Chris Nashawaty
February 13, 2017 AT 04:01 PM EST

Every year it seems like the office Oscar pool is won or lost on the three short films categories. But there’s another reason why you should catch up with this year’s batch of shorts before the big night: They’re really good. You can check them out in select theaters right now and on streaming services like iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play beginning on Feb. 21.

LIVE ACTION SHORTS

The five films in this category are split between topical and whimsical. It will be interesting to see which mood Oscar voters respond to. Denmark’s Silent Nights revolves around the relationship between an overly trusting Danish woman and a desperate immigrant from Ghana. The film’s message about tolerance, empathy, and kindness with regards to refugees is timely and urgent, but the film is heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative. France’s Ennemis Interieurs is a far more nuanced approach to immigration. Basically a half-hour-long conversation between a French bureaucrat and an Algerian-born man applying for citizenship, it begins as an interview and slowly turns into a Kafka-esque interrogation. On the more whimsical side, there’s Spain’s Timecode, which will either indulge your sweet tooth for quirkiness or really test your patience. I fell into the latter camp. A brief, 15-minute lark about a pair of parking garage security guards who rebel against the loneliness of their mundane jobs via interpretative dance, it’s definitely a love-it or hate-it proposition. Switzerland’s La Femme et la TVG provides the category’s sole dose of star power, with Jane Birkin as a lonely pastry chef who lives right next to the train tracks and starts an unlikely correspondence with a stranger. Which brings us to the last, and best, film in the Live Action category, Hungary’s Sing, which threads the needle between serious and slight. A young girl joins the choir at her new school but is told she’s not good enough and should just lip sync. This sets up a stirring act of rebellion by her fellow pint-size singers.

In order from best…

1. Sing

2. Ennemis Interieurs

3. Silent Nights

4. Time Code

5. La Femme et la TGV

 

ANIMATED SHORTS

This is a much stronger category than the live-action pillowfight. But there is one that truly stands out above the rest. That’s Robert Valley’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes, a dark, jazzy, noirish story about the filmmaker’s screw-up pal, Tecnho Stypes, who basically drank himself to death. Told with a cool, angular anime style, it’s triple the length of any of the other films in this group, which would seem to be an unfair advantage. But the rules are what they are, and none of the other films come close to its depth. Still, it would be foolish to bet against Disney and Pixar, the studios behind Piper—an adorable, heartwarming quickie about a baby seabird learning life lessons courtesy of the punishing tide and a tough-love mama. Equally slick (although more cryptic) is Borrowed Time, a stylish Western-themed father-son story that’s heavy on melancholy and mood, but doesn’t leave much of a dent. Carrying on the parents-kids theme is Pearl, a more crudely animated tale about a father and daughter brought together by rock music, which ends up being quite sweet. Finally, there’s Blind Vaysha, a haunting folk tale animated with expressionistic Van Gogh swirls, about a girl cursed to see the past out of one eye and the future out of the other.

In order from best…

1. Pear Cider and Cigarettes

2. Piper

3. Pearl

4. Blind Vaysha

5. Borrowed Time

 

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

This is, by far, the strongest category of the three. And also the most depressing. Extremis puts us smack in the middle of a busy hospital’s ICU and shows several families and their doctors grappling with intimate and impossible end-of-life decisions. It’s an important reminder to make a living will, but man, do I not want to sit through this bleak film a second time. 4.1 Miles puts a human face on the migrant crisis, focusing on a Greek boat captain’s daily rounds of pulling desperate souls out of the sea as they attempt the perilous crossing from Turkey. It’s both harrowing and humane. There are two docs that deal with Syria—the first is Watani: My Homeland about young kids growing up in the combat zone of Aleppo until they find passage to a new life in Germany; the second is The White Helmets, about an organization of Syrian good samaritans who run toward scenes of danger instead of away from them. The lone beacon of joy comes from Joe’s Violin, the three-hankie story of a Holocaust survivor who donates his prized instrument to a young girl from the Bronx with dreams of being a musician. Something tells me that Oscar voters are going to embrace Joe and his ray of light over all of the darkness. But here’s how I’d vote.

In order from best…

1. The White Helmets

2. Joe’s Violin

3. 4.1 Miles

4. Watani: My Homeland

5. Extremis

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