By Eric Henderson

I said it last year, and it applies in full right now: “For the last few years, I’ve pointed out that winning your Oscar pool in some ways depends on being smart about your selections in the short film categories. That everyone usually has a pretty solid idea of what’s going to win in the major races is mostly a given (though tell that to anyone pulling their hair out over this year’s best picture dead heat between 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Gravity). But down ballot? That’s a whole ‘nother ball game.”

OK, so swap out those specific titles and swap in Boyhood, Birdman, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, all of which appear to be the big frontrunners for the top prizes this year, though the twin biopics The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are, of course, giving more traditional-minded voters something to back.

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What I also said last year: “Well, I feel compelled to finally put that old canard to rest. There are plenty of other reasons to track down the films nominated by the AMPAS. There are as many as 15 reasons every year, in fact. Sixteen if you add the fact that ShortsHD have been making it incredibly easy to knock them all down in one shot. Their firmly-established anthologies have been making rounds in movie theaters for at least the last half-decade.”

Yup, that holds true as ever. Many people now make it something like a tradition to take in the shorts programs theatrically, and not just in order to get ahead in Oscar pools but, rather, to see some truly offbeat and potentially surprising miniature masterpieces. Not everything that gets nominated in these categories is one, of course. In fact, there have been a number of years that the slate brought to my attention some unexpected new additions to my “worst of the year” list. That’s all part of the fun, though.

And, for the record, none of the 15 films nominated this year in the short film categories are, by my estimation, downright awful. Good job, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences!

These are by far the most notoriously difficult categories to make predictions for, in part because they are the least discussed. That said, here are my best guesses as to which way they’ll break, along with my personal awards for best-in-show.

And even if you don’t care who wins, still head over to the Lagoon Theater, which will be presenting the 10 movies nominated in the short animated film and short live action film categories starting this Friday, and the Riverview, which is presenting the five documentary shorts.

Best Animated Short

The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs & Christopher Hees)
Two brothers squabble as their mother reaches her end-of-life stage. This seems the epitome of the exact sort of arty nominee I always think can pull off a surprise win based on its gravitas and essentially anti-kid fare overtones (see also: Feral; Wild Life; Madagascar). And I’m always, always wrong. But the animation is always stunning and innovative.
The Dam Keeper (Robert Kondo & Daisuke Tsutsumi)
A rich, deeply satisfying parable about bullying, but not mired in the current discourse. The Dam Keeper always remains true to its characters, and positioning them against an evocative backdrop. The tale of a young pig who is tasked with blowing away what appear to be hazardous fumes from an idyllic village, it is at turns warmly comic and heartbreaking.
Feast (Patrick Osborne & Kristina Reed)
This year’s requisite Disney nomination; there seemingly almost always has to be one. Feast ran before Big Hero 6 in theaters, so it’s undoubtedly the most widely-seen candidate in the mix. With subtle shades of Boyhood, the short tells the story of a young puppy’s coming of age. Only in this depiction, the story of both the pup and its master are told strictly through meals. A dieter’s nightmare.
Me and My Moulton (Torill Kove)
I’m as Norwegian as they come, and even I thought this short came on a little too Scandinavian at times. With an unmistakably Wes Andersonian sense of wry humor, the short details the efforts of three sisters to get their hipster parents to buy them a bicycle. Told through the eyes of a quintessential middle child, Moulton is sort of like an IKEA showroom come to life in the form of a kids’ story.
A Single Life (Joris Oprins)
I did say in the introduction that this year boasted zero terrible nominations, but if I were to pick one that feels, well, out of its league amid its competition, I’d have to cite this one-joke blackout sketch. Lacking in substance and, more critically, unique character design and execution, it feels more like a final rendering project than a fully-fledged film.
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Will Win: Matching emotional resonance with highly expressive, hand drawn paintings, this one is almost certainly The Dam Keeper‘s to lose.

Deserves To Win: While I remain in awe of The Bigger Picture‘s three-dimensional trickery and downbeat plot, The Dam Keeper is the unmistakable class of the competition.

Best Live-Action Short

Aya (Oded Binnun & Mihal Brezis)
The longest film in this lineup at 40 minutes, Aya is essentially a two-hander. The title character, while waiting for someone at the airport, ends up mistaken for someone else’s driver. She decides to see how long her little sociological experiment plays out and winds up driving her charge — a tony musical judge — to Jerusalem … and, also, up the wall with desire.
Boogaloo and Graham (Michael Lennox & Ronan Blaney)
Do you like cute comedies from the British Isles? Even if you don’t, you’ll probably find it difficult to resist this tale of two brothers who procure pet chickens. Set against the backdrop of “The Troubles” in Ireland, Boogaloo and Graham is surprisingly light on its feet. Kids say the darndest things.
Butter Lamp (La Lampe au beurre de yak) (Hu Wei & Julien Féret)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a documentary somehow snuck into this fictional field. Butter Lamp shows a traveling photographer as he sets up various Tibetan villagers for group portraits, using various fabricated backdrops instead of their own natural environment. Never pointed in its politics, it’s more of an ethnographic aquarium-style piece than a standard-issue short story.
Parvaneh (Talkhon Hamzavi & Stefan Eichenberger)
Almost every year features something like Parvaneh, a movie that exists mostly to distill stark cultural differences down into one microcosmic case study. In this one, an Afghani émigré travels from the countryside to urban Zurich in order to wire her family the money she’s been making. Only she must rely on the help of the cutest little teen punk in Christendom and try to avoid giving into trying all those tempting lipstick samples.
The Phone Call (Mat Kirkby & James Lucas)
Sally Hawkins. That’s really almost all you need to know about this short, but in case the star power isn’t enough, it’s also a tight little fable about a woman who, while working the desk at a suicide prevention hotline, likely has the course of her life totally altered when she receives a call from an obdurate client, so to speak.

Will Win: You could almost make a case for any one of the nominees here (except Butter Lamp, which is going to lose and lose hard), but odds seem pretty good that Hawkins’ series of gut-wrenching close-ups will tip the scales toward The Phone Call.

Deserves To Win: I don’t always side with the least accessible choice available. Just 80 or 90 percent of the time. I found Butter Lamp‘s rigorous formalism almost jaw-dropping.

Best Documentary Short

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (Ellen Goosenberg Kent & Dana Perry)
Dovetailing almost eerily off of the previous category’s Phone Call, this HBO doc showcases the efforts of the only fully-dedicated suicide crisis hotline servicing United States war veterans. With the focus of a fine procedural, Crisis Hotline never lets you hear what the center’s operators are hearing on their lines. Only their cool, professional efforts to reach peaceful resolutions.
Joanna (Aneta Kopacz)
A spin-off, of sorts, from a blog series written by a mother who knew that her life would soon be cut short due to cancer, Joanna is (again, a bit like Boyhood) edited in redolent, emotional fragments, highlighting in particular detail the connection between a mother and a son who are only trying to make the best of their remaining time together.
Our Curse (Tomasz Śliwiński & Maciej Ślesicki)
Ondine’s Curse is the colloquial term for a terrifying condition that makes it impossible for humans to breathe while sleeping unless they’re on a respirator. Most who have it die as infants. This film depicts two parents coping with their newborn child’s struggles. If you have never heard what it sounds like when a baby with a tracheostomy tries to cry, well, now’s your chance.
The Reaper (La Parka) (Gabriel Serra Arguello)
If Butter Lamp almost felt like a documentary, The Reaper almost feels like a deliberately staged avant-garde project from a particularly dark imagination. In reality, it’s a singularly focused portrait of a man who delivers the kill shots at an abattoir, to the tune of 500 cattle per day, six days per week for 25 years and counting. Do not eat before watching this film, and don’t expect to afterward.
White Earth (J. Christian Jensen)
Our neighbors to the northwest get put under the microscope. The oil boom in North Dakota is presented through the eyes of the children who have been uprooted as their parents came to the state to find work. There are plenty of startling nighttime shots of derricks pumping crude that seem to have emerged from the seventh circle of Hell, but the focus remains on the efforts of parents trying to make their kids’ lives better than their own.

Will Win: It’s almost too close to call between Joanna and Our Curse. The former is more ornately staged and, despite its subject matter, uplifting. But the latter, however unpolished, is raw and unforgettable. You may as well flip a coin between them, to be honest, but I’ll give a razor-thin edge to Joanna.

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Deserves To Win: It’s a tough call, as this quintet is unequivocally the best of the three short categories. Only White Earth seems a minor league candidate, and perhaps only because geographical proximity has ensured that anyone here already knows way more about the subject matter than this film offers. Of the worthy remaining four, I can’t deny the brutal, violent poetry of The Reaper. And bear in mind, I watched nearly the entire doc peering through my fingers.

Eric Henderson