This year's crop of Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts has just a few standouts.
Temper your expectations, filmgoers. The 2012 Oscars shorts are not a dazzling collection. There are glimmers of talent, a smattering of cleverness among the live action and animated featurettes, but only one that leaps out of the pack. Yeah, you guessed it. Pixar.
Live action first: Ireland's dual contenders feature the legendary Gaelic charm and all the blarney that usually goes with it. "Pentecost" (11 min.) centers on an altar boy who swings the incense thurible a little too freely, knocking his priest clean off the chancel steps. The young server must work his way back into the parish's good graces with the help of a clergyman whose pep talk is worthy of a World Cup soccer final. "The Shore" (31 min.), directed by two-time Oscar nominee Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda"), features Ciaran Hinds as an expat whose return to Belfast involves a love triangle, a rubber hand and a round of folk singing. It's lighthearted but just shy of funny.
The same goes for "Time Freak" (11 min.), in which a neurotic New Yorker's time machine traps him in an infinite loop of Seinfeldian futility. "Raju" (24 min., in English and subtitled German and Hindi) feels more like the down payment on a feature film than a stand-alone short, as a German couple negotiating an adoption in India find themselves caught in a web of moral quandaries, bureaucratic incompetence and outright criminality.
The best and weirdest of the lot is Norway's "Tuba Atlantic" (25 min.), in which an old crank with six days to live settles accounts with a machine gun, explosives and a gargantuan, blatting wind instrument aimed at North America. You don't need to be Scandinavian to get its unique form of fatalistic humor.
The animated entries are a diverse lot, ranging from traditional hand-painted cels to cutting-edge optical effects. Canada contributes melancholy entries with "Dimanche/Sunday" (10 min., but it feels like an hour) and "Wild Life" (14 min.). The first is a kid's-eye-view of a drab day attending church and visiting grandparents; the second follows an English dandy to early 20th-century Alberta, where a rancher's life proves tougher than expected. If I were handing out the awards, these would get "participant" ribbons. Odder and livelier is "A Morning Stroll" (7 min.), a shaggy poultry story about a chicken walking down a big-city sidewalk in past, present and future tense.
"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" (15 min.) is a charming adaptation of a children's e-book iPad app featuring a Buster Keatonish bibliophile who looks after a very lively library following a hurricane. It's delightful, but Pixar's "La Luna" (7 min.) is the best of the lot. There's pure wonder and visual elegance in this fable-like tale of a young boy whose father and grandpa take him out to sea in a remarkable rowboat for his first night as a helper in their family business. Like three of the other nominees, this is dialogue-free, but it's the most eloquent by far.
In addition to their theatrical run, the films will be available individually on iTunes starting Feb. 21.