Suffering, embattled nobility and a dash of whimsy. Those emotional currents define this year’s Oscar-nominated short films, with pain and strife dominating.
Despite the paucity of humor, there is just enough levity in the three-part program of films competing for Academy Awards in the live-action, animation and documentary categories to prevent viewers from succumbing to despair. The heavy stuff is especially concentrated in documentary shorts made for HBO that deal with the Ebola virus, a Pakistani honor killing and the Holocaust. All together, the 15 shorts, being shown in theaters beginning on Friday, demonstrate a level of quality and technical ingenuity comparable to that of the Oscar-nominated feature-length films.
Among the live-action shorts, the most anomalous is Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont’s abrasively funny “Ave Maria,” which portrays a quarrelsome family of Israeli settlers whose car breaks down in front of a convent on the West Bank, where the nuns have sworn a vow of silence. Communication is next to impossible. The comedy, which suggests a Middle Eastern answer to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is a lacerating farcical satire of religious extremism.
At the darker end of the spectrum, “Day One,” directed by Henry Hughes, follows the first day on the job of an Afghan-American woman who has joined the United States military as an interpreter in Afghanistan. Accompanying troops in pursuit of a bomb maker in a mountainous area, the interpreter, who has no medical training, finds herself pressured to help with the birth of a baby. The most disturbing image in the entire program of films is a protruding arm that must be pushed back inside the womb before the delivery can be completed. Here, as in “Ave Maria,” religious taboos and linguistic barriers complicate the procedure.
Even darker is Jamie Donoughue’s “Shok,” set in Kosovo in 1998, which shows the forcible exile of a Kosovan family from its home by Serbian soldiers, viewed through the eyes of two young Kosovan boys who are best friends. The Serbs are sadistic, arrogant brutes who would gladly murder them if they stayed.
Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage’s “Stutterer” is a likable trifle about a shy typographer with a speech impediment who summons the courage to meet a woman with whom he has been carrying on an Internet flirtation.
The longest entry, at 30 minutes, is the German director Patrick Vollrath’s emotionally loaded “Alles Wird Gut” (“Everything Will Be Okay”), about a divorced rage-aholic father who kidnaps his 8-year-old daughter to spirit her to Manila by way of Dubai. The film is a heart-rending, impeccably executed soap opera episode.
The animated selections run the gamut from elaborate to minimalist. “Bear Story” is a whimsical tale-within-a-tale about a melancholy old bear who takes a diorama he has created about the unhappy life of a circus bear to a street corner and invites passers-by to look into the peephole in exchange for a coin. The concept is clever and the design ingenious, but this film from the Chilean team of Gabriel Osorio and Pato Escala has no dialogue, and the wonders it conjures aren’t quite so wondrous.
In “Sanjay’s Super Team,” directed by Sanjay Patel and produced by Nicole Grindle, an Indian-American boy obsessed with cartoons and superhero action figures has a fantasy in which his father’s Hindu prayer rituals are woven into an animated action film. Visually sumptuous and cleverly conceived, it’s as ingratiating as a Disney cartoon.
“Prologue,” a British short directed by Richard Williams and produced by Imogen Sutton, is a nifty antiwar story told in line drawings in which a horrified girl observes Spartan and Athenian warriors stabbing one another to death with heroic flourishes, and then runs to her grandmother for comfort.
The Russian film “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos,” directed by Konstantin Bronzit, observes the robotic, punishing training rituals of two best friends preparing to be cosmonauts. Everything goes according to plan until a mishap separates them.
Don Hertzfeldt’s haunting, melancholic “World of Tomorrow” is the best and most minimalist entry. In this sophisticated meditation on the limits of technology and the vain human quest to be immortal, a girl is contacted from the future by a clone of herself who gives her a preview of things to come. Although the future in this science-fiction fantasy is mind-blowing, all the technology in the world can’t ease the essential loneliness of the human condition. This is a film worth several viewings.
The entries in the documentary category are among the strongest and the darkest. “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah”is a useful companion to Mr. Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary about the Holocaust. In Adam Benzine’s short, he describes the rigors of making the film over 11 years and the personal cost in anguish and depression. In the most dramatic moments, he describes risking his life while locating and secretly filming SS officers.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” is an enlightening exploration of the Pakistani culture that allows and even encourages honor killing. In this account of an 18-year-old woman who disobeys her family by eloping with a man from a lower class without permission, she is shot in the face by her father and uncle, thrown into a river and left to drown. Miraculously she survives. All the principals are interviewed.
Two films temper horrifying images with stories of courage and nobility. “Chau, Beyond the Lines,” directed by Courtney Marsh and produced by Jerry Franck, observes the patients in a Vietnamese care center for children born with birth defects from Agent Orange. The title character is an optimistic teenager who has learned to paint holding the brush in his mouth. His dream is to become a professional artist and clothing designer. The Liberian film “Body Team 12,” directed by David Darg and produced with Bryn Mooser, focuses on the female member of a medical team whose job is to dispose of bodies after the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
“Last Day of Freedom,” the most idiosyncratic and moving documentary, rendered in black-and-white line drawing, is the agonizing story of Manny Babbitt, an African-American who suffered brain damage in a childhood accident and later committed a capital crime after serving in Vietnam and returning to his home in Sacramento, Calif., with post-traumatic stress disorder. As directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, Mr. Babbitt’s story is told by his brother Bill, who had to decide whether to cover for his brother or turn him in. It will break your heart.
“Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016” is a program of 15 shorts screened in three categories; the films are not rated. Running time: live-action shorts, 1 hour 47 minutes; animated shorts, 1 hour 26 minutes; documentary shorts, 2 hours 43 minutes. Languages vary.
Correction: January 30, 2016
Schedule information on Friday with a Critic’s Notebook article about “Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016” misstated the running times. The live-action shorts total 1 hour 47 minutes, not 1:43; the animated shorts are 1 hour 26 minutes, not 57 minutes; and the documentary shorts, in two programs, total 2 hours 43 minutes, not 2:39