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Oscar-Nominated Short Stuff

Small films with big ideas


I was having a grand ol' time surfing the wave of this year's Oscar-nominated short films. Then a wallop of an emotional punch hit me from the unlikeliest of places: an 18-minute cartoon called The Dam Keeper. It is, without exception, the most genuinely entertaining and powerful piece of film I've seen among this year's bumper-crop of Academy Award nominees.

Crafted from more than 8,000 paintings, The Dam Keeper comes from artists Robert Kondo (Ratatouille, Monsters University) and Daisuke "Dice" Tsutsumi (Ice Age, Robots) who blend old-school hand-drawn animation with lush brushstrokes. It's unlike anything I've seen before, which is reason enough to recommend this achievement, but what floored me was how wonderfully told this short-on-length but tall-in-stature tale is told.

Set in a desolate future, The Dam Keeper is about a young piglet whose job it is to crank up a windmill/dam each morning before heading off to school. The windmill acts as a fan that pushes poisonous clouds away from the village, which is inhabited by bunnies, kittens, beavers, turtles and other animals. The piglet is a loner and is teased and bullied at school. The other animals don't know that the piglet protects them from the poison every day, but there is nothing to protect the piglet from the cruelty of others. The Dam Keeper ends with a dramatic climax and will fill your heart for days. It's a modern masterpiece.

My guess is that this year's Oscar winning short film will be Feast from the Disney juggernaut. It's a fun story that was teamed up with Disney's animated feature Big Hero 6 in November 2014, therefore, a lot more people have seen Feast and are likely to vote for it. That, and the fact that scores of Disney studio employees are also voting Academy members, should assure Feast's win. It's a fun ditty about a man's love life as seen through the eyes of his best friend and dog, Winston, in a story revealed, bite-by-bite, though their shared meals.

This year's other nominees for best animated short film are The Bigger Picture from the United Kingdom, a darkly humorous tale of caring for an elderly parent; Me and My Moulton, a joint production from Canada and Norway about three sisters who beg for a bicycle from their avant garde parents; and A Single Life, from The Netherlands, about a young woman who discovers a mysterious vinyl 45-rpm single record that can transport her to different stages of her life.

Each year, we're privileged to see most of the Oscar-nominated shorts, both animated and live, bundled for two separate showcases, right before the Academy Awards are handed out. This year's live-action shorts are just as fine as the animated films, so my advice is to make it a double feature. Better yet, see one bundle, take a dinner break and return for the other.

Among the live-action shorts, the best of the lot is Parvaneh, a Swiss film from director Talkhon Hamzavi. It's a great 25-minute story of a young Afghan war refugee (Nissa Kashani) who recently landed at a remote location in the Swiss Alps designed to house asylum seekers. Parvaneh needs to wire needed funds back to her homeland for her father's operation, but when she travels to the big city of Zurich, she's more lost than ever, until she befriends Emily (Brigitte Beyeler), who is a bit of a punk. They find each other and, ultimately, their own identities. I wanted more of this story, and I'm secretly hoping someone adapts this into a feature-length film sooner than later.

Another superb entry is Aya from Israel. It's a story of two strangers who meet at an airport. He (Ulrich Thomsen) mistakenly assumes she (Sarah Adler) is his assigned driver, but she's enchanted by the random encounter and doesn't hurry to prove him wrong. Aya is the first film in Israeli cinema history to be released to theaters as a stand-alone film, not attached to another short or feature-length movie.

Also among the Oscar-nominated live action shorts are Boogaloo and Graham from England, which tells the story of two 1970s-era brothers who play parents to two baby chicks, triggering their new-found vegetarianism and dreams of running a chicken farm in spite of the fact that they live in the slums of Belfast; La Lampe Au Beurre de Yak (Butter Lamp) from China, about a young photographer who tries to capture images of Tibetan nomads in front of some bizarre backgrounds; and The Phone Call, another British film, starring Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins and Oscar winner Jim Broadbent about a shy lady working at a suicide helpline, who receives a call from a mystery man.

All in, the 2015 Oscar-nominated short films are winners. It's one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of the year.