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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Animated tales shine in a program of 2013 Oscar-nominated shorts
Flashes of brilliance
<i>Adam and Dog</i> draws inspiration from Bible stories.
Adam and Dog draws inspiration from Bible stories.

In the recent past the Oscar-nominated shorts have disappointed me. I'm happy to report that this year's nominees have much to recommend them. Programs of animated, live-action and documentary shorts open this week at Sundance. I'm focusing on the animated and live-action ones.

I'm particularly delighted by the animated shorts. They're almost all good, and one, the beautiful Adam and Dog, represents short-form storytelling at its best. First we meet the titular pup, who romps in a wild landscape. Then comes Adam, who befriends the dog. If you know your Genesis, you know this doesn't end well. Adam and Dog really captures the austere power of Bible stories.

A familiar TV character is the star of the wonderful Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare," in which Homer and Marge's infant daughter faces horrors at the Ayn Rand School for Tots. Like The Simpsons, the short gracefully blends whimsy and satire.

Disney is represented by Paperman, an atmospheric film about an office clerk who's smitten by a woman he encounters on a train platform. It's a funny, unapologetically romantic story.

Fresh Guacamole is a lively doodle about kitchen preparations. The design is breathtaking, and the two-minute film doesn't overstay its welcome.

The only animated nominee I don't love is Head Over Heels, an unfocused fantasia about an elderly couple. They remind me of the creepy puppets in the old Thunderbirds TV series, and not in a good way.

Sundance's animated program is rounded out by a handful of films that didn't receive Oscar nominations.

On the whole, I'm less excited about the live-action shorts. Curfew, about a New York loser and his precocious niece, gets off to a wobbly start by appropriating one of cinema's most famous musical cues, "We'll Meet Again" from Dr. Strangelove. We're set up to expect Kubrick, but filmmaker Shawn Christensen turns out not to be Kubrick. Maybe Christensen should have tried Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Death of a Shadow is an unsettling fantasy about a photographer trapped in a steampunk-inflected purgatory. The film takes on more than its brief running time allows. The same is true of Henry, a sad short about an elderly pianist.

Then there is the quite marvelous Buzkashi Boys, which centers on two Kabul lads who are fascinated by the Afghan national sport. It resembles polo but is played with a goat carcass. Here's a rare chance to watch a match, in a beautifully photographed sequence.

The best of the live-action shorts is Asad, about a young Somali boy. The film powerfully evokes the crisis in Somalia with imagery so stark and strange that it takes on a mythic power.

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