Inside track on three toughest Oscars categories to predict: the Shorts

When it comes to picking the winners for Oscar’s three short film awards, office pools aren’t what they used to be.

When I was handicapping the Oscars for the L.A. Times back in the ‘80s, friends and some readers would beg me to help them sort through the live-action, animated and documentary short film nominations. Those three blocks of copy were as mysterious as black holes to people staring at an office ballot, and the eventual winners gave their speeches to abandoned living rooms around the country.

Those categories were a mystery and a TV break for me, as well, so I would turn to my contacts within the academy who attended sign-in screenings for the nominees and asked for their sense of their colleague’s reactions. Then, I would have to pick from two or three possible winners and would be wrong about half the time.

Today, anybody who wants to see the films for themselves can preview them at theaters around the country and, in some instances, on cable networks. People who watch movies for a living have the added advantage of receiving screeners for the nominees, or be given passwords that allow them to access them on the Internet. And all of the nearly 5,200 voting members of the academy now receive screeners to watch at home.

The academy’s decision two years ago to allow all members to see the short film nominees on screeners changed everything. As with all movies, watching a short film alone at home is a very different experience from watching one with an audience, particularly one where audience members huddle up afterwards to discuss what they’ve seen.

In contrast, having a remote control in your hand while the nominees play on your TV monitor makes it irresistible to pass on films you find uncomfortable to watch. For example, the documentary short nominee “The Reaper,” about a worker in a Mexican slaughterhouse, includes footage of cattle being slaughtered. I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian, but I do not want to see that and my vote, if I had one, should not count.

My squeamishness is probably shared by a large percentage of academy members, if not for the 19 experts at Gold Derby who rated “The Reaper” dead last in the category. To some extent, the honor system makes these exotic awards more subject to watchability than considered judgment.

I am late to this party. I have just watched all 15 short film nominees in one setting, at home in front of a 26-inch computer monitor, having not looked at the Gold Derby rankings. I scored each film on a one to 10 scale, based on my personal favorites. My favorites don’t match two of the three consensus choices of the Derby panel of experts, but I think their choices of “Feast” for animated short, “The Phone Call” for live action, and “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” for documentary short will match those of the academy.

If you’re filling out the ballot for your office pool, I recommend you pick those. Sadly, they may not be the best films in the race.

Below, a closer look at the three races (click on category titles to see how the experts ranked them).

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Disney’s loopy puppy cartoon “Feast” is the likely winner, but not fairly so. Disney’s animation overseer and creative guru John Lasseter has the production wherewithal, using either conventional drawing or Pixar CGI, to overwhelm most competition. Disney’s nominees don’t always win, but they always look more polished and it takes a very sly film to beat it.

Five of the Gold Derby experts think that sly film is “The Dam Keeper,” a dark, hand-drawn tale about a village of anthropomorphic animals whose title character is a lonely and bullied pig who maintains a windmill that protects the town from pollution. Its story is a hell of a lot more poignant than “Feast,” which is a simple – and, of course, luscious – cartoon about a rescued and pampered puppy who has to adapt when his master falls in love and divides his attention.

My personal favorite among the nominees is “A Single Life,” a clay animated tale that takes all of three minutes to show a single woman experiencing her life span thanks to the mysterious gift of a vinyl record that gives her the power of time travel. It’s whimsical, evocative and ultimately urnest.

On my scorecard, I gave “A Single Life” nine points, “Feast” eight, “The Dam Keeper” six, “The Bigger Picture” six, and “Me and My Moulton” four.

UPDATED: Experts’ Oscars predictions in 24 categories

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
This is a great category. Short live action films are as integral to filmmaking as short stories are to novels and many of our greatest directors began their careers this way. To their number may be added the name of Mat Kirby, a commercials and music video director whose 20-minute “The Phone Call” is a wrenchingly honest and simply shot film about a crisis line operator trying to talk a despondent widower out of killing himself. Veteran British actress Sally Hawkins is the operator and the great Jim Broadbent provides the voice on the other end of the line. Hawkins may already be getting her own phone calls from producers of future projects featuring women with the emotional range she shows while performing in close-ups throughout the film.

As much as I enjoyed “Boogaloo and Graham,” an Irish film about two young brothers whose pet chickens are facing euthanasia, and which is the choice of three Gold Derbyists, this one looks like a slam dunk for “The Phone Call.”

My scorecard: “The Phone Call” 10; “Boogaloo and Graham” eight; “#Parveneh#” seven; “Aya” six; “Butter Lamp” four.

See Oscar rankings when Experts’ predictions are combined

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Sadness reigns through the five nominees here. “

Joanna” is a Polish film about a dying woman trying to impart her sense of goodness to her five-year-old son in the months she has left.

Our Curse” is about a couple who’ve learned that their baby son has a mental disorder that will require him to sleep with a ventilator for the rest of his life.

White Earth” is about the forlorn children of oil field workers in frigid North Dakota.

And “The Reaper” is about a Mexican slaughterhouse worker trying to find inner peace to balance his daily repulsion.

Compared to those, the Gold Derby favorite “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” is a feel-good movie. Like the live-action nominee “The Phone Call,” it is set in a crisis center whose trained responders are trying to talk suicidal callers off the ledge, and it is demoralizing to learn how many veterans actually reach that ledge. The triumphs here are measured by the joy that comes with the successful interventions and we are indeed uplifted by the humanity on display at the center.

As a documentary, however, “Crisis” is pretty ordinary and could be done on just about given day or week. “Joanna,” meanwhile, is the singular story of a very strong young woman making the most of her final days and it is her strength that carries us along with her.

Two of three Gold Derby dissenters have “Joanna” as their current winner, but my choice aligns with that of Dave Karger, the lone Derby supporter of “Our Curse.” Its production values are the least professional of the nominated films but the courageous couple who allowed cameras into their home as they despair over the recent hospitalization and release of their baby, whose rare (1/200,000) disease will dictate their lives for as long as he lives. Watching the couple huddled on a love seat, comforting each other while listening to the gasping sounds coming from their son in the next room as air is pumped into his lungs through a tracheostomy, is beyond heartbreaking. And beyond forgetting.

My scorecard: “Our Curse” eight; “Joanna” seven, “Crisis Hotline” seven, “White Earth” five, “The Reaper” four.

Make your Oscars picks now — click here — or scroll down to predict the Best Animated Short winner using our easy drag-and-drop menu. Best predictions will win $1,000 prize. And the 24 Users with the best scores advance to a team to compete against our Experts and Editors next year. See who’s in our current Top 24 and their early Oscar predictions. Meet the guy who won our contest to predict Oscar nominations this year — and learn how he did it and how you can be our next Gold Derby superstar. Register/log in to your account so you can also compete to predict the BAFTAs, Grammys, “The Walking Dead,” “Celebrity Apprentice” and more.

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