Short-form Academy Award nominees hit theaters this week.
If you’re a fan of short films and like to see them on the big screen but can’t attend the major festivals, at least there are the Oscar nominees. Every year, Shorts HD brings the 15 contenders in the three short film categories (with occasional exceptions where one or more nominees is not included). This year, the five titles up for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short will be joined by a few additional films from last year, including Once Upon a Line, The Head Vanishes, and Asteria). You can catch them all in theaters this week, and I recommend that you do.
Below I review the nominees and rank them in order of greatness. Unlike in past rankings, I can’t say it’s “from best to worst” because none of them deserve to be called the latter. This is the sort of showcase that we should see annually, highlighting some of if not the greatest animated shorts of the past year. There’s something from Pixar, of course, and new side projects from Pixar and Disney animators, as well as the obligatory foreign (this year actually just Canadian) works. Here’s hoping the Academy makes the right choice when deciding the winner of the Oscar – I actually think they will this time. Tune in to find out on February 26th.
Pixar has a reputation for churning out Oscar-nominated short films, but the studio hasn’t won in this category since 2002 with For the Birds. Now, Piper not only could turn around the losing streak (there have been eight nominees since the last win), but it really deserves to take home the award this year. Alan Barillaro, who has worked on Pixar features going back to the ’90s, makes his directorial debut with this combination of photorealistic animation and adorable cartoon characteristics (he shares the nomination with producer Marc Sondheimer, who previously worked on Pixar’s Oscar-nominated Day & Night). The simple but perfectly executed tale, which played in theaters with the feature Finding Dory, follows a young sandpiper coming of age with regards to self-sufficiency in scavenging for food. It feels both authentic and magical, like a nature documentary where the imposed narrativizing doesn’t seem forced, false, or corny. Could birds be Pixar’s good luck charm for the animated short Oscar?
2. Blind Vaysha
Much more original in its style and much deeper in its story than the rest of the nominees, Blind Vaysha is the film that resonates the longest. Adapted from a 2001 short story by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, it’s about a girl who in a way is, as the title indicates, blind. She does have vision, being able to see the past through her left eye and the future through her right, but she is unable to view the present. It’s kind of a fairy tale without a conclusion for its characters, though there is an interesting message for the audience at the end. The only complaint I have is that Purcell’s “March from ‘Funeral Music for Queen Mary’" is so much associated with A Clockwork Orange that it’s a distracting choice as score here (and anywhere). Theodore Ushev, who was brilliantly inspired by Medieval art and linoleum-cut printmaking for this short, is reportedly collaborating with Gospodinov on another adaptation, which is great news regardless of how Blind Vaysha does at the Oscars.
3. Borrowed Time
We called it last fall that this short animated Western was the best film of its kind of the year and that it would likely be an Oscar nominee. Directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou–Lhadj, both of them Pixar staff by day, Borrowed Time goes beyond even the adult-friendly fare of the studio for a side project involving regret. The story is of an old sheriff revisiting the site of an accident from his youth, from which he’s never fully emotionally recovered. It’s as great-looking as you’d expect from the talent involved, but is it truly the best of the year? I don’t find it as affecting as it should be, given the simplicity of the story, and the character designs could have more distinction, but it certainly belongs in this best-of bunch.
4. Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Unusually long for an Oscar-nominated animated short (35 minutes), this film is also a little more R-rated than what we tend to find in the category and program (Shorts HD has scheduled it last with a warning for parents). Written and directed by Robert Valley, who resume includes the old Aeon Flux series and Gorillaz music videos, Pear Cider and Cigarettes is a very personal true story, maybe enough for it to be considered an animated documentary. Valley tells of his wild, alcoholic friend Techno, whom he visited in China and admittedly policed as the guy awaited a liver transplant. Mostly straightforward yet illustrated with a cool style accompanied by a nice crowdfunded soundtrack (the film had me at ’90s Air and Dandy Warhols tunes), there’s not a whole lot that’s remarkable here but it’s still engaging for the half-hour running time. Valley shares the nomination with producer Cara Speller, also of Gorillaz videos.
Patrick Osborne, who has worked on many Disney features, previously won an Oscar for helming that studio’s short film Feast. This nominee, which isn’t a Disney production, is not quite as good. I’m not a fan of the drawing or animation style, which seems dated this time in a crude way, but it is directed very well. The story, however, is like something written for a long-form car commercial, chronicling years in the lives of a father and daughter as they connect through music and an old hatchback that, for a time, is their home. It’s worth noting that Pearl is firstly a VR film and is probably pretty effective in that format, even with the familiar sentiment. As a short on the big screen, it’s a somewhat disappointing effort from Osborne.