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Coming up shorts

This year's best Oscar-nominated shorts focus on family

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Starting now, you can head down to your local theater and take in programs that include all of this year's Oscar-nominated live-action and animated short films.

There's been a lot of buzz over this year's "Best Animated Short," which includes the nominated "Hair Love," a sweet and sunny film written, directed and produced by former NFL-player-turned-filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry. Previously released as a pre-feature bonus to "The Angry Birds Movie 2," this colorful, hand-drawn 2D entry deals with the personal and cultural meanings of hair and family relationships, tested when an African American father must do his young daughter's hair for the first time. Cherry told Good Morning America that he wanted to normalize that vision of an African American father doing his daughter's hair. "Often times black men get a bad rap in not being involved in their kids' lives, and I really wanted to showcase a strong black family unit and show that dads are present," he said.

Other nominated films include the Czech film "Daughter," which also considers a father-daughter relationship -- but this one's under strain. A perfect cinematic tone poem, Daria Kashcheeva's film makes sharp use of sound effects to underscore evocative and finely textured puppet animation. Kashcheeva proves equally adept at the realistic and the fantastic in telling this story of love and regret, and nimbly uses camera motion to aid in the film's emotionally devastating effect.

Pixar veteran Rosana Sullivan helms the San Francisco set "Kitbull," a riff on the Aesop fable "The Lion and the Mouse." Here, the lion is an abused pitbull and the mouse a stray kitten, the latter overcoming its fear and accepting the friendship of the former. Listen carefully for the distinctive sound of a nearby BART train in this playful, somewhat lo-fi animated tale.

Shades of Van Gogh texture the French entry "Mémorable," the story of a painter losing his mind but perhaps not his marriage to neurodegenerative disease. Both trippy and poignant, Bruno Collet's stop-motion-animated film, more than any other in the program, takes advantage of the form to imagine the impossible and the unthinkable -- in visual terms. Lastly, "Sister," from Chinese-American stop-motion animator Siqi Song, explores the complicated family dynamics and personal yearnings of 1990s China, where siblings were a rarity. Best in show goes to "Daughter," but the very worthy "Hair Love" seems poised to take the gold.

Oscar prognosticators are mostly picking "Brotherhood" as the likely "Best Live-Action Short" winner. A co-production of Canada, Tunisia, Qatar, and Sweden, it's the story of a Tunisian shepherd rattled by the return of his prodigal son. The shepherd's wife and two other sons happily embrace the young man's return, but his tormented father struggles mightily to accept the situation. The Belgian film "A Sister" keeps it simple. It's a potboiler with a familiar premise: emergency dispatcher attempts to save the life of a caller in distress. French-Tunisian comedy "NEFTA Football Club" -- about two young boys who stumble upon a stash of cocaine -- is pure O. Henry, a pithy tale with amusing characters and a kicker of a twist.

"The Neighbor's Window" offers a poignant, if obvious, version of the old adage that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Shot like "Rear Window," it's a voyeuristic comedy-drama about a New York couple observing their across-the-street neighbors. The best of the bunch, however, is "Saria," a U.S.-produced drama that recreates, entirely convincingly, the tragic events that unfolded three years ago at the Virgen de La Asuncion orphanage in Guatemala. Wrenching and beautifully acted by a cast of orphans turned nonprofessional actors, "Saria" powerfully pulls you into its reality. Ranging between 7 and 25 minutes, these films make the case that, when it comes to storytelling, size doesn't matter.

— Peter Canavese

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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

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