Those who have never attended the annual festival of Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts should be advised: Don't expect all 10 entries to be minimasterpieces. Nonetheless, there's some lovely artistry to be found.
The live-action selections largely reject tight narrative to engage in meditations on guilt, cultural differences, and aging. The closest these films come to a page-turner is On the Line, a twisty drama concerning a tentative friendship between a German security guard and a pretty bookstore employee. By comparison, New Boy is a small shrug of a film, tracing the touchy-feely misadventures of an African boy enduring his first day in an Irish school. Cynical Oscar handicappers will note that the familiar Toyland is the sole short set during the Holocaust, but the film manages to find some poignancy in a Gentile mother's search for her missing child in Nazi Germany. The biggest missed opportunity is The Pig, an initially intriguing Danish deadpan comedy about an older man's odd attachment to a painting of a pig. The clear winner is Manon on the Asphalt, a moving rumination that turns a young woman's serious bike accident into an existential discussion on the fragility of connection.
The animation nominees are a battle between the deeply personal and the playfully freewheeling. Somewhere in the middle is This Way Up, a soulful British comedy about a father-and-son undertaker team who brave boulders, rivers, and Satan to get their assigned casket to the cemetery on time. Oktapodi is a forgettable Pixar-like adventure yarn about the quest of one determined octopus to save its true love from becoming dinner; actual Pixar's Presto is dazzlingly animated, but its nimble craftsmanship lacks the heart of the final two nominees. The minimalist Russian Lavatory-Lovestory looks like a New Yorker cartoon; its fable about a lovelorn bathroom attendant is satisfying romantic goo. Finally, there's Japan's La Maison en petits cubes, which follows an aging man whose towering house is being consumed by a flood, forcing him to enter the submerged floors and confront the memories held within them. A heartbreaking treatise on the inescapable clutter of life, this film is one of the most modest in this entire series, but, in terms of emotional resonance, it's among the best.