White Earth
White Earth, a look at North Dakota’s oil boom and how it’s affected local children, nominated for an Oscar in the short documentary category

It’s time once again for me to thoroughly embarrass myself by incorrectly handicapping this year’s short subject Academy Awards, which open this Friday, Jan. 30 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas. I think I have a perfect record over the last few years – let’s see if I ruin it by actually picking a winner for a change!

I’ll start with the most clear-cut category, and by clear-cut I mean ‘most likely to make me look daft when they open the envelope’. I’m talking about the animated shorts, and I have to believe that Disney’s Feast, a cute tale of a hungry pup attached to last year’s animated feature Big Hero 6 (itself a feature nominee), will win.

That’s despite the fact that it’s by no means the best of the five nominated films. In a perfect world, the barely two minutes long A Single Life would win for its delightful take on time travel via turntablism, but its brevity will prove its undoing: Academy voters don’t like short subjects which are, well, too short.

A Single Life:
A Single Life: a delightful take on time travel via turntablism, nominated in the animated short category
: a delightful take on time travel via turntablism, nominated in the animated short category

Also nominated are Me and My Moulton, a droll Norwegian look at three sisters and a bicycle; The Bigger Picture, a dark horse candidate that intriguingly blends animated watercolors with claymation; and the enigmatic The Dam Keeper, in which the transformative nature of art changes the life of a pig charged with keeping darkness at bay in his little mitteleuropean village.

The strongest overall category this year is Live Action, and picking a winner here is a tricky proposition indeed. I’m opting for Aya, an Israeli film in which a Danish music jurist (In a Better World’s Ulrich Thomsen) meets cute with an amateur driver (Sarah Adler) on his way to a piano competition. The film is well-structured, amusing, and wisely pulls its punches before the final fadeout.

Butter Lamp is an unusual film about a team of photographers taking pictures of Tibetan families against cloth backdrops. It’s the most interesting of the nominees, but a little too arcane and artsy to appeal to voters.

Boogaloo and Graham
In the Live Action short category: Boogaloo and Graham, a droll story of two boys and their pet chickens set in Northern Ireland

Also nominated is Boogaloo and Graham, a delightfully droll story of two boys and their pet chickens set against the background of Northern Ireland’s troubles; Parvaneh, which examines culture clash in Switzerland through the eyes of an Afghan refugee; and The Phone Call, a grueling tale of a crisis center counselor (Sally Hawkins) trying to convince a client (Jim Broadbent) not to commit suicide.

In comparison, this year’s documentaries are a pretty sorry bunch. I’m giving the nod to White Earth, a look at North Dakota’s oil boom and how it’s affected local children (and the children of migrant oil workers).

Against all odds, there are two Polish medical documentaries to choose from in this category. Joanna is a depressing tale of a 36-year old woman stricken with cancer (of which variety, we are not told), while Our Curse provides uplift in its examination of the challenges faced by a young couple with a newborn suffering from a debilitating and incurable condition. The latter might win due to the feel-good factor.

If you’ve ever seen Georges Franju’s 1949 short Le sang des bêtes, you’ve seen a better version of this year’s fourth nominee, The Reaper. For me, one slaughterhouse documentary in a lifetime is enough, and I’ll definitely opt for the one in black and white.

The fifth nominated film is HBO’s Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. I was unable to screen it in advance, but judging from the trailer, Crisis Hotline is the non-fiction equivalent of The Phone Call. It’ll probably win just to spite me.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...