The races for the live-action and animated short film Oscar tend to operate blessedly outside the Academy Awards hype machine; assembled here into two separate programs, this year's nominees — a stronger batch than last year's — offer thought-provoking contrasts in storytelling and style.
On the live-action side, many of the entries are marked by worlds in collision. Max Z¿hle's suspenseful drama "Raju," breathlessly filmed in Calcutta, depicts the seesawing emotions and ethical quandaries a German couple go through trying to adopt a 4-year-old orphan boy in a teeming Indian metropolis of overt poverty and hidden agency.
Peter McDonald's "Pentecost," meanwhile, finds buoyant Irish humor in the ways sports and church overlap, when a soccer-obsessed altar boy is given an important role in an upcoming Mass.
Belfast is the setting for Terry George's gently poignant "The Shore," in which an expat Irishman (Ciarán Hinds) returns from America with his grown daughter (Kerry Condon) after 25 years, only to be pushed into resolving things with a forgotten buddy and the fiancee he left behind.
Seaside reconciliation also animates Norwegian Hallvar Witzø's quirky but forced "Tuba Atlantic," about an old coot who lives out his last days machine-gunning seagulls, befriending a church-appointed teenage caretaker and trying to patch things up with his long-lost brother via transoceanic wind horn.
Much more effortlessly amusing is Andrew Bowler's neurotic comedy "Time Freak," in which the possibilities inherent in mastering time travel hilariously bump up against its inventor's crushing addiction to the do-overs daily life presents.
Humor is typically prevalent in the animated features that dominate the multiplex, but in shorts, filmmakers often try for more nuanced emotions. Even Pixar's excellent entry "La Luna," from Enrico Casarosa and inspired by an Italo Calvino story, aims for evocative magical realism over gags in its depiction of the moon-sweeping journey a young boy embarks on for the first time with his father and grandfather.
A child's point of view characterizes Patrick Doyon's "Dimanche/Sunday" as well, wherein a boy's day with his extended family — whose unintelligible chattering is equated with the cawing of birds — encompasses boredom, imagination and the fragility of life.
"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" is William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg's movie version of their successful iPad app for kids, whimsically combining visual storytelling flourishes from the silent era (the titular hero resembles Buster Keaton), inventive digital animation and a touching metaphor for the soaring joys of reading.
More offbeat in tone are the entries "A Morning Stroll" and "Wild Life." The former, from director Grant Orchard, is a bracingly loony triptych set in three years (1959, 2009, 2059) and using dimensionally progressive animation each time — from monochromatic line drawing to color-burnished photorealist CGI — to dramatize an encounter between a man on the street and a chicken with a purpose.
The latter is an impressionistic, painterly rendering of an Englishman's migration to the Canadian hinterlands in 1909, which in the hands of Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby proves to be a quietly resonant tale of quixotic, opaque individualism. It also serves as a fitting reminder that the short form allows for a wide variety of artistic temperaments, which this collection of Oscar-nominated films admirably showcases.