While Oscar season is generally an annoying period during which films and performances of questionable merit get lavished with praise or brusquely dismissed for all the wrong reasons, there is one thing I really love about this time of year: It’s pretty much the only period you’ll find short films in theaters.
The Oscar animated and live action short features are now hitting your local art house; in D.C. you’ll be able to find them at the Landmark E St. (Check local listings to find a theater near you playing the program.) I’m just going to discuss the five nominated animated shorts below; in addition to these flicks (which total just under an hour in length), there are five non-nominated animated films playing with the show.
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I’ll be honest: I have no idea how Oscar voters pick the best animated short. It seems to be a crapshoot more or less. So I don’t know how useful the following will be in helping you win your office Oscar pool. But going with the flick that creates the greatest emotional impact is usually a safe bet in this sort of situation. As such, I’ve ranked the films from least emotionally affecting to most: From One to Five Niagara Falls, Frankie Angel.
It’s nice to see something hand-drawn and naturalistic in this age of bits and bytes; director Richard Williams (who worked as an animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit) combines pencils and natural sounds to create something real and vibrant feeling.
Unfortunately, his recreation of a battle between Spartans and Athenians is not terribly compelling as a piece of storytelling. It feels like something from a sizzle reel: a scene from a larger, not-yet-completed project. There’s no emotional depth to the story, nothing to reel us in.
One Niagara Falls, Frankie Angel
"We Can’t Live Without Cosmos"
Inseparable friends are taking part in the Russian space program. They run together, swim together, and subject themselves to the centrifuge together, pushing each other, one lifting the other when they fall. It isn’t until they are forced to live apart that we see just how close they were.
Director Konstantin Bronzit’s short didn’t quite do it for me, for reasons I can’t put my finger on. Perhaps it was the notably Russian animation style, which I’ve never found terribly appealing, or maybe it was something else, something subtler about the relationship between the two men. It just never clicked. But the reason for their separation is certainly a gut-punch, as is the short’s closing shot.
Two Niagara Falls, Frankie Angels
"World of Tomorrow"
The grown clone of a little girl travels back in time—and pulls her into the future—in order to retrieve a lost memory shortly before a meteor destroys the world. She explains that in her time the wealthy live forever by cloning themselves endlessly. But with an eternity to experience, how does one enjoy the here and now? As Emily explains to Emily, "Now is the envy of all of the dead."
As with so many works about the near future, Don Hertzfeldt’s latest short is less a prediction than a commentary on our own times. "Our more recent history is often just comprised of images of other people watching view screens," Clone Emily says, a line that may chill those who spend their days glued to laptops and TVs and iPhones waiting for the latest tweet and Facebook status update and Instagram and Vine.
Those familiar with Hertzfeldt’s work—his cult classic short "Rejected" has been viewed millions of times on YouTube and was nominated for an Oscar—will likely love this short film, as I did. It’s the only of the shorts to have significant dialogue and is less emotionally involved than the others: Hertzfeldt’s messing with your brainpan, not tugging at your heartstrings. And yet, anyone who hears an echo of themselves in a line like "I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive" will likely feel something—and it won’t be particularly pleasant.
Two Niagara Falls, Frankie Angels
"Sanjay’s Super Team"
An immigrant to America, Sanjay loves the superheroes he sees on TV. His father hopes to inculcate him with his homeland’s values by getting him to take part in religious observances. West clashes with East in Sanjay’s mind, leading to an adventure that melds the best of both worlds—and helps bridge generations.
The folks at Pixar are behind this short; as you might expect from a studio that has made it a point to keep the art of the short alive, it’s quite good. The animation crackles with life and the character design shows Pixar’s signature effort to make the eyes the windows to the soul. The studio that brought a nation to its knees, emotionally, with Up knows what it’s doing. I have to think that between the quality of the work and the current contretemps swirling around the Academy’s diversity problem, "Sanjay’s Super Team" may be the favorite to take home the statuette.
Three Niagara Falls, Frankie Angels
A bear story within a bear story, this short tells the tale of a tale-teller. Parked on a street corner, the bear shows passersby the story of a bear who is taken from his family and forced to perform in the circus—as well as his daring escape.
The story itself is rather simple. But the sadness in the bear’s life—the empty table he leaves every morning, the pictures of his absent family on the wall, the disheveled home of a man who has no reason to clean anymore—betrays something deeper and darker in the background. The short packs an emotional wallop if you let it. Those who subscribe to the notion that the cartoon that prompts the most tears takes home the statue would do well to put their money on this entry.
Five Niagara Falls, Frankie Angels