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Short but sweet: A look at this year’s Oscar nominated short films

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A family of Tibetan nomads poses in front of a portrait of the Great Wall in Hu Wei’s “Butter Lamp.” Courtesy of ShortsHD.

With the Academy Awards only a little over two weeks away, Oscar pundits have already begun to make their picks for “the big four” awards categories: best film, best director, best actor and best actress.

Divided into documentary, animation and live action categories, the entries are an ode to the power of brevity. To celebrate this oft-overlooked art form, we picked a few of our favorites from this year’s nominee pool.

Documentary Shorts

“La Parka”

La Parka” (“The Reaper”) invites us to meet our meat. The otherwise gruesome process of bringing beef cattle to slaughter receives the artistic treatment in director Gabriel Serra’s new short. Serra, the first Nicaraguan to be nominated for an Academy Award, leaves much to the power of suggestion and stagnant images. The film’s opening scenes are of the slaughterhouse’s rusted and caked equipment. The location is vaguely defined. Then come the men, smocked and gloved like surgeons, trails of brownish blood decorating their clothes. Among them is Efraín Jiménez García, la parka, the man responsible for making the kill. Serra lingers on his face, tired, hollow and world-weary. “La Parka” is a fascinating exposé of the meatpacking industry and the men who work its chains, pulleys and chopping blocks. Though our meat is often faceless, factory butchers are even more easily forgotten. With “La Parka,” Serrra seeks to alter that regrettable truth.

“Our Curse”

“Our Curse” places emphasis on the plural “our.” In this short film from director Tomasz Śliwiński, a young couple seeks to accept their newborn son’s diagnosis of congenital central hypoventilation syndrome (CCHS) —  known colloquially as Ondine’s curse — in which sufferers run the risk of losing control of their breathing during sleep. Śliwiński also happens to be the boy’s father and, with his wife Magda, he confronts the difficult questions of his son’s life.  How will Leo react when he eventually discovers his own illness? How will he understand that he might die every time he falls asleep? “Our Curse” is heart-wrenching though, in the end, “Our Curse” would rather spend its time celebrating the unity of Śliwiński’s family.

Oscar Animated Shorts

“Feast”

Winston, the canine protagonist of "Feast," is offered a French fry by his soon-to-be owner. Courtesy of ShortsHD.
Courtesy of ShortsHD.

Patrick Osborne’s “Feast,” Disney’s entry for this year’s Oscars, is one dog’s gastronomical biography. In the film, Winston grows from puppyhood to maturity through a progression of meals: French fries, popcorn, bacon, spaghetti, peanut butter, pizza — animation has never looked so appetizing. Meanwhile, Winston’s owner’s love life develops in the background, and Osborne expertly weaves the two threads together. True to its name, “Feast” is deeply satisfying, a story of man, man’s best friend and the love shared between the two.

“Footprints”

Watch “Footprints” once. Then again. And again. And again. You’ll pick up on intriguing new details with each viewing. The short begins with a shot heard in the night. Our protagonist wakes from a sound sleep and inspects a shattered glass pane in his door. The ensuing hunt takes him through tall grass, over an ocean and back to his front door. The beauty of the short’s concept is paralleled only by the surrealism of its animation. Is “Footprints” a commentary on the state of the environment? Could be. You might just have to watch it a few times to figure it out.

“The Dam Keeper”

“The job of a dam keeper is to keep the darkness away.” So begins Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi’s new film, “The Dam Keeper.” A young pig goes about the daily task of maintaining the clockwork intricacies of a windmill, whose function it is to keep out a suffocating quantity of ash. Where does the ash come from? Why is this pig apparently orphaned and friendless? The short doesn’t stop to wonder. “The Dam Keeper” is a surprisingly dark tale, for the pig leads a secluded, reclusive existence in his windmill.  Fortunately, at his lowest moment, a friend passes through and “The Dam Keeper” ends on a light note. 

Oscar Live Action Shorts

“Boogaloo and Graham”’

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The eponymous “Boogaloo and Graham” are frequently seen perched on the shoulders of the two brothers. Courtesy of ShortsHD.

Human-animal friendships remain an Oscar favorite. It’s 1978 — in the thick of the Troubles — and a father in Belfast brings home two fuzzy yellow chicks for his two sons. Boogaloo and Graham, as the two newest members of the family are named, quickly become fixtures of the family, eternally perched atop the boys’ shoulders or  in their arms. The boys’ mother, however, has her reservations about the birds, and finding her sons covered in bird droppings doesn’t help matters much. When the boys learn that their mother is pregnant, it seems as though the birds’ demise is inevitable. Funny, tragic and everything in between, “Boogaloo and Graham” is a rollicking good time.

“La Lampe au Beurre de Yak”

“Butter Lamp” is a series of snapshots — literally. Director Hu Wei’s short film is a sequence of those revealing, self-aware moments prior to the click of a shutter. A photographer shuffles Tibetan nomads back and forth  in front of a series of backdrops. Still clad in their traditional garb, they pose in front of Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall and the Beijing 2008 Olympic Stadium, among others. In some cases, they’re asked to remove their jackets; in one shot, an old man dons a white suit jacket à la Tom Wolfe, all the while gripping a prayer stick. In the end, “La Lampe au Beurre de Yak” is a subtle commentary on the strained relationship between Tibet and China and the conflict between tradition and modernity.

Oscar-nominated Live Action and Animated Shorts are now playing at Embarcadero Center and Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco and will begin screening at the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park on Feb. 6. Documentary shorts are currently screening at Camera 3 in San Jose.

Contact Madelyne Xiao at madelyne ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Madelyne Xiao ('18) is a film writer for the Daily's Arts and Life section and the editor of Vademecum Magazine. She enjoys words and images, particularly those of Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wes Anderson.