We are barely more than a week until Oscar Sunday, folks, and it's time for me to ask you an important question: are you serious about winning your Oscar pool? Not "would you like to win your Oscar pool?" Who wouldn't? No -- are you SERIOUS about it? Are you willing to put in the work? Because anyone can call Best Supporting Actress. Oscar pools are won and lost in that murky middle hour -- the Documentaries, the Foreign Language Films ... the Shorts. I've seen all five Live Action Shorts and all five Animated Shorts, and here's where I pass you the keys to the castle and handicap both races and guarantee Oscar pool supremacy for all who read.*
*Not a real guarantee because WHO THE HELL KNOWS what Oscar voters are looking for in a short film??
LIVE ACTION SHORTS
"Henry" (Yan England)
This is kind of a louder, more unsettled version of "Amour." Gerard Poirier stars as the titular elderly concert pianist who is thrust into what seems like a sinister conspiracy to keep him from his wife, Maria. Things get twisty - perhaps overly so - but there's an emotional scene at the end that will probably move voters to tick this box on their ballot.
"Asad" (Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura)
If you're looking for the film that will provide for the best on-stage moment at the Oscars, this could be your pick. Featuring a cast of Somali refugees (credited as such at the end, complete with the years they went into exile), the story of a young Somali teen left at home while the older kids go off pirate-ing is probably a better production story than a film, though voters who respond to old-man-bonds-with-kid content may find this to be an irresistible riff on "Kolya."
"Buzkashi Boys" (Sam French and Ariel Nasir)
This is the longest of the five nominated shorts, and you know how Oscar voters often mistake "most" for "best." On the serious, though, this is a quiet story of two Afghani boys whose fascination with local Buzkashi riders lead them to dream beyond the lives they've seemingly inherited. The muted emotional moments are admirable but subtlety might cost the film some votes.
Probably Not the Academy's Taste:
"Curfew" (Shawn Christensen)
Imagine a verrrry dark "You Can Count On Me" featuring a cute little girl instead of a Culkin brother and writer/director Christensen starring as a suicidal version of the Mark Ruffalo role. The film is stylish and dark but also self-indulgent and may have introduced us to film's very first Sardonic Pixie Dream Niece.
"Death of a Shadow" (Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele)
Imagine "Holy Motors" with more of an actual plot. This incredibly stylish (and unavoidably German) short is about a kind of supernatural photographer who snaps souls at their moment of death and brings their shadows back to be displayed at a weird art gallery in a castle.
"Head Over Heels" (Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly)
This might be a case of me finding reasons that my personal favorite could win, but everything about "Head Over Heels" tells me it's the film to beat. The animation on this utterly gorgeous Claymation short plays with gravity and the laws of physics to tell the story of a husband and wife who live in a floating house with opposing gravitational forces, such that one is living on the ceiling and the other on the floor. What starts as a curiosity becomes sweet, then sad, then rather ingenious.
"Adam and Dog" (Minkyu Lee)
If this isn't the longest of the five nominated films, it sure feels like it. Subdued and deliberate to a fault, the real selling point for this story about the world's first dog in the Garden of Eden is the gorgeous artwork. Minkyu Lee environments are watercolor landscapes traversed by a dog reminiscent of mid-20th Century Disney classics like "Bambi." The combination is quite pretty, if in service to a blah story. Still, an artsy look combined with a melancholy tale could give this some "weight" with voters.
"Fresh Guacamole" (PES)
Clocking in at two minutes (and a short two minutes at that), this stop-motion film could end up being shorter than its own acceptance speech, should it win. While the hands of an otherwise unseen chef assemble some quick "guacamole," unusual objects become ingredients, grenade avocados are scooped out, baseball onions are diced into actual dice, on and on. It's punchy, clever, and over before it wears out its welcome.
Probably Not the Academy's Taste:
"Maggie Simpson In: The Longest Daycare" (David Silverman)
The Simpsons are going to the Oscars! Operating without the benefit of their stable of voice actors, this short wisely focuses on the most taciturn of Simpsons, Maggie. The film revisits Maggie's greatest (non-Elizabeth Taylor-related) moment, her escape from the Ayn Rand School for Tots in "A Streetcar Named Marge." Also featuring a callback to Maggie's rivalry with The Baby With One Eyebrow, "Daycare" is a sweet lark that doesn't push many boundaries but is an enjoyable sit nonetheless.
"Paperman" (John Kahrs)
Employing that classic "Disney princess" style of animation, this is a story of a handsome young Adrien Brody-looking bureaucrat who meets a beautiful Jenna Fischer-looking girl at the train station and then tries to get her attention from the building across the way with paper airplanes. The animation is clever (and a showcase for innovative tech), but the results aren’t overly impressive, and you just end up treading water until the cute boy and cute girl get together. The Christophe Beck score is a highlight.