For several years, a compilation of Oscar-nominated short films - in animation, live action, and documentary - has opened in theaters across the globe , making those categories on Academy Award night not as foreign or inaccessible as they used to be. This season's entries again include a variety of styles, themes and locations, ranging from the Ayn Rand School for Tots where the perpetually silent Maggie Simpson is dropped off at The Longest Daycare to Buzkashi Boys and the cacophonous streets of Kabul.
Matt Groening and Jim Brooks co-direct the Simpsons short, poking fun, perhaps, at recent Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan's embrace of the Randian school of self-determination maximizing one's potential. Little pacifier-sucking Maggie takes it all in and learns pretty quickly that the school is stratified into the gifted, privileged and blessed while all the rest are left to fend for themselves.
That film's competitors in animation include two clever yet bizarre offerings: Fresh Guacamole, a stop-action film that follows the preparation of a tasty snack whose ingredients include avocado, dice and poker chips; and Head Over Heels, a claymation short about a relationship in that has gone stagnant and literally lost its gravity, as the husband lives on the floor and his wife on the ceiling.
Disney's sweet entry is a hand-drawn black-and-white film called Paperman about love at first sight. It's set in a post-war New York City and has as much charm, pep and human longing in its short running time as a full-length Frank Capra movie.
Because HBO has snapped up the rights to most of the documentary shorts, only one was available to be screened but it's a doozy. Sean Fine's and Andrea Nix Fine's Inocente follows the hard knock life of a 15-year-old San Diego girl whose artistic talent helps her cope with being homeless. She paints vibrant abstracts and cartoon-like figures à la Kenny Scharf in colors so neon bright they seem to blind her from the darkness of her situation. And it's quite a testament to the redemption that can arise from arts education.
Of the live action shorts, the ace is Sam French's Buzkashi Boys about two young teenage boys in Kabul, Afghanistan making do with limited means. One is fatherless and a beggar, weaving among traffic peddling wisps of smoke he insists have healing properties while the other works as a blacksmith making axe blades under his father's critical eye. Their solace is watching buzkashi, an Afghan sport that looks like polo yet involves the passing back and forth of a dead goat wrapped in plastic. It's an eye-opening reminder that, depending on geography, boys will be boys yet with vastly different means.