Of the five Academy Award-nominated documentaries, Saving Face and God Is the Bigger Elvis were sadly not made available for critics, but the other three address significant moments in recent world history from the perspective of the firsthand witness. In The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, director Lucy Walker, whose feature-length documentary Waste Land was nominated for an Oscar last year, examines Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami by observing how the victims respond to the aftermath's cherry blossom season. Less hopeful is Incident in New Baghdad, director James Spione's interview with a U.S. soldier caught in the crossfire of the 2007 air strike on Iraqi civilians that became news after WikiLeaks released military video footage of the incident. Both documentaries are despairing portraits, which makes The Barber of Birmingham a welcome tonic: The movie looks at a group of aging civil rights advocates on the eve of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential election.
If the documentaries are touching but earnest, they still outclass the live-action field. First up is Pentecost, a forgettable comedy concerning an Irish youth who has to be an altar boy the day of a big televised soccer match. In the overcooked moral drama Raju, a German couple travel to Calcutta to adopt a child with a dark secret. The glib Time Freak tells the story of an uptight inventor who has made a time machine, which he uses to “fix” all his recent minor social interactions. The Shore has the highest star wattage — Hotel Rwanda filmmaker Terry George, actor Ciarán Hinds — but this comedy-drama about two estranged friends plays out in predictable ways. In a mediocre category, top honors easily go to Tuba Atlantic, Norwegian director Hallvar Witzø's droll comedy about a machine-gun-toting, seagull-killing curmudgeon who has six days to live. Buoyed by a sharp, melancholy performance from Edvard Hægstad, Tuba Atlantic touches on mortality and reconciliation in unexpected ways
For sheer inventiveness, though, nothing holds a candle to the animated nominees. The understated humor of Dimanche/Sunday is its greatest attribute, as filmmaker Patrick Doyon shows one memorable Sunday in the life of a small boy. Less cheeky and more tender, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore documents the adventures of an avid reader who is blown Wizard of Oz–like into a magical world where books are alive. If those two sound a little too precious, try A Morning Stroll, director Grant Orchard's darkly comic tale that recounts the same interaction between an urban dweller and a chicken three times over the span of 100 years. (Warning: A zombie is involved.) And though Pixar's recent shorts have been technically superb but emotionally flimsy, La Luna is a subtle beauty: Anchored by Michael Giacchino's gorgeous score, director Enrico Casarosa's film follows two men and a small boy as they await the moon's arrival. But as affecting as La Luna is, it must take a backseat to Wild Life, a moving, painterly look at an Englishman who decides to reinvent himself in the rugged Canadian frontier in the early 20th century. What starts off as a fish-out-of-water comedy soon becomes something richer and sadder — a reminder that sometimes when people head out to find themselves, the only thing they discover is oblivion.