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'Moon and the Son' sparkles in program of Oscar-nominated shorts

Jon Canemaker's animated short ''The Moon and the Son" is part memoir, part psychotherapy session. Subtitled ''An Imaginary Conversation," it reconstructs Canemaker's turbulent relationship with his late father.

Photos and home movies are interspersed with childish drawings come to accusatory life. John Turturro narrates as Canemaker and Eli Wallach conjures his dad. The movie's visual whimsy is grounded in a truculence and psychological urgency that complement the piece's juvenile aesthetic.

In other words, it's powerful stuff -- and a highlight of this year's programs of Academy-Award nominated short films that open today at the Coolidge.

They're shown in two separate programs, animation and live-action. Canemaker's short deservedly took the animation Oscar, even though it's not the best-looking piece of the group. That's either Shane Acker's ''Nine" or Anthony Lucas's ''The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello."

''Jasper Morello" presents the tale of an airship navigator who has left his wife in a disease-ridden town while he helps search for an antidote. Dramatically, it's not terribly convincing (the narration drones through the proceedings, and Jasper's anguish over his wife is perfunctory), but it's certainly lovely to watch.

The atmosphere is vaguely sci-fi: a floating town, lots of pipes, rails, girders, iron and steel. And the world created is at once bygone, industrial, and futuristic: Victorian times in, say, the 25th century. The characters, though, are rendered seemingly as cutout silhouettes, which has its allure but gets in the way of any sort of emotional connection.

Meanwhile, Sharon Colman's ''Badgered" is perverse in the most amusing sense: a black-and-white number that features an exasperated badger who receives a spectacularly awful surprise in his burrowed hole.

If the live-action shorts are more crisply made, as a group they're also not as interesting. Formal craftsmanship tends to produce tidy, antiseptic little films.

Take Sean Ellis's ''Cashback," a doodle about the employees at a London supermarket. Our narrator informs us that he's working the night shift to pay his way through art school. He tells us he's obsessed with ''the female form" and clues us in on his uncivilized co-workers.

Indeed, he tells us far more than the filmmakers are capable of showing, although the movie does culminate in a fit of magic realism (time at the store stops and the artist sketches his nudes) that doubles, queasily, as a passive kind of rape.

If ''Cashback" talks too much, Ulrike Grote's ''Ausreisser (The Runway)" talks in circles. A German architect receives visits from a son he didn't know he had. As the man tries to locate the boy's mother, the film toys with metaphysics, but always in a way that leaves the movie wet with mawkishness.

Much better is Rúnar Rúnarsson's ''The Last Farm," an Icelandic entry, in which an old man decides he won't be attending the rest home his kids have picked out for him. It's just as sentimental, but its final images are also lasting and powerful. Bleakness rarely seemed so triumphant.

Martin McDonagh's comically brutal ''Six Shooter" won the Oscar. As a playwright, McDonagh composes grisly psychological nightmares (''The Pillowman," ''The Lieutenant of Inishmore"). This film is a bloody lark, but an entertaining and coolly accomplished one.

Brendan Gleeson plays a recent widower who, while aboard a train, finds himself sitting across from the passenger from hell (Ruaidhri Conroy), a young man who is obviously looking for trouble. McDonagh's skill at rooting for laughs through the black parts of the psyche seems schematic at 20 minutes. But this outing promises a scary career in features.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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