Covering animated short film in 2014 has been an exciting, often bizarre and always fulfilling experience. Doing it almost entirely from home, aside from an occasional festival, has been as fascinating as it is sometimes frustrating. Many of the best new animated shorts I caught this year were technically from 2012 or 2013, only recently making it off of the festival circuit and onto YouTube or Vimeo. This means that no definitive Top Ten Animated Shorts of 2014 is possible, at least not one that involves embedded video of entire films.
However, the next-best thing is a sampling of some of the absolute best stuff that is available to watch, right here and now. Here are three of my favorites, standing in for some of the best ways to find brilliant, creative work as the year goes by.
The most obvious collection of the best theatrical cartoons of the year is the Best Animated Short category at the Oscars. Yet these films don’t actually get a theatrical release until after the nominations are announced, well into the following year. The 10-film shortlist for 2014 is an intriguing collection of shorts from animators at different stages of their careers, but we won’t actually get to taker a closer look for a few more months. There’s just one entry on the list that is currently available to watch from home.
However, if it’s any measure of the quality of the batch as a whole, we can look forward to a delightful crop of nominees. Glen Keane has been an animator at Disney for many, many years. He was a character animator on The Rescuers, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. More recently he was the executive producer of Tangled. Now he has directed a film for the first time. Created as part of a Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects Group series of interactive shorts, Duet is a love story in miniature. It looks more like the storyboard art of an old Disney classic than a traditionally polished hand-drawn animation. Flowing rapidly through time, its central couple is propelled from innocent childhood to passionate romance with a breathless rush and a warm, artfully sketched style.
The charm of the Annecy International Animation Festival, held every summer in the French Alps, is often tempered by the fact that many of its award-winners take a long time to arrive in the United States, if at all. This goes for shorts as well as features. Yet the one category of expert work at the festival that almost instantly arrives online is that of commissioned work. I featured an advertisement done by PES for an Italian jewelry line in my round-up of the best of Annecy 2014 this past June. The winner of that competition, however, is less glamorous and more impressively intricate. Produced for Japanese tissue manufacturer Nepia, this virtuosic origami animation features a series of animals, each of them made out of a single tissue and each seemingly more impossible than the last.
That said, a single festival is not the best way to narrow down the best of the year’s animated shorts. The Oscars aren’t always the best at it either. As a counter-example, programmer and curator Marco de Blois of the Cinémathèque québécoise asked a number of programmers and critics to submit their own top ten animated short lists for a formal poll. The results placed Estonian/Canadian Pilots on the Way Home in the #1 spot. (Watch the trailer here.) I haven’t seen it, so I can’t attest to its quality, but I will rave about another short film further down the list that is already on Vimeo.
Allison Schulnik’s Eager is maybe the best animated short of any style that I’ve seen all year. It’s a claymation blend of Lynchian creepiness, the motions of modern dance, and the early tableaux of Walt Disney’s 1930s Silly Symphonies. It begins with a single figure on a black backdrop, more reminiscent of Tolkein’s ring wraiths than any real human being. Soon there are three of these figures, praying or dancing on the ground in elongated, languorous motions. Then a blue figure appears above, a goddess of sorts observing the dancers from behind her white robes.
From here on out each successive image is stranger and more compelling than the last. A middle section all but adapts the 1932 Oscar-winning Disney cartoon Flowers and Trees into this inherently unsettling claymation universe. It’s followed by increasingly troubling creatures and a revelatory sequence of still photographs of actual flowers. Every shot teeters on the verge of insanity, resonating between fascination and fear. Schulnik’s work is haunting and achingly beautiful, a film that will stick in the corners of your mind for a long, long time