There's scant dialogue but plenty of eloquent storytelling in the five animated short films up for a 2013 Oscar, all of which—along with their live-action and documentary counterparts—will get a pre-award show release at the IFC Center beginning February 1. Save for a five-minute Simpsons segment ("Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare'"), this year's nominees are a mute and expressionistic bunch. With evocative elegance, they convey both plot and emotion through sumptuous, stylized visuals, be it the black-and-white romanticism of "Paperman," the tale of an office worker using paper airplanes to connect with a potential love, or "Adam and Dog," which details with Hayao Miyazaki's grace the Garden of Eden origins of man's relationship to his canine best friend. In its blend of artistry and poignancy, though, none can quite compare with the Claymation majesty of "Head Over Heels," the story of an estranged married couple in which the husband lives on the floor of their house, and the wife, mirroring his movements, lives on the ceiling.
If the animation category is rife with aesthetic splendor, the dramatic category is far more uneven. Three of the nominees—"Asad," about a young Somali boy attempting to choose between life as a pirate or a fisherman; "Buzkashi Boys," in which two young Afghan kids dreaming of becoming stars at the game of buzkashi (a variation of polo played with a dead goat); and "Curfew," concerning a down-and-out loser who interrupts his suicide attempt to care for his young niece—milk youthful distress for melodramatic pathos. Manipulative heartstring-tugging is also characteristic of "Henry," an Amour-lite saga of an old man increasingly aware of his own Alzheimer's. (It's still wrenching, though.)
Far more entrancing is "Death of a Shadow," the story of a killed World War I soldier tasked, in the afterlife, with photographing the shadows of the dead so he can receive a second chance at life — a vignette less moving for its depiction of sacrifice in service of love than for its striking, melancholic Terry Gilliam–by-way-of–Jean-Pierre Jeunet sci-fi style.
Leave it to the documentary field to truly wrestle with hardship and mortality, with the five nominees linked by their shared interest in struggles to survive. Whether it's Rwandan children making an epic trip to seek heart surgery in the Sudan in "Open Heart," cancer-stricken women searching for companionship and catharsis at a local beauty shop in "Mondays at Racine," or retired Florida senior citizens coping with old age and loss in "Kings Point," these nonfiction shorts shine a light on universal issues of suffering, solace, and the strength it takes to overcome adversity. Despite its overreliance on impressionistic interludes and increasingly intolerable female crooning on the soundtrack, however, "Inocente" is a powerhouse. The first-person account of a fifteen-year-old homeless girl grappling with a mother who, years earlier, tried to kill her, all while working on an art show that affords potential future opportunities to escape her difficult circumstances, it's an affecting and endearing portrait of a girl whose voice deserves to be heard.