The three shorts categories used to be the tie-breaker categories in Oscar pools, the ones where conventional wisdom (look for the movie about the Holocaust!) was all you had to go on in choosing potential winners.
But since ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures began showing the films theatrically eight years ago, the nominees have been easier to see — and the categories easier to predict. (They're still not easy, but they're easier.)
This week, TheWrap will survey the Best Animated Short, Best Live-Action Short and Best Documentary Short category, running down the nominees with an eye to what might appeal to Oscar voters.
It's likely there will be more of those voters this year than ever before, because the requirement that Academy members see the nominees in special AMPAS screenings has been scrapped; instead, all voting members will receive screeners in the animated and live-action categories, and they'll all be eligible to vote.
(For what will probably be the final year, the Documentary Short category will still require attendance at special screenings.)
The animated-short category brings together some heavy hitters: one film produced by Disney, another made by a Disney animator and one from the creators of "The Simpsons."
Those will go up against a student film from the U.K, and a two-minute stop-motion cooking lesson.
The animated and live-action shorts will open in Los Angeles on Friday, the doc shorts on Feb. 8.
This year's contenders, followed by my take on the likeliest winners:
"Adam and Dog"
Directed by Minkyu Lee
Gorgeously animated by Disney employee Minkyo Lee, who raised $25,000 of his own to make the movie while also working in character design on "Winnie the Pooh" and "Wreck-It Ralph," "Adam and Dog" was named Best Animated Short at last year's Annie Awards, beating Pixar's "La Luna" and Warner Bros.' "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat. "
Quiet, stylish and sweet, the short goes back to the Garden of Eden (sort of) to examine the first friendship between Man and Dog — a friendship tested when Woman comes along and Man's Best Friend becomes his second-best friend. The slight story moves at a slow, deliberate pace and is more about mood than plot, but the 2D animation fits the mood and sets a lovely tone.
Directed by Pes (Adam Pesapane)
By far the shortest of the shorts, "Fresh Guacamole" is a delightful stop-motion cooking lesson that creates the title dish from an unlikely batch of ingredients: a hand grenade, a baseball, dice, a pin cushion, a golf ball, a light bulb, monopoly houses and chess pieces.
Ingenious, playful and wonderfully well-executed, it's a treat that's almost certainly too short and slight to win.
"Head Over Heels"
Directed by Timothy Reckart
This student film from the U.K. is the story of a longtime couple who have literally grown apart: Walter lives on the floor, and Madge lives on the ceiling. How can they see eye to eye when gravity keeps them apart?
Made using stop-motion animation, which seems to be the medium of the moment for Oscar voters (it's used in three of the nominated features and two of the shorts), "Head Over Heels" is the most openly emotional of the bunch, which is often the ticket to victory. The one thing that seems to stand in its way is that the technique is rough and the characters a bit unattractive; if not, it could have gone from being a contender to a frontrunner.
"Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare'"
Directed by David Silverman
Yes, the Simpsons have crashed the Oscars. Although "The Simpsons Movie" didn't receive a nomination in 2007, its director, David Silverman, is back with a short film in which pacifier-sucking Maggie is sent to a daycare center: the Ayn Rand School for Tots. There, the gifted children are ruthlessly separated from the merely normal, and Maggie must help a caterpillar live long enough to escape from a bug-squashing kid and a specimen-collecting principal.
Like most things Simpsons-related, "The Longest Daycare" is satiric and smart and weird; it's a silent movie riffing on prison-escape movies, with Maggie as a cross between Buster Keaton and Steve McQueen.
The biggest hurdle it faces is its identification with TV's longest-running series and the strength of its brand name. As Pixar and Aardman's Nick Park have learned in the past, once voters in this category perceive you as playing in the big leagues, they tend not to vote for you anymore.
Directed by John Kahrs
This blend of hand-drawn and computer animation is considered the odds-on favorite in many circles, but it faces the same problem that "The Longest Daycare" does: It was made by a major player in the animation field, in this case Disney.
The simple, wordless story of a big-city office worker who spots the girl of his dreams on a train platform and then uses paper airplanes to pursue her, the film has an imaginative look (even if the heroine does look an awful lot like a Disney princess who's found herself in the secretarial pool).
The narrative is an emotional one, which his good; it also goes a little over the top when the action heats up toward the end. It has a shot at winning if voters ignore that "Disney" logo at the beginning, but that's a big if.
Likeliest winners: "Head Over Heels," "Adam and Dog"
If the voters can forget about who made them: "Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare,'" "Paperman"
Delicious, but not nourishing enough: "Fresh Guacamole"
Wednesday: The nominated Live-Action Shorts