10 little films with big impact

"Paperman," directed by John Kahrs, mixes traditional and CG animation techniques.

Is the whole animated shorts world suddenly all about 'toons without words?

Are the writers and directors working in the live-action short format universally obsessed with the very young and very old?

Probably not. But a look at the nominees in the respective 2013 Academy Awards short films categories certainly suggests so.

A strong field of Oscar contenders, this year's animated shorts hail from big studios (Disney, Fox) and L.A.-based artists, with the exception of "Head Over Heels" - a gravity-defying stop-motion portrait of a disconnected couple, from the U.K.'s National Film and Television School.

My pick to nab the animated shorts Oscar (if you're doing an office pool, I want a cut) is "Paperman," a whimsical, (almost) black-and-white boy-meets-girl story from Disney. Director John Kahrs mixes traditional and CG animation techniques to tell the dialogue-less story of a guy who catches the eye of a girl on a train platform, and then sees her again from his office window, sending him in a wild pursuit that starts with a sheaf of paper airplanes. It's cute, it's romantic, it melds old-school cartooning with new.

"Fresh Guacamole," at 1 minute, 45 seconds the shortest film ever nominated for an Academy Award, is a stop-motion marvel from an artist called PES, also known as Adam Pesapane, in which a bowl of guac is readied with rather unusual ingredients: hand grenades, baseballs, pincushions, lightbulbs - and then munched on with poker chips. "Adam and Dog," from Minkyu Lee, is a Garden of Eden reimagining in which the first man's best friend is introduced. Beautifully rendered, with lush tableaux of a natural world, the cartoon has a definite Miyazaki quality.

And then there's David Silverman's "Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare,' " in which the youngest of the Simpsons clan is enrolled in the Ayn Rand School for Tots, where she's ignominiously passed over for the gifted program and has to contend with a drab gang of drooling toddlers and some grim Raggedy Ayn Rand dolls. (Without dialogue, "The Longest Daycare" nonetheless boasts six writer credits!)

Although all technically accomplished, this year's batch of live-action shorts is more uneven. "Henry," a French Canadian entry, shares thematic elements with Michael Haneke's Oscar-nominated Amour. It's about a retired pianist and his musician wife, about the physical and emotional challenges of growing old, about memory and loss.

The World War II flashbacks in "Henry" dovetail with scenes of a First World War firing squad in the Kafka-esque noir "Death of a Shadow." Belgian filmmaker Tom Van Avermaet stars as a photographer whose steampunk-y apparatus captures images of a corpse's shadow. It's an atmospheric tale of love and sacrifice - and death, death, death.

"Curfew" is set in New York City, and traces a night on the town with a suicidal uncle and his precocious niece. Filmmaker Shawn Christensen does double duty, starring as the depressive uncle, delivering his lines De Niro-esquely. Fatima Ptacek, as the kid, is great.

And speaking of kids, in Sam French's "Buzkashi Boys," two Afghani boys, a blacksmith's son and a street scamp, dream of becoming stars of the brutal polo game Buzkashi - men on horseback batting around a dead goat with sticks. The rugged land- and streetscapes of Kabul are captured with cinematic flair.

Far and away the strongest of the live-action titles, and the most emotionally resonant, is "Asad," about a Somali boy whose friends have joined a band of Uzi-toting pirates, but whose connection to an old fisherman puts him on another path. A tale of courage, generosity, and grace, "Asad" is nonetheless graphic in its depiction of the violence and tumult experienced by the Somali people. It's powerful. It's a winner.


Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts ***1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Minkyu Lee, PES, Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly, David Silverman, John Kahrs. Distributed by Shorts International.

Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins. (combined)

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Bourse

Oscar Nominated Live-Action Shorts *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura, Sam French and Ariel Nasr, Shawn Christensen, Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele, Yan England. Distributed by Shorts International.

Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins. (combined)

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Bourse

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.