The 89th Academy Awards are this weekend. Hollywood’s best and brightest will be glamming it up to sit in a theater full of their peers and suffer through what’s likely to be another grueling 3-hour plus show. A show full of bad jokes, half-hearted smiles and overblown musical numbers. About five seconds of that show will be dedicated to cinema’s most over-looked sector … short film. This year’s Animated Nominees are funny and gritty and arty and abstract. They show us the world as it is, as it was and as it might be. Here’s a look at the five nominees. Please don’t call them cartoons.
Borrowed Time (7 min)
With Borrowed Time, Andrew Coats and Lou Hammou-Lhadj have crafted one of the saddest animated shorts you’re likely to see. The film opens on a grizzled Sherriff mournfully gazing at the edge of a cliff. The sky is gray. The mood is dour. And it doesn’t really get much happier from then on. We flash back and see the tragic events that led the Sheriff there. It’s a simple story about a father, a son, a lifetime of guilt and a tiny (if slightly absurd) moment of redemption. Borrowed Time is engaging … often moving. It’s executed well by Coats and Hammou-Lhadj. It’s gorgeous to look at. But its story is a little bit too heavy and often feels in opposition to its almost playful visual style. Separately, both story and style are fascinating. Together, they’re a bit confounding.
Pearl (6 min)
Pearl is a sticky-sweet ode to a father’s and daughter’s life together. That life is viewed through their experiences cruising around in their beloved old hatchback and told through their shared love of music. The film was produced by Google. And it uses their VR technology. That makes it the first VR film to be nominated for an Oscar. But there’s not much else interesting about it. I’ll just say this – there’s a song playing through the entire film. It’s called ‘No Wrong Way Home’. It’s gooey and sentimental and very easy to swallow. That’s what Pearl is. Sentimental claptrap that never feels like a film more than it does a commercial or music video. Which is very disappointing from former Oscar Winner Patrick Osborne.
Blind Vaysha (8 min)
Unlike the Live Action Nominees, there’s only one animated nominee with anything resembling a political bent. Theodore Ushev’s jaw-dropping Blind Vaysha is that film. Adapted from a short story by Georgi Gospodinov, Blind Vaysha unfolds under the guise of a traditional fable. It tells the story of a young woman born with a rather particular affliction – she can see only the past out of her left eye, only the future out of the right and is completely blind to the present. Compelling as that setup is on its own, Ushev enhances the timeless aesthetics of the tale by using linocut animation (akin to moving woodcut stamping). This allows his film to look simultaneously ancient and contemporary. The images move in ways that more traditional animation simply cannot. Like the story itself, those images beg to be viewed in the here and now. And the film’s central debate of how one should look at the world is more important to that here and now than ever.
Pear Cider and Cigarettes (35 min)
Clocking in at 35 minutes, Pear Cider and Cigarettes is on the verge of not even qualifying as a short film. But Robert Valley’s stunning, pulp non-fiction opus is worth every single second. Narrated in a dry, haunted voice by the Writer/Director himself, the film recounts the near mythic life and times of his recently departed friend Techno. That tale follows Valley and Techno from daring-do teenage years in Vancouver all the way through to Techno’s troubled days looking for a new liver in China. It’s a sprawling story to say the least. I honestly don’t want to say too much more about it. Pear Cider and Cigarettes is the sort of film you need to experience for yourself. But I can say that it’s a breathtaking piece of work. It’s animated with all the style and transcendent grace of a really good graphic novel. It’s narrated with the verve of a hard-boile detective piece. It’s brutally honest and insightful. It never lags. It’s got a killer soundtrack full of artists that most studio-produced features would envy … not to mention stellar original music by Mass Mental. This is a film and an experience not to be missed. And I cannot wait to see what Valley does next.
Piper (6 min)
Seriously, how does Pixar do it. How do they make every character they create so damned cute? Those of you who ventured out to see Finding Dory last summer will remember Piper as the short that played beforehand. And many of you probably spent a little time arguing about who was more adorable – Dory or Piper. No contest if you ask me. Piper might actually be the cutest creature the folks at Pixar have ever concocted. Ok, now that I’m done gushing over how cute the little sandpiper at the heart of this story is – HOLY CRAP IT’S SO CUTE! – I can tell you that the film itself matches its lovable little star in both style and execution. It tells the story of the little bird learning to fend for itself in an unforgiving nature. It’s sweet and it’s funny and it’s scary. It’s a story with a message that will resonate in the minds of young and old. The textures and lighting and detail throughout are awe-inspiring. And hey, did I mention now freaking CUTE this film is?