If you want to win big in your Oscar pool, you need to nail really obscure categories like the shorts. Even if you don't have a pool, this year's shorts are fantastic. (And they're screening in theaters and on demand via ShortsHD.) Here's a guide to this year's nominees, plus predictions of the winners from TheWrap's awards guru Steve Pond.
LIVE ACTION:"Sing" -- A crowd-pleaser from Hungary about a young girl who moves to a new school and joins its award-winning choir. But the new girl has a difficult decision to make when her hyper-competitive teacher tells her she has to lip sync at the upcoming competition.
"La Femme et la TGV" -- Another lighthearted treat starring Jane Birkin as a lonely woman who live in a little Swiss town and waves a flag at the TGV train that passes by her house every day. Her routine-filled life changes dramatically when she gets an unexpected note from the train: one of the passengers has noticed her flag-waving, and wants to become her pen pal.
"Silent Nights" -- The European refugee crisis serves as the background for this Danish love story about a worker at a homeless shelter who falls in love with a Ghanaian refugee. But the refugee is holding a secret: he is already married, and he has come to Denmark to find a way to make enough money to care for his sick children.
"Ennemis Intérieurs" -- By far the darkest and most topical of the nominees in this category, Selim Azzazi's short shows a French-Algerian man filing for citizenship in France in the 1990s...only to witness his application interview transform into an interrogation as he is suspected of withholding information on potential terrorists.
"Timecode" -- Spanish director Juanjo Gimenez won the Short Film Palme D'Or at last year's Cannes for this clever tale about two security guards who silently bond with each other by busting out some dance moves in the parking lot they work in and leaving behind notes with timecodes after each shift so they can see each other dance on the security cameras.
POND'S PICK: "La Femme et la TGV"
This award could really go to any of the five nominees. "Silent Nights" is produced by Danish filmmaker Kim Magnusson, who has more nominations in this category than any other living person, six; it and "Ennemis Interieurs" are both current and political. But "Sing" and "Timecode" are lots more fun, and the touching "La Femme et le TGV" stars Jane Birkin in what she says is her swan song.Sometimes voters here go for the most facile or jokey short, sometimes the most sentimental, sometimes the toughest or most twisted. In the absence of the twisted humor that often wins, maybe this is a year for sentiment over politics in this category.
ANIMATED: "Borrowed Time": Made by two Pixar alumni, this dark western features a weary sheriff and a dark memory from his past that continues to haunt him decades later.
"Blind Vaysha": A gorgeous Canadian short inspired by medieval art. The titular protagonist, Vaysha, suffers from a unique form of blindness: she can see, but her left eye can only see into the past while her right eye can only see into the future, leaving her blind to the here and now.
"Pear Cider and Cigarettes": Another offering from north of the border, this 35 minute Vimeo original narrated by director Robert Valley tells the story of his best friend, Techno Stypes, whose reckless life of sex, drugs, booze, and dangerous thrills crashes down on him when his liver fails. Robert and Techno are forced to travel to China to find a place that will provide a new liver, all while Robert gets a ringside seat to his friend's slow bodily decay.
"Pearl": Co-produced by Google, this short musical takes place inside a beat-up sedan used by a father and daughter as they drive across the nation with guitars in hand. The film exists in five different versions, including a 360-degree VR version that allows the viewer to look in any direction. Director Patrick Osborne created the theatrical version, the one that was nominated, in real time while watching the VR version.
"Piper": This Pixar short was screened as an opening feature for "Finding Dory." Directed by Alan Barillaro, this short follows an adorable baby sandpiper who learns to overcome her fear of the ocean with the unexpected help of a tiny hermit crab. Come for the cuteness, stay for the jaw-dropping water effects.
POND'S PICK: "Piper"
Pixar hasn't won this category in 15 years because of a distinct anti-Disney/Pixar bias that developed once the Animated Feature category was created and Pixar began raking in awards there. But that bias died once the Academy opened up shorts voting and began sending out screeners; in the four years since then, Disney has won twice with "Paperman" and "Feast." Now it seems to be Pixar's turn. "Piper" is far from the company's best, but it's touching and it's probably good enough to win.
DOCUMENTARY: "Extremis" -- If you plan on seeing this half-hour documentary on Netflix, brace yourself. this purely observational look into an intensive care unit follows two families who are forced to make painful decisions for their loved ones on life support. A sobering yet sensitive look into end-of-life care and what happens when the doctors' science meets the religious faith of their patients.
"4.1 Miles" -- Released on the New York Times website, this Greek short climbs aboard a boat that was once used to take tourists on a cruise of the Aegean Sea. Now, both the boat and its crew have a much tougher task: rescuing refugees from the Middle East who are in danger of drowning as they try to cross into Europe on overcrowded, inflatable boats.
"Watani: My Homeland" -- But what happens to refugees who manage to settle down in Europe? "Watani" explores that question with a look at three young refugees who try to start a new life in Germany after their father, a Syrian rebel leader, is executed by ISIS.
"Joe's Violin" -- The lightest doc in the field. Released by the New Yorker and endorsed by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, this doc tells the tale of Joe Feingold, a Holocaust survivor who donates his beloved violin to a program that donates instruments to school music programs. The violin finds its way to a 12-year-old girl in the Bronx, who meets Joe and decides to play for him a classical piece that helped him survive the horrors of Treblinka.
"The White Helmets" -- Netflix's second entry in this category follows a team of Syrian volunteer rescuers who pull people stuck in collapsed building out of the rubble after bombings in Aleppo. The scenes in Aleppo were filmed by the White Helmets themselves, including a powerful moment where they rescue a newborn child trapped in debris.
POND'S PICK: "The White Helmets"
By far the strongest of the three shorts categories, the powerhouse doc shorts lineup features three films that deal with Syria and its refugees, one set in the ICU of an Oakland hospital and one in an inner-city music school in New York. "Joe's Violin" is the lightest and happiest, and that might well make it the most appealing to voters. But the "The White Helmets" packs a powerful punch in its look at the ordinary citizens who rescue the victims of bombings in Aleppo. Given the timeliness, voters could well be ready to go for the heavier option this year.