CAPSULE REVIEWS: The Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short
This year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Short are an eclectic bunch. One of them, “Borrowed Time,” I have previously reviewed in full on this website. Here are my collected capsule reviews of the slate of five, complete with my signature life lessons.
The six-minute animated short opens on a sheriff with a long face of salt-and-pepper scruff that places him in the American West of the 19th century. It’s a smoky sunset time of day as the man removes his hat and surveys the long-dead remnants of a wagon crash on a plateaued trail passage. His blue eyes fight back tears as we realize this is a place he has been before. Clear despair is front and center. The lawman's pained breaths swallow reflected memories of tragedy revealed in flashback.
With coarse and poetic darkness, “Borrowed Time” hits like a sledgehammer with heartbreaking revelation bathed in artistic brilliance. The impeccable animated imagery shifts from a sunny past to a grim twilight hour present before glints of colors reemerge. Two-time Academy Award winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel”) supports the visuals with a spare-yet-sublime guitar score. To pack this much atmosphere in six minutes is nothing short of remarkable. (full previously published review)
LESSON #1: RELIVING PAST GUILT-- In a difficult six minutes, the number one emotion on display with our aged sheriff is guilt. He arrives at this fateful place at a personal tipping point. His perceived shame and sin has overwhelmed him to find seek some measure of closure, positive or negative.
LESSON #2: THE PHYSICAL ANCHORS OF LOVED ONES-- We’ve seen this often, whether it’s a shirt from “Brokeback Mountain” or an entire hometown in “Manchester by the Sea.” Locations, objects, and tokens of a person can carry strong remembrance and connection. They act as anchors that hold both grounded memories and lost innocence.
Utilizing rough and flat CGI that is intentionally dated, “Pearl” paints a microcosm medley of a touching daddy-daughter story. A scruffy, shaggy, and nameless man gets by as a troubadour playing guitar on street corners. He’s a lowly struggling artist with his young daughter named Sara in tow, an impressionable little girl who adores her father.
The beat-up hatchback the dad drives around doubles as their squalid home as they zig-zag the highways and by-ways of the country. “Pearl” pushes forward as the daughter grows. Picking up a guitar of her own, she follows her father’s footsteps only to become a headstrong teen that drifts away from her dad.
Animated from the angles of a swiveling POV dashboard cam, the voyeuristic simplicity of “Pearl” and its scant dialogue is highly engaging. We watch the years dart by and life events shift the character arcs through body language and facial changes. The film’s soft emotions and unspoken bonds grow on you quickly. It’s a beautiful effect.
LESSON #1: THE AUTOMOBILE AS A SETTING FOR CONCRETE MEMORIES-- Many people establish and carry connections to the automobiles they drive. A car is a vessel of personal freedom as much as it is a means of transportation. It can become a place of shared quality time and familial life experiences.
LESSON #2: THE ARTISTIC INFLUENCES OF PARENTS-- Parents often share (or impose) their talents, traits, and tastes on their children. Those kids can idolize what they observe from the people they are closest to. Some of those witnessed behaviors become learned ones when apples don’t fall far from trees.
The advanced and brilliant folks at Pixar always cook up a stellar animated short to pair with their feature films. “Piper” prominently played before “Finding Dory” this past year and its wordless little bird won just as many hearts in eight minutes as the talking fish did in 90+. Written and directed by Alan Barillaro and produced by Marc Sondheimer, “Piper,” by popularity alone, is probably your Oscar frontrunner from this pack. Shameless self-promotion, it won the Best Short Film award from the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.
The titular bird is a sandpiper chick living in the grassy fringe of a pristine sandy beach against an unnamed ocean. Like any youngster, the bird expects to get fed by its mother before being nudged towards the surf to fend for itself. Through trial and error and peaks and valleys of personal confidence, the little bird begins figure it all out.
Without dialogue, Adrian Belew’s serene music does the talking. “Piper” is rendered in mostly intimate closeups with astounding and photorealistic depths of focus that accentuate every grain of sand and bubble of ocean foam. The technical savvy and signature “Pixar Punch” merge with perfection.
LESSON #1: OVERCOMING FEARS OF YOUR ENVIRONMENT-- To the youth of any animal species, the world is a big, scary, and dangerous place. The young need to test their limits and overcome their fears through attempted experiences and teachable moments.
LESSON #2: LEARNING RESOURCEFULNESS AT A YOUNG AGE-- When those aforementioned experiences become successful, confidence grows and useful skills emerge. The sooner an individual learns resourcefulness and the problem solving skills attached to that trait the better.
Adapted from the short story by Georgi Gospodinov, “Blind Vaysha” changes the palette from the other nominees with hand-drawn animation emulating a moving series of linoleum-cut or woodcut print art. Narrated by actress Caroline Dhavernas, Theodore Ushev’s short film adapts a short story by Georgi Gospodinov.
Rising parallel to a butterfly out of its chrysalis, the animated short film tells the tale of a girl name Vaysha in a village born with a unique dual sense of sight. Her left green eye only shows the past state of whatever what she sees from unspecified times. That imagery could be how adults looked as children, shorter trees, or even unbuilt villages. By contrast, the right brown eye envisions the future, aging people and scenery in dramatic and frightening ways. Though she could see, her villagers consider her blind from black magic they cannot explain, hence the title.
The non-traditional animation creates a striking look for the folk mysticism of “Blind Vaysha.” Dhavernas’s evocative reading is matched well with music by Kottarashky. Though not the most impactful nominee from an emotional or narrative standpoint, Ushev’s film is a worthy nominee for its visual art choices alone.
LESSON #1: THE FLEETING EXISTENCE OF THE PRESENT-- With the main character’s dual visions of past and future, the present doesn’t exist for the cursed girl. If you wanted to get existential and trippy, one could argue that there is no such thing as the present beyond an eyeblink of time. Every memory is the past and every unknown is the future.
LESSON #2: HOW WE LOOK AT THE WORLD-- Informed by the unique and symbolic dual lenses of Vaysha, the main message is both a judgment and a reminder of how people look at their world, whether they live in the past or constantly question the future.
"Pear Cider and Cigarettes"
“Pear Cider and Cigarettes” employs edgy, comic book-like drawn animation to guide a testimonial story that clocks in as the longest nominee of the category at just over 33 minutes. Accompanied by original music hooks from Mass Mental and Dave Nunez of Anitek, among others, “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” is the most stylized of this year’s Oscar nominees. That’s not always a pertinent effect.
An off-screen narrator (voice direction by Uwe Rafael Braun) starts his listeners in 1978 to the beginning of his life-long, tag-along friendship with a party animal freebird by the name of Techno Stypes. The narrator turns back the clock to wax on about Techno, a rocker and rebel. He was always better and more fearless than everyone one around him at anything he attempted, from athletics and music to sex and drinking, almost always with the title beverage in his hand. The wild years have caught up to Techno as he now awaits a liver transplant with his narrating friend.
Though “Pear Cider and Cigarettes,” from writer-director Robert Valley, may be the longest and most musical of the nominees, it is the flattest. Overlong instead of taut, Valley’s film is, to put it plainly, a meandering memoir of a dude remembering his really cool dude friend. It looks phenomenal but thematically equates to little more than a smattering of consequences across a random collection of story asides chronicling a freebird from a generation ago.
LESSON #1: WE ALL HAVE THAT FRIEND WE THOUGHT WOULDN’T LIVE TO SEE 40-- We’re not gods charting out accurate life expectancies, but the astute can always pick out the peers among us who hit the sins, vices, pleasures, and challenges pretty darn hard. Those types of extroverts may burn the brightest, but crash the hardest.
LESSON #2: THE PHYSICAL COST OF A HARD LIVING LIFESTYLE-- Piggybacking off of the first lesson, those hard charging types make their own life choices. That’s their call. There is, however, a price your body eventually pays for recreational drug use, drinking alcohol like a fish, and taking other unnecessary chances. Techno made his bed.