Best Animated Short
by Spank The Monkey
About a week and a half ago, I spent a delightful Sunday morning at the Watershed in Bristol, watching a programme of the nominees for this year’s Best Animated Short Oscar. It’s a service provided in cinemas across the globe by the good people at Shorts HD. In preparation for this article, I did a quick check online shortly after the screening, and was delighted to discover that four of the films were viewable for free on YouTube, with the fifth only available via a dodgy streaming site I’d never heard of before.
One week later, three of those four YouTube links were dead. Could this have anything to do with Shorts HD’s plans to make their Oscar programme available for sale on iTunes? Possibly. It just means I’ve had to dig a little harder to find copies of the nominees for you to watch. They’re irritatingly embedded in all sorts of other pages, and I can’t guarantee how long they’ll be around for. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
If you’ve ever had a YouTube channel forced into closure by a multinational corporation – not just me, surely? – then you won’t be too surprised to learn that billionaire tyrant Rupert Murdoch appears to have expended the most effort in trying to keep the first nominee off the web. Maggie Simpson In The Longest Daycare, directed by series regular David Silverman, is basically an extended Simpsons setpiece, given a little extra charm by being based around the show’s two most prominent non-speaking characters. It’s drawn in the sharp-edged style we’ve come to expect from recent seasons, and has a decent number of jokes packed into it. But unlike the other entries, it feels more like a commercial product than a film that had to be made: and given that its original purpose was to lure people into cinemas to see Ice Age 4, that’s probably a fair assessment.
As a bunch of Tory closet cases insisted on telling us just the other week, God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Dog. The latter is the work of Disney character designer Minkyu Lee, and you can see why the Mouse employs him: this is a ravishing piece of work, combining an old-school hand-drawn style with subtle digital enhancement and expressive use of colour. It’s a canine perspective on the oldest story ever told, with most of the narrative pleasure coming from the slow revelation of how far into that story Lee is prepared to go.
Fresh Guacamole – credited to PES, the nom de plume of animator Adam Pesapane – is perhaps the most unexpected film to be seen here. Occupying the grey area in between an internet viral and a television interstitial (the backing by Showtime means it leans more towards the latter), it’s a simple series of surreal gags with a groanworthy pun as its punchline, executed with absolute technical precision. And it’s all over in less than two minutes. There are people on YouTube complaining about its nomination, but it represents a format that generally gets overlooked by the Oscars, and it feels like a punk rock single when compared against some of its more proggy rivals.
The closest thing we have to a British entry is Timothy Reckart’s Head Over Heels, his graduation film from our very own National Film and Television School. (He’s subsequently moved back home to the US.) It takes a simple idea – an old married couple, reluctantly still sharing the same house – and comes up with a magnificent visual metaphor for their estrangement. At least, on paper it’s magnificent: in practice, I kept finding that it sometimes proved too much of a distraction from the story. But that story is effectively told in rough-edged puppet animation, and the ending – hiding in plain sight from the opening scene – is a rather lovely thing.
Nevertheless, this is all academic, because everyone knows what’s going to get the Oscar. John Khars’ Paperman has been picking up praise ever since Disney put it in cinemas as a supporting feature to Wreck-It Ralph, and deservedly so. In fact, there seems to be a backlash starting against it in some quarters, with at least one critic complaining about the transition from a real-world love story to something more fantastical. (They don’t seem to have noticed that the film’s opening titles feature A HUMAN-SIZED MOUSE WEARING CLOTHES AND PILOTING SOME SORT OF STEAMBOAT.) It may just be Disney’s test run for a system that blends analogue and digital techniques in previously unimaginable ways, but it’s all in the service of a charming story, with comic timing that harks back to the glory days of Pixar.
The bottom line? Yeah, Paperman will probably win. But Adam And Dog could be a useful outside bet if you’re thinking of putting money on the result.
Best Live Action Short
by Indy Datta
Two thoughts I had before watching this year’s live action short film nominees: (1) Why are they all so long? The shortest of them barely gets in under 20 minutes. (2) Surely none of them is going to be as bad as last year’s winner, Terry George’s The Shore (the kind of film in which a returning Irish émigré gently murmurs to himself, “ah, you forget how green it is”). Two hours later, it had been a close call, but more of that later.
Death of a Shadow (d. Tom Van Avermaet) is a lavishly produced fantasy from Belgium in the mode of Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet, about a World War 1 soldier named Nathan Rijckx (Matthias Schoenaerts of Rust & Bone, the closest thing to a big name actor in any of these films) who finds himself in an afterlife limbo, indentured to a mysterious figure (who calls himself the Collector of Shadows) until he has delivered the shadows of 10,000 souls, captured at the moments of their deaths with a steampunkesque contraption that looks like an old-fashioned field camera. The collector’s interest in the shadows is aesthetic – he’s a connoisseur of death, and Rijckx has the freedom to go searching across time for the deaths he wants to capture. The manner of his own death and the love he left behind haunt him, and as he nears his 10,000th shadow, and freedom, he tries to take action to fix his past. Naturally, things don’t go quite as planned.
Of all the nominees, this is the one that most obviously really wants to be a feature. As things stand, the film’s complicated setting feels underexplored, and its themes don’t quite connect with the setting or the narrative. I’d pay to see that feature, though, especially if Van Avermaet can hold on to Schoenaerts, who delivers an intriguing, almost wordless, performance, that doesn’t call at all on the monolithic physicality that drives his turn in Rust & Bone.
Henry (d. Yan England, it’s French-Canadian, so rhymes with “ennui”) is by far the worst of the nominees, being actively terrible where most Oscar short films settle for a kind of slick, pointless mediocrity. It’s the story of an elderly pianist losing his mind and mourning his late violinist wife, who he met in Europe during World War 2. The film’s bleeding of the borders between reality, memory and delusion is crudely gimmicky, and England is all too ready to fall back on the watery stare of an old man for emotional impact (he is also too ready to fall back on transparent cheating: like making Henry’s daughter call him Henry rather than Papa for the bulk of the film, just so he can do a big emotional reveal for the 0.5% of the audience too dense to have seen that coming when it was in low orbit) . Henry (seemingly dedicated by way of a valedictory epigram to the director’s father) managed to give me as much displeasure in 21 relentlessly visually ugly minutes as Michael Haneke’s heavily-nominated bedpan opera Amour gave me in the hour for which I could tolerate it, which is some kind of achievement, so the voters might well go for it, even if isn’t quite as bad as The Shore.
Curfew (d. Shawn Christensen) is another short that clearly wants to be a feature, but writer-director-star Shawn Christensen’s film suffers from the opposite problem to Death of a Shadow: its 20 minutes is easily enough (even allowing for a pointless music and dance fantasy sequence) to fully express its story of a suicidal junkie who is asked by his estranged sister to babysit the feisty 9 year old niece he hasn’t been allowed to see since she was a baby, and I wonder where this could possibly be going. Such as the story is, Christensen (who already has credits including the script for the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction) tells it here in full, and although I don’t doubt that a producer somewhere already sees the next Little Miss Sunshine in this material, by the time it’s been through the development sausage machine and bulked out with the usual mechanically-recovered story bullshit it will be, well, the next Little Miss Sunshine.
Buzkashi Boys (d. Sam French) is probably the nominee that has the backstory most likely to make Academy voters sit up and take notice, filmed as it was, at the risk of some danger to the cast and crew, in the rubble and bustle of Kabul. It’s the story of a blacksmith’s son and his friend, who scrapes a living by begging in the street, and their shared hope that life will one day deal them better cards, filtered through their love of the Afghani sport of buzkashi, which is a bit like polo except that matches can go on for days, and instead of a ball, buzkashi uses a headless goat carcass. Kabul is a vivid location, and French’s camera captures some moments of unfiltered emotional truth from his child actors, but story, theme and character are all vague, the buzkashi footage is a disappointment and the resort to tragedy to resolve the story feels cynical and unearned. If I had to make a call, though, I’d say this was the winner.
My own favourite of the nominees, the US-South African co-production Asad (d. Bryan Buckley), is also set in a troubled part of the world, depicting a Somali village where piracy has replaced fishing as the local industry, and where the unwelcome attentions of soldiers engaged in the country’s civil war can mean that the local market has no food on any given day. But rather than a handwringing liberal-feelgood tragedy like Buzkashi Boys, Buckley’s film (produced in South Africa and starring Somali refugees), about a young boy who wants to be a pirate, and whose uselessness as a fisherman is legend in his village, has the slyness and symmetry of a folk tale, while just about walking the right side of the line of glibly sanitizing its milieu. Ad director Buckley delivers bold compositions in an eye-searing colour palette, and gets convincing performances from the non-pro cast. There isn’t a feature in Asad, but it fits the short form snugly.