Most of the features in contention for the Academy Awards have been screening in town for months, but this week brings your first (and, in some cases, probably your last) chance to see the nominated short films. Music Box screens the best documentary shorts in two different programs, and Landmark's Century Centre presents the best live-action and animated shorts. I confess that I look forward most to the animations, if only because they tend to be a little more adult than the nominees for best animated feature. Not being a parent, I have a hard time dragging myself to stuff like DreamWorks Animation's The Croods, Universal's Despicable Me 2, or even Disney's well-reviewed Frozen—to name three of the features nominated this year. Meanwhile, such beautiful, philosophical, resolutely grown-up animations as Michel Gondry's Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? and Terence Nance's An Oversimplification of Her Beauty go unnoticed.
Every year it's the same thing, with indie masters like Don Hertzfeldt and Bill Plympton habitually shut out. A quick perusal of the voting rules gives some clue why this might be so: though nominations for the major categories (best picture, director, actor, etc) are voted on by the full academy membership of nearly 6,000 people, nominations for best animated feature are selected by a steering committee, which is handpicked by a chairperson, who in turn is appointed by the academy president. Members of the committee are required to see only two-thirds of the submitted films, making it more likely the small projects will drift to the sidelines. For short films (both animated and live action) it's fairer: a reviewing committee scores every submitted film and produces a list of ten titles to be viewed and voted on by a nominating committee, which winnows it down to five nominees.
As a result, perhaps, the nominees for best animated short tend to be somewhat more digestible to people over the age of ten. Sure, Disney made the cut this year with Get a Horse!, a postmodern romp that begins as a mock-1920s Mickey Mouse cartoon, and another slot went to Room on the Broom, a British children's fantasy (with voices by Simon Pegg, Timothy Spall, and Sally Hawkins) whose chief virtue is that it might keep toddlers quiet. But the other three nominees are strange fantasies—one Japanese, one French, the third an American indie—with minimal dialogue or none at all. Their visual storytelling is so primal that—rather than appealing to kids and winking to parents, as most animated features do—it erases the line between child and adult, reducing both to a state of simple wonder.
Shuhei Morita's Possessions actually has a fair amount of monologue as its brawny hero mutters to himself, but movement drives the story. Made in 3D, it opens with a stunning depth-of-field shot in which a traveling repairman, wearing a conical hat and carrying a box on his back, strides past the camera and tramps into a forested landscape on a dark and stormy night. The short is based on the legend that tools and other household objects come to life after a century, and these tsukumogami can bedevil their owners. Taking refuge in a toolshed on a high hill, the hero falls into a slumber and dreams of a dancing, froglike beast composed entirely of colored umbrellas. The shed is transformed into a house through which the hero wanders; sealed in a room, he pries open a locked door to reveal a mountain of junk behind it—boxes, baskets, bowls, jugs, suitcases, broken drums, wagon wheels. The stuff crashes down onto him, only to reassemble as a giant beast with ceramic bowls for eyes.
Even creepier than this nocturnal vision is Daniel Sousa's Feral, a hand-drawn fable about a boy who bonds with wolves but can't adapt to the world of humans. Sousa worked on the project for five years, while he took commissioned projects and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the primarily black-and-white images are haunting; the boy is rendered without eyes, just a maw full of sharp teeth, and the wolves are black silhouettes with sharp snouts. Brought to the city and clad in a little suit and hat, the boy clashes with his schoolmates, dropping down on all fours and snarling; in a climactic reverie he sheds his clothing, races away, and rotates against a black field, becoming a wolf, a white dove, a leaf. In white silhouette, he takes a deep breath and blows himself away, his profile disintegrating into snowflakes. The hallucinatory quality is only enhanced by the fact that the story transpires without a single word.
No one speaks in Mr. Hublot either, though there's plenty of noise. Directed by Laurent Witz but, more importantly, designed by sculptor Stephane Halleux, it takes place in a weird, quasi-futuristic past: the obsessive-compulsive hero occupies rooms overlooking a cluttered metropolis of funicular rail cars, an elevated expressway, and businessmen commuting to work with propeller caps that carry them through the air. Halleux's sculptures wear stitched leather clothing; even the cabs in the bustling street below are made of brown leather, tooling around like little footballs. Mr. Hublot lives alone, carefully straightening the pictures hung salon-style on his wall. When he kindly adopts a lost dog, constructed of metal scraps and other junk, it grows into a huge beast, rather like the one in Possessions, that can barely turn around in the apartment without destroying something.
Usually I'm annoyed on Oscar night when the best animated feature is announced, because even if a visionary project is nominated (The Secret of Kells in 2009, Persepolis in 2007, Howl's Moving Castle in 2005), it winds up getting flattened by some big-studio juggernaut (Up, Ratatouille, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, respectively). I've been much happier with the awards for best short; my favorites for 2010 and 2011—The Lost Thing and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore—each walked off with the prize. Even these two films are essentially children's fare, I suppose, but where the Academy Awards are concerned, I may have to get used to sitting at the kids' table.