This Year’s Brilliantly Rendered Batch
I’m utterly joyous that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have again committed to getting the Oscar-nominated animated and live action shorts into Landmark Theaters for a short run before the final ceremony on February 26.
For these proletariat filmmakers, it’s their best chance to finally get their emphatic efforts before viewers’ eyes after years of work (by the way, I’m wholly for the inclusion of these awards in the Oscar conversation, and any talk of excising them in the interest of a shorter running time for the ceremony strikes me as horribly ugly). Anyway, in getting to see them year in and year out, we’re all now able to measure the proper pulse in this often neglected arm of the cinematic world. The current thinking in the realm of short films (at least according to a few film festival programmers I’ve talked to) is that, if a piece is over ten minutes long, it’s already too long to be considered a short film.
For these proletariat filmmakers, [this Showcase is] their best chance to finally get their emphatic efforts before viewers’ eyes after years of work.
The Academy, meanwhile, sees shorts as being anything under 40 minutes, credits included, so this glomming onto too-short shorts, by filmmakers and film programmers, is a wrongful smear on ambitious films that choose to flesh out a more complex story. Me, I prefer a longer short for just that reason. Now that we’re firmly away from the genius of Warner Brothers and Disney shorts designed mainly for laughs (a brief for which Warner Brothers, at least, absolutely delivered), many more serious shorts these days are so painfully blunt that they land as too-fleeting morality lessons or sketchy action pieces lacking richer context. Nowhere is this more clear than in the current yield of nominated animated shorts.
I’ll start out with my least favorite of the bunch, a Western-flavored actioner that, save for one shocking (and maybe ill-placed) moment of accidental violence, feels like it’s jangled loose from a family-friendly Pixar feature’s test reel. Borrowed Time, from moonlighting Pixar animators Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, follows a grizzled old sheriff—a Sam Elliott-type in pixels—as he revisits the dusty scene of his most stinging regret. Played out mostly in flashbacks, we travel to his teenage years, where he rides shotgun with his burly, stagecoach-driving father as tragic events unfold. Superbly drawn, I give the film credit for depicting onerous despair and survivor guilt, but it gives its central character short shrift in that the film’s over before we really get the sensation he’s learned anything he didn’t already know. Its seven-minute length is action-packed, but the central skirmish is more important than the final emotions it’s meant to evoke. In the end, the viewer faces a pervasive emptiness that’s not quite of the spine-shaking quality for which the filmmakers were likely going. It feels like pathos for pathos’ sake. Ultimately, my favorite feature from Borrowed Time is its lushly evocative score by Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain composer Gustavo Santaolalla.
By far, the cutest nominee comes from Pixar, who surprisingly haven’t won a Animated Short Oscar since 2002’s For The Birds. It’s possible that this bird story will propel the studio to another win this year, since Piper is easily the short in the race that’s gotten the most eyes on it, having been attached to Pixar’s Summer hit Finding Dory. But, at six minutes long, it’s also surely the slightest offering in this program. Its story is ridiculously basic: a mother sandpiper teaches its hatchling how to peck at food while at the unforgiving sea’s edge. The film, by Alan Barillaro, is striking in its photorealistic recreation of rushing waves and sparking sand, and its harried but enthusiastic lead character is as adorable as a cupcake with sprinkles. But, again, when it was over, I was struck with a sense of “Is that all there is?” Overwhelming sweetness, like that of a gushing greeting card, is not enough for me to end up rooting for Piper; the film strikes me as a sweet but trite parenting parable, complete with clean-edged, movie-ready lessons (though it, too, has a terrific score, this time from David Bowie collaborator and master guitarist Adrian Belew).
Patrick Osborne, the director of the third film, Pearl, won an Oscar in 2014 for his short film Feast. His newest work, six minutes in length, is another delicate tale of parenthood in which a father and daughter live out their early bonding and later estrangement, all in the seats of a beater hatchback they once used to cross the country. This sentimental, brightly-colored work actually achieves the tear-grabbing gut punch it’s going for in extremely economic time, which is laudable. And yet I couldn’t help feeling like I’d seen this sort of thing done in a Volvo commercial, and in a mere minute’s span. Still, I eagerly drank in the vivid, almost psychedelic swirl of the visuals, which recall a digitally-polished version of something Ralph Bakshi might have handcrafted in his American Pop heyday.
Blind Vaysha, from The National Film Board of Canada (an outfit that wholly owned the Animated Short category from the ’60s until the early ’90s), is directed by Theodor Ushev, and adapted from a philosophical parable penned by Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov. In it, a girl is born with the ability to see two realities at once: in her right eye, she can see the past, and in the left, only the future. The piece ultimately questions the viewers’ ability to see the present in its most eloquent splendor and, in that, it’s successful. But it’s also an extremely dry piece that nearly feels dull in only eight minutes. You admire it more than you love it. It’s prime attraction is its technique: Blind Vaysha plays out in the ornately jagged, autumnal tones of rushing woodcuts which dazzle with their majestic stabs. Visually, this is one of the program’s most impressive offerings, but when it was done, I was still waiting for the payoff. My mind had been engaged, but my heart had not yet been moved.
When I came to the final film, Robert Valley’s incredible, 35-minute mini-epic Pear Cider and Cigarettes, I finally felt invested. This one clearly should be the winner of the Oscar come February 26, and is, in my opinion, the sole reason to get out to theaters to see this program of animated shorts. Every movie lover should rejoice in the opportunity to see this resplendent, handmade work unfold on the big screen; it’s definitely worth the ticket price. Valley is a Canadian animator whose pointed, ultra-cool style has jazzed up videos for the British virtual band Gorillaz, and cult hit TV series like Aeon Flux and Tron: Uprising. Pear Cider and Cigarettes has already been published as a graphic novel, but Valley always meant to adapt it to the movies, and has spent the past four years personally crafting—with that now almost forgotten digital tool Photoshop–each frame of this ravishing tale of friendship and self-destruction (this is also the sole nominee aimed at adults–definitely a R-rating here, which is frankly refreshing). Valley’s strongly talented fingerprints are smushed on every aspect of this film—he’s even crafted the IMDB summary of his film, which is too excitingly perfect not to include here; it samples his ardent writing style:
“Drink and smoke…that’s what Techno Stypes really like to do, and fight. But he was in no condition to fight. He was sick–really sick. His disease had whittled him down to a shadow of his former self. He was crippled from a car accident when he was 17 but that’s not how he lost his big toe. He lost that in a motorbike accident. Yeah, he was broken alright–what the hell was he fighting for anyway and what was he still doing in China? His father had given me two clear instructions: 1. Get Techno to stop drinking long enough to receive the liver transplant, and 2. Get him back home to Vancouver. This was not going to be easy.”
The vivacious narration laid on top of this bracing work is one of the major keys to its effectiveness. At first, I thought I was hearing the smoky, churlish voice of Robbie Robertson, the lead singer of The Band, but it turns out it’s Valley’s own vocals that guides us through this widescreen tour through Techno Stypes’ simultaneous embrace and bucking of life. Valley’s vocals stand as among 2016’s kingly performances, and they connect us intimately with this yarn. Pear Cider and Cigarettes plays out like the most intoxicating, unpredictable anecdote that you, personally, have to offer about your own life, and about the life of the most fascinating human you’ve ever known. In a short jaunt, it culminates in a powerful sense of having journeyed around the world, with troubled devotion in tow.
On a visual level, Valley’s film confidently surmounts its competitors with zestfully colored frames whose dynamic arrangements owe as much to Japanese Manga as to American comic book history. Robert Valley juggles these influences to goose an already astonishing story deserving of a place amongst treasured autobiographical stories from fiery underground comic masters like Harvey Pekar, Art Spiegelman, and Robert Crumb. Finally, it’s an astounding that the film—in the finest source music score of 2017 (next to Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women)–shrewdly finds space in its relative short run to effectively spin tracks from Pink Floyd, Air, Radiohead, Morphine, Wilco, Cypress Hill, the Dandy Warhols, Queens of the Stone Age, and Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. Watching Pear Cider and Cigarettes, you finally feel like you’re experiencing a new, unique voice in filmmaking—one that deserves a wider canvas on which to paint, if that’s possible. And that’s only one of the reasons I like to watch short films: I wanna see a preview of unsung, skilled visionaries on their way to roomier vistas.
The 2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films Showcases will play in select cities in the weeks leading up to the 89th Academy Awards. The Animation Showcase includes three additional films: The Head Vanishes (9 minutes), Asteria (5 minutes) and Happy End (6 minutes).