I'll start with the good news. This year's five Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are wonderful. They're screening next week at Sundance, and the shorts nominated in the animated and live-action categories are screening this week.
The documentaries are on the long side of short, so they're being shown in two programs. I prefer the slightly briefer one, which features two films, Cavedigger and Prison Terminal. Cavedigger concerns a man whose passion is carving elaborately decorated caves out of New Mexico sandstone. His friends are perplexed, his clients are annoyed, and his wife is impatient. The film may remind you of Rivers and Tides, the lovely 2001 documentary about an artist whose medium likewise is the natural world.
Prison Terminal takes us inside a maximum-security correctional facility, where an ailing, elderly prisoner spends his last days in a hospice facility staffed by his fellow inmates. It's an almost unbearably intimate look at death and end-of-life care. Prison Terminal debuts on HBO March 31.
The other documentary program gathers three films. The Lady in Number 6 profiles a 109-year-old Holocaust survivor whose piano skills seem to have saved her life. She's a lively, inspiring interview subject. Karama Has No Walls examines shattering events in Yemen, where the 2011 uprising, part of the Arab Spring, took a grisly turn. Facing Fear documents an unlikely collaboration between a former skinhead and the gay man he savagely assaulted years earlier.
All the documentary shorts grapple with big topics, and they do so with grace and sophistication. I can't say the same of all the animated and live-action shorts. As I have observed in past reviews of these programs, these selections can seem disappointingly minor. That's especially true of this year's animated shorts. All of them are beautifully designed, but they don't have much to say. I notice that one of the animated shorts, Feral, about a wild child, doesn't have a writing or story credit. There you go.
At least the animated shorts are brief -- except the witch-themed Room on the Broom, which overstays its welcome with its repetitive story. Based on a picture book, Room on the Broom features voice performances by stars like Gillian Anderson and Simon Pegg. It runs 27 minutes. But who's counting?
It's worth pointing out that Disney's animated entry, Get a Horse!, features good old Mickey Mouse, and it's the mysterious, somewhat hostile Mickey from the 1920s, not the sweet one from later decades. I always liked the older Mickey. The animated program includes three additional shorts that weren't nominated for Oscars.
I'm happier with the live-action shorts, especially Britain's The Voorman Problem, a darkly comic fantasy that would work well as a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode. I admire Spain's That Wasn't Me for tackling the searing issue of child soldiers in Africa.
I wish I could recommend Denmark's Helium, about a terminally ill little boy and a hospital janitor who befriends him. But despite the somber subject matter, Helium is slight. The Finnish comedy Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? focuses on an agitated family. It made me smile.
The best live-action short is France's Just Before Losing Everything, an agonizingly taut thriller about a desperate young woman and her two kids. It got my pulse racing and is a model of economical short-form storytelling.