Friday, February 10, 2017

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation

A western was actually nominated for an Oscar this year. Granted, it is more existential and revisionist than an old school shoot-up, but oater fans should take what they can get. It also happens to be animated—and quite good. In fact, the animated fields, feature and short, are both pretty strong this year. Without question, the animated short film nominees are the strongest of the Academy Award nominated short film programs, which open today in Los Angeles.

With its nomination, Andrew Coats & Lou Hamou-Lhadj’s Borrowed Time maintained the Brooklyn Film Festival’s record as an Oscar bellwether for shorts. It is moody, but the Old West could get that way. Coats & Hamou-Lhadj tell a relatively simple story, but the emotions are complex. Borrowed unfolds like a memory play as the wiry old sheriff revisits the scene of his predecessor father’s death years ago. The CGI figures are quite expressive and perfectly evoke the archetypes of the Old West. Indeed, the animation looks terrific, in genre-appropriate kind of way.

In terms of genre, Alan Barillaro’s Pixar-produced Piper is like a short animated Disney nature movie. It is pleasant enough, but instantly forgotten.

In contrast, Patrick Osborne’s Pearl really goes for the emotional crescendo. Somewhat high-concepty, it documents a musical father-daughter relationship from the backseat of the family car that was once their family home. Although it is guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser, Osborne rapidly-edited mastercut conception can feel a bit forced, but he still wraps on a genuine grace note.

Arguably, Theodore Ushev’s National Film Board of Canada-supported Blind Vaysha is probably the most ambitious nominee, in both aesthetic and thematic terms. The Bulgarian-born Ushev adapts a short story by Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov in a bold animation style that evokes the look and feel of wood-cuts. The title character is not exactly blind, but it is almost impossible for her to function in our world. Through one eye, she only sees the past, while through the other she only sees the future. It is a parable with real bite, yet it does not lend itself to simplistic, reductive readings based on the twenty-four-hour news cycle.

Happily, the longest nominee, is also the best, by a country mile. Robert Valley’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes (trailer here) is sort of a funky exploitation organ transplant drama, but it pays off emotionally in a big way. Valley’s best friend Techno Stypes was always cool and dangerous in high school, but a series of health crises has withered his body and yellowed his skin. In need of a liver transplant, Stypes has decamped to China, where he is waiting for a matching political prisoner to be executed. This rather troubles Valley, but not Stypes.

Stylistically, Cider is wickedly cool, featuring a film noir sensibility and suggesting the influence of pin-up art, at least with respect to the female characters. It also sounds massively groovy, almost like a mix-tape of the funkiest Sound Library cuts, with credit going to associate producer Robert Trujillo & Armand Sabal-Lecco (Mass Mental) and Dave Nuñez (Anitek). As sweet as the soundtrack is, the film will really speak to you if you ever had a friend who opened a lot of social doors for you, but eventually revealed their own human weaknesses.

To round out the program, three shorts that garnered a lot of festival acclaim have also been added to the bill, including Franck Dion’s The Head Vanishes. Essentially, it is an Oliver Sacks-esque fable about an elderly woman suffering from dementia.  Frankly, it is pretty obvious what is up right from the start, but Dion’s animation and visuals are quite striking. He also makes powerful use of a free jazz-ish interlude performed by Akosh S on sax, Edward Perraud on drums, Ludovic Balla on violin, and Pierre Caillet on saw. It is a nice film, executed with sensitivity that is probably more worthy than Piper.

At thirty-five minutes, the energetic and ultra-cinematic Cider alone justifies checking out the animated short nominees, but Borrowed Time, Blind Vaysha, and Head Vanishes also bring a lot to the party. Thanks to their assembled merits, the animated Academy Nominated Shorts program is recommended quite enthusiastically for animation fans and Oscar obsessives. It opens today (2/10) in LA at the Landmark Nuart and is currently playing in New York, at the IFC Center.