Kicking off our Oscar coverage, Spank the Monkey and Indy Datta take a look at this year’s Oscar nominated short films after the jump.
The Animated Nominees – Spank the Monkey
There are Oscars that the general public cares about, and Oscars that they don’t care about. The award for Best Animated Feature still counts as one of the former, judging from the huge uproar earlier this year when The Lego Movie failed to get a nomination. Best Animated Short Film, on the other hand, is a different story – or at least, it seems that way in the UK. When I last covered the nominees in the category two years ago, a compilation of the shorts was playing an extensive tour of the nation’s arthouses: this time round, as far as I can make out, they’ve only been screened at the Genesis Mile End (a cinema previously celebrated here for its off-the-beaten-track programming). It’s a pity, because this year’s nominees are a solidly consistent bunch: maybe there isn’t one that leaps out and grabs you by the eyeballs, but they all have definite qualities worth noting.
The good news for those of you wanting to play along at home: a package of the Best Animated Short nominees can now be purchased on iTunes. The bad news: it’s an incomplete package, because one of the five nominees has refused to allow their short to be included. Predictably, it’s Disney, who are keeping the home video rights to Patrick Osborne’s Feast tightly tethered to those of Big Hero 6, the film it’s currently supporting in cinemas. Like Disney’s 2013 award-winner Paperman, this is another short mixing old-school craft with cutting edge technology. That technology comes perilously close to overwhelming the narrative thread, with its continual message of THE LIGHTING! FOR GOD’S SAKE JUST LOOK AT THE LIGHTING! – particularly in the early stages, where the lead dog’s story is told in a series of meticulously matched jump cuts. But as the background detail slowly bleeds into the foreground, it becomes apparent that there’s a sophistication in the storytelling to match that of the visuals. Despite the rampant sentimentality that the House of Mouse brings to all its projects, it’d be hard to argue a case against this walking away with the award. But let’s try.
Torill Kove’s Me And My Moulton is a rare example of a Canadian/Norwegian co-production, recounting what has the feel of a true childhood story (albeit with a politely firm disclaimer in the end titles saying otherwise). The middle sister in a family of three girls describes the summer she spent waiting on the promise of a new bike, fretting all the while about her much better neighbours downstairs with their much better (i.e. more conformist) parents. Told in a bright, childlike style with welcome flashes of surreal wit when you least expect them, it carefully captures that precise moment in adolescence when the relationship between you and your parents undergoes a tectonic shift, and reassures you that it isn’t as bad as you may think.
It’s interesting to compare the cheerful depiction of Norwegian family life in Me And My Moulton with the darker British perspective of The Bigger Picture. Daisy Jacobs’ short (produced for her masters degree at the National Film and Television School) is the most conspicuously adult of the five nominees, a tale of two brothers bickering over the care of their ageing mother. It’s got a fascinating look to it, with 2D and 3D elements beautifully mixed in the same frame, to the extent that you continually find yourself trying to distinguish one from the other. Unlike Feast, however, you end up finding that the technique becomes a distraction from the story being told. Which is a pity, because there’s a nicely drawn character piece in there, and the less flashy visual effects allow for some smart shortcuts to be taken in the storytelling. It’s a cliché to watch an NTFS short and say you’ll be looking out for its director in the future – hell, I do it myself three or four times every two years when the British Animation Awards roll around – but I’m going to do that here.
I could probably say the same for Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen, the Dutch trio behind A Single Life. Their chances of winning the Oscar are unfortunately stymied by the format of their film, which sets up an ingenious narrative device, works through multiple variations on its key gag, and then gets the hell out in just over two minutes, barely leaving you enough time to work out how it was all done. Brevity is a real virtue in comedy films generally, and short films in particular – well, duh – and you do feel that all too often, the Academy mistakes length for importance. But if the Oscar was awarded on a pure pleasure-to-frame-count ratio, this would be far and away in the lead.
Still, it’s not, so let’s look at why I think Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi’s The Dam Keeper is the best of the five films up for the award. It sets itself up as a straightforward hand-drawn tale set in a funny animal world, where a young pig struggles to be appreciated for himself until a fox strikes up a friendship with him. But as it progresses, the story gets darker, more ambitious, more epic. By the end, you realise that an entire believable world has been constructed in the space of fifteen minutes, with sufficient depth to convince you that there’s even more going on under its surface. Take it as a fable about the subjugation of the working class if you like, or simply an illustration of how it’s always the quiet ones you have to be most wary of. Either way, Feast will probably walk off with the gong on Sunday, but The Dam Keeper is the film that most deserves to.
The Live Action Nominees – Indy Datta
If there are Oscars the general public cares about, the live action short film category is not one of them. And that’s probably justified. It’s a decade since the category has anointed any talent that would go on to more substantial things (Andrea Arnold won in 2004, and Martin McDonagh in 2005), and the Academy’s arcane and restrictive eligibilty rules look particularly outdated when short-form web video is so fertile. Almost nothing on this year’s shortlist (comfortably the shoddiest I have sufered through in the last few years of doing these reviews) can stand shoulder to shoulder, for example, with Rachel, the WGA award winning episode of Vimeo’s High Maintenance. (Of course it’s hard to imagine the Academy voting for a stoner comedy, and even harder to imagine it endorsing the day-glo dada of Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks, another short-form work more striking than almost anything on the Academy’s list of nominees).
I say almost because the nominees do include one good film, Wei Hu’s Franco-Chinese co-production The Butter Lamp, which plays out entirely from the static point of view of the camera of a travelling portrait photographer who has set up in a remote Tibetan village selling group portraits to locals in front of printed backdrops showing famous tourist attractions like the Great Wall of China. As family groups, children, and a young couple pass in front of the photographer’s lens, Wei wittily and seamlessly evokes with the fewest conceivable brush strokes a moment in the history of this remote place when the past shivers on the edge of extinction.
Elsewhere the Swiss film Parvaneh (about a young Afghani asylum seeker who befriends a troubled middle class white girl from Zurich) is predictable but harmless. The Northern Irish Boogaloo and Graham (the BAFTA winner) is “Winsome Norn Irish Kids Say the Funniest Things Inc. Swears + Animals + the Troubles For Some Reason”. The British The Phone Call – in which Sally Hawkins’s phone counsellor tries to stop a caller (Jim Broadbent, unseen) from killing himself- is manipulative, schmaltzy trash that crassly exploits its star’s tears. I hated it just as much as I hated the Israeli Aya (a woman at an airport is mistaken for a chauffeur and goes along with the pretence; nothing interesting happens) but the latter takes the overall wooden spoon here because, after I’d stopped giving the tiniest fuck about what was happening on screen in maybe the 9th minute, there was still another half an hour to go. Oscar likes really bad, really long shorts (like Terry George’s The Shore from 2012), so this one is also probably your winner.