The experience of watching five short animation or live-action films in one sitting — each a finalist for an Oscar in two of this year's shorts categories — can be a bit like walking into a museum to find the Rothko's been hung next to the Monet. It's not unpleasant, just unexpected.
Any thematic or stylistic links are purely coincidental in the bundle of five Oscar-nominated animated contenders (there are three bonus shorts not in the running) and a separate grouping of the five live-action finalists that hit theaters this week.
But if you're primed for the sudden shifts in tone, style, story and look, the payoff is one provocative and evocative film after another. They have been deemed the best of the best, after all. And though I won't be casting my vote with the academy, I do have my favorites, and I've stacked the deck below accordingly.
"Paperman" (7 minutes). Director John Kahrs has created a love letter to romance — a beautifully rendered black-and-white piece that will sweep you away. It is sealed with a kiss from the beginning when a whimsical wind plays havoc with an office worker's heart, his papers and their chance encounter with a beautiful young woman's ruby-red lips — the only color in this small wonder. A perfect melding of medium and message, this cleverly conceived ode to true love gets my vote.
"Head Over Heels" (10 minutes, 21 seconds). Director Timothy Reckart has created heartbreak out of claymation, molding a long marriage in quiet crisis with extraordinary skill. Madge and Walter have literally lost their footing — she lives on the ceiling, he on the floor. Whether they can find a way back to the same plane becomes a moving existential question in Reckart's hands.
"Fresh Guacamole" (2 minutes). Writer-director PES rolls the dice, both literally and figuratively, in this mad (and I mean that in all possible ways) dash to create the delectable green dip out of found objects. Grenades factor in. Deliciously inventive, you'll never see chips and dip in quite the same way again.
"Adam and Dog" (16 minutes). Watching director Minkyu Lee's painterly vision of the dawn of man and the first bond forged with man's best friend puts you in a musing museum state of mine. Lee captures the unfettered joy of discovery and how that feeling changes and expands when you're no longer alone. It feels like a seamless piece of expression until Eve's arrival upsets the apple cart.
"Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare'" (5 minutes). Director David Silverman is a longtime producer of Matt Groening's animated TV hit "The Simpsons," and you can feel that polish and precision in every frame of Maggie's misadventure in day care. Superbly crafted, packed with the wry innuendo that has come to mark the series, it is exactly the sort of satisfying fun you would expect it to be.
"Buzkashi Boys" (28 minutes). Even boys who seem to have no future have dreams in director Sam French's wrenching portrait of an Afghan street urchin and his best friend, a blacksmith's son. Watching the daring Buzkashi riders race their horses for control of a dead goat in the brutal tribal sport, the two friends begin to question the confines of their lives. French shows exceptional intelligence and sensitivity in capturing the spirit of youth and the weight of duty that test the boys. Their intensity and confusion is matched by Kabul's, a dusty, dramatic backdrop for this tale. The young stars, Fawad Mohammadi and Jawanmard Paiz, are exceptional. Together they create a different truth of Afghanistan — impoverished boys with rich imaginations, who dream of horses and heroes not shaped by war. It gets my vote; it won my heart.
"Asad" (18 minutes). Director Bryan Buckley's incisive and moving piece is tied to another lost boy. Set in a Somali fishing village, an old man and the sea fight the swaggering pirates that traffic along the coast for a young boy's soul. Asad is clever but torn between a disappearing past fishing the sea and a brutal future. The boy's choice rides on the changing tides when the past and the future collide in one remarkable catch.
"Curfew" (19 minutes). Writer-director-star Shawn Christensen has constructed an intriguing drama out of the way random events can change a life. In this case, a call from an estranged sister temporarily sidetracks Richie's deep depression. But it is his evening spent caring for his inquisitive 9-year-old niece Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) that could alter the course of his life. It is an irreverent and ironic journey to the dark side.
"Death of a Shadow" (20 minutes). Director Tom Van Avermaet's surreal examination of life and death begins when the shadow of a downed WWI soldier is captured. A mysterious shadow collector offers him a second chance in exchange for an additional 10,000 shadows in this black-and-white psychological thriller. On this bizarre journey to reclaim his life, the soldier finds there are things worse than death.
"Henry" (21 minutes). Director Yan England has created a lyrical tragedy out of the muddle that old age has made of Henry, his music and his muse. Shifting between fragments of a past framed by an enduring love for his wife and the duet they were meant to play and a present world made of nurses, restraints and medication, "Henry" is a story of incredible loss that, unlike the music, never stops.