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Oscar shorts offer up plenty of variety

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

Short films get the shaft. It's more than likely you haven't even heard of this year's crop -- even the ones nominated for Academy Awards.

But with feature films getting longer and longer, short films might be the only category in the genre that still evidences some discipline on the part of filmmakers. Though even here, some like to stretch the rules to their limits: Every single one of the short documentary films nominated clocks in at 39 minutes or more. The Academy defines a short film as one with a running time of 40 minutes or less.

There are three Academy Award categories specifically for shorts: animated, live action and documentary. Here in the District, art houses have an exclusive on them. The animated and live action shorts are playing at Landmark's E Street Cinema, while West End Cinema is showing the documentary shorts. All three programs are very much worth your time.

The animated program is great for untrained attention spans, but that doesn't mean every one of the five nominated films is aimed mainly at children. The 88-minute program features one film that should appeal to both: "Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare.' " This five-minute film features the baby from television's "The Simpsons," an animated series popular with adults but contains no dialogue, making it easy for the very young to follow the action. It's directed by David Silverman, who grew up in Silver Spring and directed the feature "The Simpsons Movie." And it's a sort of sequel to the 1992 episode of the show "A Streetcar Named Marge." But that pedigree doesn't shine through in the short. Maggie enters the Ayn Rand School for Tots again. But the writers, don't seem in the slightest to understand the libertarianism Ayn Rand inspired. Maggie's day at the day care is a sweet story, but nothing more than a disappointing trifle.

The same can be said of "Fresh Guacamole," a two-minute film by Adam Pesapane, who prefers to be known as PES. PES has directed many commercials, a form in which some very creative work is being done, and is on board to make a feature film based on the Garbage Pail Kids toys. But "Fresh Guacamole" is pretty bland. Someone makes the title dish using unlikely ingredients. A grenade is the avocado, a baseball is the onion, dice are cloves of garlic. And that's all that needs to be said about this one.

"Head over Heels" is an impressive debut from American Timothy Reckart, working in the United Kingdom. It's about a married couple that's really estranged -- the husband lives on the floor of their home, while the wife lives in the ceiling. "Adam and Dog" is a charming origin story from Minkyu Lee, who worked on last year's great animated feature "Wreck-It Ralph."

The star of the show here is the short that preceded "Wreck-It Ralph" in theaters, "Paperman." This charming film by John Kahrs from the Walt Disney Animation Studios takes places in 1940s New York City and, though partly done on computers, reminds us how beautiful old-school animation could be.

The live action program is 114 minutes and features films from around the world that allow us a brief look at other places and other lives. American filmmaker Sam French went to Kabul, Afghanistan, to make the half-hour "Buzkashi Boys," about two boys and the national sport of Afghanistan. Buzkashi is a lot like polo -- except, instead of a ball, it uses a headless dead goat. This is a fictional film, but that sport is all too real. "Asad" is a U.S./South Africa coproduction with a cast made entirely of Somali refugees. It examines a boy who must be decide whether to become a fisherman -- or a pirate.

Matthias Schoenaerts, who starred in last year's excellent "Rust and Bone," stars in the Belgian-French "Death of a Shadow." Tom Van Avermaet's fantastical short is the most visually exciting of the group. Closer to home is Canada's "Henry," which Yan England impressively made without any financial assistance.

The best of the live action shorts is American, however. "Curfew" proves that Shawn Christensen, frontman of the band stellastarr*, is a multitalented artist. Richie (played by the director) is lying in a bathtub, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, when he gets a call from his estranged sister, begging him to look after her nine-year-old daughter for a few hours -- she's obviously desperate. The result is a fascinating exploration of family, and much else. Fatima Ptacek is superb as the curious niece.

I could write reviews of every one of the 40-minute films in the documentary category, but space constraints mean I don't even have room to discuss them here. West End Cinema is showing the five nominees in a 210-minute program that includes a 15-minute intermission. All five are American films, and four of them were made with the help of HBO. But they're almost as varied as their fictional counterparts.

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