It's regrettable that so few of the short films nominated for Academy Awards ever actually become available to the general public: Even the sporadic post-Oscars attempts at rounding up entries into a single program often seem woefully incomplete. That's certainly true of this year's Oscar-shorts showcase, which features only two of the five nominees for Best Animated Short Film, three of the five for Best Live-Action Short Film, and none of the documentary-short nominees.
But the overall quality of the live-action shorts helps compensate for the program's scattershot nature. The program opens with Florian Baxmeyer's "The Red Jacket," a German-produced piece in which a grieving father discards his dead son's coat, which eventually reaches a boy in Sarajevo. Without lingering on any particular part of the Sarajevo conflict, Baxmeyer paints a microcosmic portrait of a splintering world, with gritty but almost fairy-tale results. Stefan Arsenijevic's Slovenia-sponsored entry "(A) Torzija" also takes place in an embattled Sarajevo, in a narrower field but with similar simple optimism. In his piece, a choir scrambling through rubble toward a Paris singing competition stops to help a poor local man whose cow, panicked by nearby shelling, is dying of labor complications. Most of the short film takes place in a dank stable, where attempts to birth a calf to the tune of haunting choral music eerily recall the Biblical Nativity. Harnessing their disintegrating environment effectively as a backdrop for their narrow but powerful stories, Arsenijevic and Baxmeyer make good arguments for their respective Oscar nominations.
But they're both trumped by French director Lionel Bailliu, whose riveting "Squash" uses the visual minimalism of a bare squash court to push the focus onto his characters—an abusive manager and his baffled but rallying employee—as they play out an increasingly violent and contentious game. Bailliu follows the contest closely and without obvious visual cheats; the game almost seems to play out in real time, and as the emotional stakes get higher, the play gets more complicated and impressive. Tonally, "Squash" is nearly perfect, but it's also an impressive technical accomplishment.
Of the two animated shorts, Adam Elliot's Australian claymation biographical fable "Harvie Krumpet"—the only actual Oscar-winner on the program—is whimsical and well-assembled, and it benefits immensely from Geoffrey Rush's hushed narration, but it lacks drive or focus. Canadian director Chris Hinton contributes "Nibbles," a scrawly, overly busy cartoon that's mostly a blur of repetitive kinetic motion. Rounding out the slate is a 90-second award-winning student piece called "Perpetual Motion," a pleasantly jokey short that nonetheless feels like a letdown after the lengthy buildup and release of "Squash." None of the three are exactly dull, but none have the spark of the live-action competitors, either. It's just too bad for armchair Oscar voters that the full range of those competitors isn't available to the public.