Despite brief running times, great short films can evoke universal sentiments just as powerfully as their feature-length counterparts. Unfortunately, the 10 films that comprise this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short and Best Live Action Short too often prefer cleverness to genuine insight.

On the whole, the animated films are a stronger group, with even the weakest entries offering a high level of craftsmanship. Disney’s handsome The Little Matchgirl, adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen story, overwhelms the narrative with a maudlin tone, while Blue Sky Studios’ No Time for Nuts incorporates Ice Age’s squirrel Scrat into a mildly diverting time-travel adventure that boasts incessant child-friendly slapstick. The CG-animated Maestro, directed byGéza M. Tóth, spends five minutes building to its finale joke that you’ll probably see coming long before then. On the bright side, Lifted, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom,continues Pixar’s tradition of superb short films: In this story of a misbegotten alien abduction, the animation is predictably amazing, but it’s the precision of the silent-comedy execution that impresses most. Even Lifted, however, pales in comparison to writer-director Torill Kove’s glorious The Danish Poet, in which a narrator (voiced by Liv Ullmann) tells the unbelievable story of how her parents met, touching on the mysteries of love, creativity, happiness and chance with such poignancy and sweet humor that the film’s 14 slender minutes feel very nearly perfect.

Several of this year’s live-action nominees suffer from high-concept ideas marred by little follow-through. In The Saviour, writer-director Peter Templemanfollows a Mormon evangelist’s adulterous affair, but oscillates between feeling superior to his religious protagonist and showing him compassion. The glibly satirical West Bank Story turns the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a West Side Story parody, but instead of seeming brave and astute comes across as too pleased with itself and not nearly cutting enough. Chronicling an impoverished Senegalese community, writer-director Javier Fesser’s well-meaning Binta and the Great Idea has so many storylines that its 30 minutes feel like disjointed excerpts from a feature-length narrative. Several notches above, director Søren Pilmark’s comedy-drama Helmer & Son introduces us to a beleaguered son trying to coax his domineering father out of the rest-home armoire he’s hiding in. But the Oscar should go to Spanish director Borja Cobeaga’s Éramos Pocos, a black comedy with hints of melancholy around its edges about a spoiled father and son who must finally learn to cook and clean for themselves when Mom abandons them — unless, that is, they can convince her aging mother to move in and take care of them. Unlike many of these nominees, Cobeaga’s film packs enough surprises and revelations that its impact is far greater than its length would suggest. (Nuart)

—Tim Grierson

LA Weekly