With 14 Oscar nominations, La La Land is poised to dominate Hollywood’s big night on Feb. 26. But there are at least three categories where director Damien Chazelle and Co. will not win. The Best Animated Short, Best Live Action Short, and Best Documentary Short categories are La La Land-free, and very competitive. Thanks to ShortsHD, which is making all 15 nominated short films available in separate programs in theaters and on demand, it’s easy to find favorites to root for. The theatrical roll-out began on Feb. 8 and will continue to expand in the run-up to the Oscars. (Visit the official site for showtimes near you.) The programs’ VOD run will begin on Feb. 21 via Amazon, iTunes, and Vimeo. (Select shorts can also be streamed on other online platforms.) Before you dive in, consult our guide below to the films in each of the three shorts categories, including our picks for the likely winners.
BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Directed By: Theodore Ushev
What It’s About: Adapted from a highly metaphorical short story by Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov, Ushev’s short depicts a girl with one eye that sees only the future, and one eye that forever gazes into the past.
Our Take: Blind Vaysha is more interested in the metaphorical implications of the heroine’s atypical plight rather than telling a story, so don’t expect a conventional resolution. Fortunately, there’s much to admire in the film’s painterly visual style, which resembles a volume of Eastern European folklore as illustrated by Van Gogh. Caroline Dhavernas’ narration gets heavy-handed at times, but just try not to be touched by a character whose split vision means she can never live in the now.
Directed By: Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj
What It’s About: Regrets, the wizened sheriff of Borrowed Time has a few. Returning to the scene of his greatest failure, the Old West lawman is immediately overcome by tragic memories.
Our Take: The characters look like they stepped out of a Pixar cartoon — no surprise, given that the directors are Pixar employees — but the storyline definitely verges on PG-13 territory. And while that contrast between style and substance initially enlivens the film, Borrowed Time builds to a climax that’s at once both too predictable to surprise and too abrupt to resonate. Maybe the filmmakers should have borrowed a few extra minutes to give the story more emotional oomph.
Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Directed By: Robert Valley and Cara Speller.
What It’s About: Canadian illustrator Robert Valley — who previously worked as an animator on TV shows like Aeon Flux and Tron: Uprising — pays tribute to a childhood friend by using his wild and wooly life story as the basis for a graphic novel on film.
Our Take: Pear Cider packs more into 35 minutes than some features do in two-plus hours as our anti-hero, Techno Stypes, endures two serious traffic accidents, addictions, and a vaguely illegal liver transplant in China. It plays like fiction, although Valley has said he’s tried to stay true to the facts…apart from the super-cool pseudonym invented for his pal. Animated in Photoshop, it’s a labor of love that at times threatens to overstay its welcome, but vibrates with the energy of its elusive main character.
(Pear Cider and Cigarettes can be rented or purchased on Vimeo)
Directed By: Patrick Osborne
What It’s About: A musically inclined father and daughter respectively come of age behind the wheel of their trusty car.
Our Take: Osborne, an Oscar winner three years ago for the Disney short Feast, developed Pearl for Google’s VR-focused Spotlight Stories series. In that form, viewers can “direct” their own experience, toggling the virtual camera around a 360-degree view of the car’s interior. (Watch the Spotlight Series version of Pearl above.) The standard version maintains a fixed angle that mainly centers on the characters as they experience life’s setbacks and successes on the road to growing older and maybe wiser. It’s a lovely little story that’ll drive parents to wrap their kids in a big hug.
Directed By: Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer
What It’s About: With apologies to Ernest Hemingway, this is basically The Young Sandpiper and the Sea, as baby Piper decides what’s scarier: the ocean’s lapping waves or his own gnawing hunger.
Our Take: Pixar used Piper as the appetizer to last summer’s blockbuster sequel Finding Dory, and the short’s photorealistic animation arguably outshone its feature-length companion. It’s not one of the studio’s strongest stories — La Luna and Presto are more engaging — but it’s remarkable to see just how lifelike computer animation is getting.
WHICH ANIMATED SHORT SHOULD WIN
Purely based on visuals, Blind Vaysha is the hands-down standout. But Pearl is the kind of irresistible short-form storytelling that’s engineered to win hearts and Oscars.
WHICH ANIMATED SHORT WILL WIN
While it’s generally assumed Pixar and Disney-affiliated shorts are shoo-ins in this category, history has been kind to indie competitors. Look for Osborne to win his second Oscar for Google-backed Pearl. And yes, this is a rare instance where “Google” fits in the same sentence as “indie.”
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Directed By: Dan Krauss
What It’s About: And you thought you had a tough job? Every day, Oakland-based ICU doctor, Jessica Zitter, is faced with literal life-or-death decisions regarding the terminally ill patients under her care.
Our Take: Filmed in classic vérité fashion, Extremis offers a fly on the wall perspective as Zitter tries to provide some comfort and clarity not just to her patients, but also to their families. That intense intimacy is going to be hazardous to some viewers’ health, particularly those who have watched a loved one slip away. But Krauss smartly avoids adding a layer of sentimentality to make the film easier to watch; it’s a clear-eyed look at the choices we’ll all have to confront one day.
(Extremis is currently available to stream on Netflix)
Directed By: Daphne Matziaraki
What It’s About: The title refers to the distance separating the coasts of Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos, a treacherous nautical path to a better life that boatloads of desperate refugees attempt to navigate, while the Greek Coast Guard works overtime to keep the casualty list low.
Our Take: One of two refugee-related documentary shorts nominated this year — and a companion to the Documentary Feature nominee, Fire at Sea — 4.1 Miles plays as you-are-there video journalism. (It debuted as part of the New York Times‘ Op-Doc series.) While Matziaraki’s attempts to personalize the Coast Guard crew back on land feel cursory, the extended sequences at sea are harrowing: Those who help refugees scramble to safety know full well that some lives will be lost.
(4.1 Miles is currently available to stream on NYTimes.com)
Directed By: Kahane Cooperman
What It’s About: A donated violin and a shared love of classical music bring a Bronx teenager and a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor together.
Our Take: You know it’s a somber line-up of short documentaries when the feel-good nominee is the one featuring a Holocaust survivor. Joe’s Violin feels like a human interest story perfectly suited to an NPR segment or a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. While it’s heavy on positive vibes, it’s a little light on substance.
(Joe’s Violin is currently available to stream on NewYorker.com)
Watani: My Homeland
Directed By: Marcel Mettelsiefen
What It’s About: Following the disappearance, and presumed death, of their father at the hands of ISIS, a Syrian family flees and makes a new home in a small German town.
Our Take: In light of recent real-world events, this story couldn’t be more timely. The filmmakers studiously distill three years of the refugee family’s lives into a concise 40 minutes, following them from the bombed-out rubble of Aleppo to the quaint confines of rural Germany, where they’re readily accepted into the fabric of society yet still feel a tug toward their homeland. Watani is a quiet, but pointed argument in favor of providing safe harbor to displaced men, women, and children whose presence strengthens communities, not weakens them.
The White Helmets
Directed By: Orlando von Einsiedel
What It’s About: Watani depicts Syrians who are forced to flee their homeland; The White Helmets focuses on those who stay behind. The titular “white helmets” are unarmed civilians who volunteer to race into recently bombed targets, searching for survivors.
Our Take: The White Helmets provides a potent snapshot of daily life in a war zone, and a sense of on-the-ground conditions in Syria. It’s a real-life Hurt Locker told from the perspective of a volunteer army of native civilians, rather than an occupying force.
(The White Helmets is currently streaming on Netflix)
WHICH DOCUMENTARY SHORT SHOULD WIN
It’s not just current news headlines that make Watani: My Homeland resonate so strongly; the film also sensitively depicts immigrants adjusting to a new land, an experience defined by new opportunities, as well as cultural challenges.
WHICH DOCUMENTARY SHORT WILL WIN
It’s safe to presume that this is a head-to-head competition between the two Syria-related nominees, and The White Helmets likely enjoys a slight edge following reports that the film’s subjects may not attend the ceremony in the fallout over President Trump’s travel ban. (On the other hand, the matriarch of the family depicted in Watani will attend the ceremony.) A victory would allow the director to pay homage to these heroes from Hollywood’s biggest stage. [Update: Deadline is reporting that the leader of the White Helmets, Raed Saleh, will now attend the Oscar ceremony.]
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
Ennemis Intérieurs (Enemies Within)
Directed By: Sélim Azzazi
What It’s About: Against the backdrop of the Algerian Civil War, a French-Algerian interrogator conducts three separate interviews with a man he suspects of having terrorist ties.
Our Take: With its limited setting and intense back-and-forth between the main characters, Azzazi’s screenplay feels like a trial run for a longer two-hander theater piece in the mold of Oleanna or Sleuth. (A full-length play would also grant more room for the character backstories that are somewhat rushed through in the short.) And despite the period setting, the domestic terrorism angle obviously gives the story contemporary resonance.
La Femme et le TGV (The Railroad Lady)
Directed By: Timo von Gunten
What It’s About: Lonely widow Elise (Jane Birkin) becomes pen pals with the driver of the France-to-Switzerland express train that passes by her house twice a day, every day.
Our Take: Viewers should seize any and all opportunities to watch French screen legend Birkin in action, even if it means patiently watching a gentle snooze of a movie like The Railroad Lady. Her charm and charisma enlivens this routine trip to a familiar narrative destination.
Directed By: Aske Bang
What It’s About: A Danish social worker lends a helping hand to an immigrant from Ghana who is keeping some pretty major secrets.
Our Take: Marred by the dreaded double-whammy of treacly and self-aggrandizing, here’s proof that Hollywood doesn’t have exclusivity on preachy dramas. To their credit, stars Malene Beltoft and Prince Yaw Appiah work hard to hit human grace notes amidst Bang’s schematic story. But to borrow a line from Game of Thrones, this Night is long and full of itself.
Directed By: Kristóf Deák
What It’s About: Two precocious girls devise a memorable comeuppance for their morally compromised choir instructor.
Our Take: Don’t confuse this Sing with Universal’s animated blockbuster — no pop song covers or animated animals here. But what you will find is an enjoyable morality play for young viewers, told with a light touch and culminating in an applause-worthy finale.
Directed By: Juanjo Giménez
What It’s About: A pair of parking garage security guards — one on the night shift, one working when the sun’s up — form a bond through dance and an innovative use of security cameras.
Our Take: This year’s Palme d’Or short film winner at the Cannes Film Festival feels like a mini La La Land in the way it transforms an everyday location into a Broadway-ready stage. It’s a slight, small-scale story, but provides a welcome respite from the sterner fare in this category.
WHICH LIVE ACTION SHORT SHOULD WIN
Enemies Within is the most provocative and thematically complex short, but Timecode is the crowdpleaser.
WHICH LIVE ACTION SHORT WILL WIN
Armed with plenty of pre-Oscars pedigree, Timecode looks likely to follow in La La Land‘s dance steps to victory. Still, the presence of an international icon like Jane Birkin in an increasingly rare leading role gives The Railroad Lady an outside chance as a spoiler.
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