Compared with the epic all-American coming-of-age tale that is “Boyhood” — a feat 12 years in the making and nearly three hours in the telling — Oscar’s live-action short film nominees have seldom seemed shorter or smaller, and yet, judged on their own terms, this year’s offerings demonstrate genuine understanding of the form’s potential. Where the best picture category offers its selection of ambitious tapestries, these mini-narratives, which range from 14 to 40 minutes, feel more like quilt squares, intricate in their own right, yet modest and far more self-contained — overall, a quality mix available for consumption on every size of screen imaginable.
Once again, the category represents Oscar’s least American batch of nominees to be found outside the foreign-language race, which further heightens the sense of discovery we get while sampling work that hails from unknown helmers in countries rarely represented at the multiplex.
For example, director Talkhon Hamzavi’s sensitive Swiss-made graduation film “Parvaneh” invites audiences to empathize with a character common enough on the margins of big European cities, but seldom deemed worthy of protagonist status in a feature: A young Afghan immigrant named Pari (Nissa Kashani) finds herself overwhelmed with the adjustment to life in Zurich, where employers take advantage of her illegal status. In the short time we spend with her, Pari wants only to send her earnings home to her family, but even this simple task is complicated by the fact that the Western Union office won’t wire funds without a proper ID. This forces the mouselike young lady to appeal to anyone who might help, resulting in a connection, however fleeting, with a spoiled local girl (Cheryl Graf) who gradually comes to recognize how much they have in common. It’s a poignant if pat little portrait, but one that could scarcely exist as a feature — making this just the right way to experience it.
Cute but overly familiar by comparison, Michael Lennox’s “Boogaloo and Graham” concerns two Irish kids growing up amid the Troubles in Belfast. Fortunately, the country’s violent conflict serves as little more than peripheral color to a story that could just as easily have taken place in a small-town American trailer park or a Manhattan tenement. One day, a father brings home two pet chicks for his sons to raise, and while the birds brighten up the kids’ lives, their mother threatens to cook them up for dinner, until Dad invents an elaborate and unlikely solution — delivered a bit too suddenly, and without much thought to logistics in the short’s final seconds. Though thin on story, the professional-looking film clearly demonstrates Lennox’s aptitude to take on a larger project (his feature debut, “A Patch of Fog,” is due out later this year), using its 1978 setting to supply a few vivid details to this otherwise twee trifle.
At 40 minutes, “Aya,” the most fully realized of the nominees could potentially be expanded into a larger feature, but works beautifully in its own self-contained form (it was released as a standalone in its native Israel, where it won an Ophir Award). Co-directing couple Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’ enigmatic, mostly English-language short indulges the kind of mischievous “what if” scenario that sometimes cross our minds, only to be vetoed instantly by our more rational selves: While waiting for her husband to return at the airport, Aya (Sarah Adler, star of 2014’s terrific “Self Made”) reluctantly agrees to hold a chauffeur’s sign while he runs out to move his car. When the passenger (Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) arrives before his real driver returns, Aya impulsively decides to go along with the misunderstanding. What might happen if she agreed to drive him to his destination? Is the awkward, wryly comic encounter that follows the result of chance or something more like craziness? The beautifully understated film explores the sort of possibilities inhibited by social conventions, teasing a certain romantic potential while leaving just enough to our imaginations.
If the cast of “Aya” seems impressive, it’s nothing compared with the coup British commercials directors Mat Kirkby and James Lucas pulled off in landing Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent for “The Phone Call.” Hawkins plays a volunteer helpline counselor who regularly offers a listening ear and emotional support for troubled souls. One day, she gets a call from a lonely old man who ever-so-gradually reveals what’s bothering him — the sheer anguish of which plays out on Hawkins face (as the voice on the other end, Broadbent is never seen), while the clock on the wall ticks by, indicating the limited time she may have to avert whatever crisis he’s phoned in to report.
As the suspense mounts, the conversation gets increasingly personal, suggesting the possibility that perhaps the Good Samaritan could also use some advice. The ending, while bittersweet, poignantly alternates between the slipping away of one life and the possible saving of another — poetic license with which the makers of the documentary-short nominee “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” might take exception.
The last of the nominees, Chinese director Hu Wei’s “Butter Lamp,” comes as a stunning inclusion, if only because the Academy almost never recognizes conceptual art films in any category — and yet, the shorts race remains something of a Trojan horse to the org’s traditionally stodgy taste. Here, in what deceptively looks like a documentary, the camera never moves, but the background does. Inspired by a vintage Michael Nash photograph, “Warsaw, 1946,” in which a Polish woman poses for a portrait in front of a painted canvas that hides the bombed-out city behind her, Wei assembled groups of Tibetan nomads to have their picture taken in front of similar aspirational backdrops: the Great Wall of China, Disneyland, a dream house or a desert island.
In the final shot, he raises the printed tarp to reveal the actual backdrop, underscoring the theme of how modernity is impinging on a fading way of life. Again, it’s a surprising choice, seeing as how it challenges the status quo, both politically and cinematically. Though it will never win, if a short film like “Butter Lamp” can land an Oscar nomination, there’s hope that the Academy could some day come around to recognizing features that do the same.