jane Birkin!) awakened by the promise of companionship.
What enriches this category are three sharply observed stories of pushback, starting with Sélim Azzazi's "Ennemis Intérieurs," depicting a tense mid-1990s exchange between a citizenship-seeking French Algerian man and his interviewer, who sees a man protecting terrorists. Whose sense of égalité, liberté and fraternité is truer?
The treasures, though, are metaphorical pearls. Hungarian Kristof Deák's "Sing," about a prize-winning grade school choir and a rule that doesn't sit well with two of its young participants, is an exquisitely turned, moving tale about recognizing corruption and combating voicelessness.
There's a silence, also, that passes between parking lot security guards who alternate shifts in Juanjo Giménez Peña's enchanting "Timecode," but when these worker bees discover their own method of expressive connection, it's as exhilarating and funny and beautiful an argument for finding art in life as a movie could make. As in the best of these nominees, to be who you are and do what you must is so much more than a short subject.
2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films
Animated program: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Live-action program: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Documentary program A: 1 hour, 12 minutes
Documentary program B: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: In limited release shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/