According to the online bookmakers, the odds-on favorite to win this year's Oscar for best animated short film is Alan Barillaro's Piper (6 min.), an adorable frolic in which a baby sandpiper discovers the ocean as a source of food and fun. Created by Pixar, this pixel-perfect short was distributed last summer as an opening attraction for the studio's monster hit Finding Dory, which grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide; that means Piper was seen by more than four times as many people as have seen La La Land, the top-grossing nominee for best picture. I'd hate to be one of the other animators sitting hopelessly in the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night—especially since most of them have better films in competition than Barillaro's innocent piece of fluff.
One of those films is Robert Valley's adult-oriented Canadian short Pear Cider and Cigarettes (35 min.), which screens last on the program should parents want to shoo their children out of the theater. Resembling a graphic novel, Valley's drama unfolds from the visual perspective of its voice-over narrator, a twentysomething guy recalling the rocky life of his old high school pal Techno Styles. A gifted athlete with a thirst for booze and a talent for getting into trouble, Techno suffered a great misfortune during senior year by getting badly banged up in a car accident, and an even greater misfortune a few years later by receiving a $1.5 million insurance settlement to spend as he pleased. The party never ended, and as the film opens, the narrator is flying out to China, at the behest of Techno's father, to mind Techno as he awaits a liver transplant at a military hospital in Guangzhou. The narration is crafted like a short story, measuring the shifting distance between two people as life rolls on, and the sleek, meticulously shaded images reinforce the sense of a shabby jet-setter on a one-way journey to destruction.
Tear open my envelope and you'll find the rightful winner to be Theodore Ushev's Blind Vaysha (8 min.), a tale so simple, strange, and paradoxical it may leave both children and adults awestruck. Funded by the invaluable National Film Board of Canada and adapted from a 2001 story by Georgi Gospodinov, the short is drawn in spare woodcut style, its landscapes roiling with clouds that call to mind Van Gogh. In a little village, a girl is born with a left eye that perceives the past and a right eye that perceives the future, and no folk remedy available to her family or community will resolve this bifurcated vision. Presented with suitors as a young woman, she sees children in her left eye and doddering old men in her right; as a voice-over narrator explains, she has no sense of the present. For grown-ups, Blind Vaysha is an allegory about the difficulty of living in the moment; for kids, it's just freakin' weird. —J.R. Jones
- The White Helmets
Like millions across the world, Oscar voters have their eyes on Syria, as evidenced by three of the five films nominated for best documentary short. 4.1 Miles (22 min., program A), by Greek-American director Daphne Matziaraki, follows a coast guard captain from the Greek island of Lesbos as he and his beleaguered crew save some 200 refugees a day, mostly Syrian, who've fled Turkey on flimsy dinghies. The terror and desperation of the migrants bobbing in the choppy Aegean waters unsettle the captain, who is nearly undone by fatigue and sorrow over those claimed by the sea. Marcel Mettelsiefen's German short Watani: My Homeland (39 min., program B) tells the bittersweet story of an Aleppo woman who loses her husband to ISIS, then finds sanctuary and hope when her family is embraced by a German town.
But the strongest entry this year is Orlando von Einsiedel's British short The White Helmets (40 min., program B), about the 3,000 volunteers of the Syria Civil Defense who serve as neutral, noncombatant first responders to victims inside rebel-controlled areas. Relentlessly attacked by Bashar al-Assad's regime, its Russian allies, and ISIS, these civilians are the primary targets of high-explosive barrel bombs that rain down on homes, hospitals, and wedding halls. With no tracking devices, the White Helmets watch from rooftops for approaching aircraft and then follow the smoke clouds to find the living and bury the dead. Eventually the Helmets themselves are targeted in "double-tap" air strikes, in which planes bomb a site and then resume their pounding when the responders have arrived.
The cinematography has an immediacy not seen in TV news reports (especially since few Western journalists get inside Syria anymore), with vivid images of a White Helmet team as they rejoice over saving a week-old infant and uncover the body of a girl, still wearing her oxygen mask, from the rubble of a medical center. Much of the Aleppo footage was shot by 21-year-old Khaled Khateeb, a local who first began recording the war as a teenager. Von Einsiedel took over filming the White Helmets when they arrived in Turkey for advanced training in emergency aid, and shows them in drills and individual interviews. These one-on-ones are the soul of the movie, as the men—in their former lives, a builder, a blacksmith, a tailor—affirm their belief in humanity and a better tomorrow. —Andrea Gronvall
Of the five live-action shorts nominated this year, three focus on personal fulfillment. Juanjo Giménez Peña's Spanish short Timecode (15 min.), which won the Palme d'Or for short film at the 2016 Cannes film festival, centers on two security guards, Luna and Diego, who work the day shift and night shift, respectively, at a parking lot in Madrid. Luna, asked by her boss to check a time code on one of the security cameras, catches Diego, on his shift, dancing through the lot with abandon, which inspires her to join him. In Aske Bang's Danish short Silent Nights (30 min.), a woman struggles to care for her senile, racist mother even as she volunteers at a homeless shelter in Copenhagen; there she serves and eventually falls in love with an immigrant from Ghana, though unbeknownst to her he has a wife and three children waiting for him back home. And Timo von Gunten's resplendent Swiss short La Femme et la TGV (30 min.) takes place in a storybook village where a lonely septuagenarian (Jane Birkin) waves at the TGV train each morning as it rushes by her window. One day the conductor tosses a letter into her garden, and they begin a passionate correspondence. Recurring pops of robin's-egg blue—in her bicycle, her scarf, and the shutters of her cottage—suggest an internal wellspring of romance and vitality that she poignantly uncaps.
The other two shorts are overtly political, and they throb with an urgency the others lack. The French short Ennemis Interieurs, or "Enemies Within," (28 min.) takes place in the 1990s, as an Algerian man applying for French citizenship faces off with an inspector who questions his allegiance ("Did your father take the Algerian side during the Algerian War?") and prods him about "meetings" with Muslim friends. Written and directed by Selim Azzazi, the film sharply rebukes nationalism and xenophobia without preaching; the human element takes precedent, complicated by the fact that both the inspector and his subject are brown skinned. The most powerful film of the bunch, Kristóf Deák's Hungarian short Sing (25 min.), makes a strong political statement through an allegory involving a school choir. Miss Erika, the conductor, accepts every child who wants to join, but she instructs the untalented ones to mime the pieces so the choir can keep winning national competitions. Eventually the children as a group wise up, and the climactic scene, which I won't spoil, is simple, chilling, and stirring all at once. —Leah Pickett v