Want to win that office Oscars pool? It helps to do a little research. (You know the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, right?) But for certain categories, such as documentaries and foreign films — which are submitted by the country of origin and may not yet have American distributors — that's not always easy.
Fortunately, for the last few years ShortsHD has collected the short subject nominees and placed them in theaters across the country, so you won't have to rely on a seven-second clip while the names are being read before you make your choice.
As usual, this year's animated shorts are a wildly diverse bunch, with no clear front-runner (unless you are of the opinion that only a fool would vote against Pixar). They've been collected in a 90-minute program with three additional films to round it out. The longest of the bunch, "Pear Cider and Cigarettes," has been placed at the very end so concerned parents have time to scurry their children out before it starts.
As for that film, it's an ambitious story about a comic book artist helping a hard-living friend through a liver transplant. It's visually striking, borrowing heavily from comic-book design, but the script (and the vocal work) are lifeless, suffocated under the weight of post-Tarantino affectations. Yes, it looks great and it's definitely not for the kids, but flashy production values can't make up for the overall banality of the adolescent story.
The CGI film "Borrowed Time" is another curious misfire, a well-animated Western episode, with a cartoonish character design that is at odds with its brief but relentlessly grim tone, and a premise that is more of an incident than a story.
And just to get the weakest entries out of the way... You know those TV commercials that try to sell you insurance by showing a lifetime of sentimental/cute home-movie incidents while some anonymous pixie girl wails over a laid-back ukulele track? Did you ever watch one of those 30-second spots and wish it was twelve times longer? If so, the six-minute "Pearl," in which dad and daughter bond over mediocre acoustic music, is the film for you.
As for the high points, "Blind Vaysha," produced by the National Film Board of Canada, is a throwback to what used to be considered "artistic" animation decades ago. Simple, spare sketches tell the story of a girl with a strange vision disorder: Her left eye shows her things from the past, while her right eye sees only the future. It's a sly allegory that makes its point unpretentiously, with a modest visual style to match.
And then there's Pixar. This year's offering, "Piper," has probably been seen by more viewers than the other four nominees, having accompanied Finding Dory in theaters last summer. Like most Pixar shorts, it's simple — just a few brief gags to establish a character, introduce a dramatic obstacle and wrap it up in six minutes. A small bird hunts for food along a beach. He's knocked down by the tide and makes friends with a family of crabs, all accompanied by a loose and melodic Adrian Belew score. It's light on story but a major advance in animation technique, with a realistic visual texture that is remarkable even for the studio that brought us previous Oscar winners such as "Geri's Game."