As in previous years, the variety of the Oscar-nominated short films — animation, live action and documentary, presented in theaters as separate programs — keeps each collection interesting, even when the quality varies.
A rundown of the films:
This year's animation crop is the most compact and the most charming. Three of the five winningly compress time. In the two-minute lark "A Single Life," a mysterious vinyl record seems synched to a young woman's life span. Daisy Jacobs' stop-motion, hand-painted "The Bigger Picture" drolly, surrealistically parses two adult brothers' care for their elderly mother. And "Feast" is irresistible Disney (not Pixar) schmaltz, a years-long human romance told at ground level through thrilling match cuts that detail the feeding of a cute, adopted stray dog.
But the best animated short here is Canadian Torill Kove's line-rendered, offbeat "Me and My Moulton," about three Norwegian sisters' desire for a bicycle. It's really a wish for normality in an eccentric household.
The longest entry, a brushstroke fable about loneliness and friendship ("The Dam Keeper"), is the least effective.
Of the live-action nominees, all from overseas, conventional sentimentality cripples a Belfast-set tale of young brothers raising a pair of chicks ("Boogaloo and Graham") as it does "The Phone Call," about a helpline worker (Sally Hawkins) consoling a grief-stricken widower (Jim Broadbent).
Though too long, the French-Israeli "Aya" is more intriguing two-hander about random intimacy, teasing out a car ride between a reserved Dane visiting Jerusalem for a piano competition and the adventurous young woman driving him from the airport.
"Parvaneh" is a modestly sweet cross-cultural tale of a young, female Afghan immigrant in Zurich, Switzerland, befriending a local teenage girl.
The standout, however, is Hu Wei's disarming comedy "Butter Lamp," in which Tibetan nomads sit for a traveling photographer, whose backdrops (Disneyland, the Beijing Olympics) are a quietly gathering shaggy dog joke about virtual culture and the placement of peoples. The final image is a bittersweet, breathtaking punch line.
The documentaries are the strongest batch overall, but strong is the drink you might need after viewing.
Death hangs over all of them, from the artfully composed fragments of an Argentina slaughterhouse worker's life in Gabriel Serra Arguello's "The Reaper" (about a man who's killed 500 bulls a day for 25 years) to the tense portrait "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1" (about the dedicated men and women who, with only their voices and some deft response-team coordination, tend to suffering American veterans).
Even "White Earth," about the lives of oil boom workers in wintry North Dakota, teems with existential environmental concern.
The most melancholically beautiful, however, are two Polish entries about family mortality, "Joanna" and "Our Curse." The former is a floating, woozy, textured glimpse of a young wife and mother with cancer. The latter, by Tomasz ¿liwi¿ski, documents his and his wife's brutally honest testimonials regarding the care for their newborn, whose rare congenital ventilation disease (called Ondine's curse) requires expensive mechanical care. At the end of the day, for the camera, they drink, philosophize, love, worry and marvel at their son's "beautiful gasping."
What is anyone's life, after all, but the tender management of our inhalations and exhalations?
'2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes (animation); 1 hour, 58 minutes (live action); 2 hours, 45 minutes (documentary)