I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The Shorts are my absolute favorite part of the Oscar Blitz. There’s just something so fun about sitting in a theatre and watching five films in a row, all with different themes, styles, and stories, and then figuring out a way to compare apples to oranges with all these unique pieces of cinematic art. It’s fascinating, insightful, and if you watch with others, there are endless discussions about everyone’s various preferences and interpretations. It’s one of the few areas in life where even an introvert like me wants to be find a way to be social.
This year I attempted a new adventure. With my ex in tow (I got her hooked on the Shorts while we were dating), we marathoned the entire program in one day. Somehow, the showtimes in my area of Los Angeles aligned perfectly last weekend to make it happen. We went to the NuArt Theatre on Santa Monica Blvd. for the Animated Shorts at 12:30, followed immediately by the Live Action Shorts at 3:00 (with a quick run to the 7-11 across the street for an in-between snack), then a little drive a few blocks down the road to the Laemmle Royal (if you saw Annette, the opening number, “So May We Start?” ends right in front of it) for the Documentary Shorts at 6:30 (allowing for a brief detour for some McDonald’s).
I admit, I may have bitten off more than I could chew. By the time we hit the Documentary Short screening, my bladder absolutely hated me. You know the old slang phrase about “breaking the seal” at college parties? Yeah, that was me. Thankfully, the auditorium we were in was right next to the men’s room, so having already seen When We Were Bullies when I watched Playground, I was able to sacrifice the first minute or so of that one to relieve myself, and between the fourth and fifth films, I was able to buy time to empty out in during the credit roll and ShortsTV title slate introducing the final one without missing anything. Normally when the screening takes more than two and a half hours, they put in an intermission, but not this time. We were kissing three by the end, but I made it work.
It was a heck of a journey, but definitely worthwhile, so let’s start with the Animated Shorts. This is a very unique category this year, because it’s the first since 2009 to not feature any nominees from Disney or Pixar, who tend to dominate. Not only were there no Mouse House movies, the overall slate of films was filled with dark themes, graphic violence, and sex. Every once in a while you’ll have one entry that is not meant for children, in which case the screener will provide a brief intermission to take the kiddies out before that film, which is always presented last. This time, however, there really is only one family-friendly movie in the bunch, to the point that the theatre declined to admit any children, essentially giving itself an unofficial NC-17 rating.
You can imagine my intrigue. We’d have a full celebration of adult animation, a testament to the thousands of talented artists who love and revere the multitude of creative styles without necessarily forcing themselves into a family model. It’s a crucial step towards recognizing animation as a true genre unto its own, able to compete with all the other types of cinema and command equal respect.
But then Disney happened. In its craven, purely capitalist strong-arming of the Academy, Disney and ABC forced the relegation of just about every “Below the Line” category that doesn’t feature them (or where their sole nominee doesn’t stand a realistic chance) to a pre-taped pre-show, robbing all of these hardworking professionals – most of them independent and/or up-and-coming artists – of their moment in the spotlight in favor of, potentially, Sing 2. It’s insulting in the extreme and I will rail against it without cease until the Academy either rescinds the decision or at minimum apologizes and assures us it will never happen again. This was our first chance in a long time to truly explore animation’s capabilities outside of Disney, only for Disney itself to kibosh it in every sense that matters without outright cancelling the category. It truly sickens me, because this is the most original slate of nominees I’ve ever seen.
This year’s nominees for Animated Short are…
Affairs of the Art – Joanna Quinn and Les Mills
This is already an extremely rare situation, as Joanna Quinn has actually been nominated in this category before, for her 1996 short, Famous Fred. It’s not too often that an independent animator finds themselves up for the award twice. Further, this film (also nominated for a BAFTA) is the fourth entry in a series about its lead character, Beryl, a sort of brash, take-no-bullshit modern British woman who celebrates her flaws. She first appeared in Girls Night Out in 1987, which follows Beryl’s misadventures in going to see a male stripper, to give you a hint of this film’s level of nihilistic humor. Quinn made two other sequel stories for Beryl (1990’s Body Beautiful and 2006’s Dreams and Desires: Family Ties) that follow Beryl through various stages of her life, including professional development and middle age.
In this film, Beryl (voiced by Menna Trussler) is entering her autumn years, as she explores a new passion for drawing at the age of 59. She employs her retired husband Ifor and her geeky son Colin (both voiced by Brendan Charleson) as models and muses for her new hobby, putting them through hilarious paces as she tries to hone her craft and settle on an artistic style. The working class heroine takes to her flights of fancy with full-bodied aplomb, including hilarious slapstick moments where she has Ifor pose nude on their home staircase as if he’s descending, only for him to fall and hurt his junk. She covers her sagging skin in lingerie and blue paint just to roll around on a canvas, often missing and splashing paint all over the room. She fantasizes and flashes back in great detail about how she’s been trying to make her mark on the world in contrast to her extremely eccentric sister, Beverly (Quinn herself), who as a child fetishized Vladimir Lenin and turned a hobby of torturing insects into a career as a taxidermist for celebrity pets. She now lives in Beverly Hills and has had so much cosmetic surgery as a trophy wife that any trace of her English roots are gone.
There’s just so much in-your-face physical comedy here, complemented by the art style, which heavily features rough pencil-sketch outlines to symbolize the manic nature of Beryl as a character. It plays absolutely perfectly, with every joke landing, while at the same time giving us a crucial exploration of the insecurities of aging. This is the first film of Quinn’s I’ve ever seen, but I didn’t need the previous shorts to understand the story. It’s just brilliant, expertly paced laughter throughout. Now I want to track down the previous three films just to see more stories of this delightfully daft character.
Bestia – Hugo Covarrubias and Tevo Diaz
And this is where you really see why this year’s slate is not appropriate for children. Sure, Affairs of the Art has some nudity and sexual references, but it’s enough to keep things to at least a PG-13 level. This, however, is a hard R, and even then many mainstream viewers might find it too disturbing.
The film centers on a nameless woman apparently based upon Íngrid Olderöck, an intelligence agent in the era of Augusto Pinochet. Her design is meant to show us how cold and emotionless she is, with her squat figure somewhat reflecting that of a porcelain doll, her face given an extra high sheen to highlight her unmoving features. However, she is one of the only characters that has facial features at all, as everyone else (save for two hitmen in her employ) have no faces whatsoever, representative of all the nameless innocents disappeared by the regime.
There is no dialogue in the film, only the occasional bit of radio music. The woman’s only companion is her dog, who she feeds with raw meat of unknown origin while she indulges in cigarettes before her daily routine of what appears to be interrogation, torture, murder, and heavily implied bestiality. The only window into her soul comes from her nightmares, where she beheads her dog but still plays with the body. The stop-motion story is bookended by scenes of her on an airplane, hinting at a reflective purgatory state where she wonders for what may be the first time what her final destination will be.
This film contains a LOT of fucked up imagery, some of which I’ve mentioned here. I get why it was used by Covarrubias, as a means to portray the kind of inhuman mind that would willfully (perhaps even orgasmically) engage in genocide. I’m just not sure it all works, as many viewers outside his native country likely don’t know Chilean history. The only real hint that this takes place in the past is the fact that the woman can smoke on an airplane, complete with ashtray in the armrest. Because of that, all most people will really see is the shocking and grotesque scenes, and they’re so extreme that the casual viewer might be too grossed out to want to explore or study any further. It’s a risky strategy, and the images certainly stay with you after you see it. I just don’t know how well the gamble pays off.
Boxballet – Anton Dyakov
A traditional two-dimensional ink and paint film, Boxballet uses some really creative character designs to contrast two conflicting mindsets and depict an unlikely but beautiful love story that serves as a metaphor for Anton Dyakov’s Russian homeland.
The story is very simple, showing the meeting and eventual relationship between a ballerina and a boxer, hence the title. The ballerina is young and graceful, trying to stand out among her almost robotic troupe, all of whom look alike in face and form, with uniform skill and movement. The hyperbolic, exaggerated slim rubbery figures evoke something out of a Max Fleischer short from the 1930s. On the other side, the boxer is humongous, battered, and scarred, well past his prime. He stands out like the sore thumb that seems to have formed the basis for his character model. He takes his beatings with a sense of ennui, reflecting his loneliness and personal rut.
The two meet when someone steals the ballerina’s purse on a subway, leading the boxer to track the thief down and retrieve it through mild violence. The two form a relationship where both their skills are put to use. There’s an absolutely gorgeous sequence where the two are in the kitchen together, with the ballerina fluidly moving about the tiny room while the bulky boxer lumbers around, yet they never collide or invade one another’s space. The conflict that arises comes from the ballerina’s boss, who pressures her to sleep with him as a means to get a lead role and thereby advance her career.
It’s a lovely juxtaposition, and like Bestia, done entirely without dialogue. The ballerina wants to be seen by a crowd, so she’s willing to compromise her personal life, even though the boxer loves her for who she is. This is because he’s spent his entire career being “seen” by an audience, and their admiration is fleeting, abandoning him the moment a new talent enters the ring and gives him what for, so all he wants is to be seen as beautiful by another person. This of course, makes for a pure cyclical irony, as the ballerina is “beautiful” to her boss, but only in a purely sexual context.
Not only is it a great dynamic, it also serves as a metaphor for Russia’s uncertain future at the end of the Cold War (evidenced by a wall calendar late in the short that reveals the date to be in the early 1990s, right when the Soviet Union collapsed), a national quandary of how the country will be able to balance its power and humanity going forward. It only becomes accidentally more poignant now in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, led by a sociopath who sees the fall of the USSR as the greatest tragedy of his life, and who doesn’t care who or what he has to destroy to restore it. In that sense, Vladimir Putin unintentionally becomes the rapacious ballet director, a base, uncontrolled creature who only seeks conquest and domination for his own sick pleasure.
Robin Robin – Dan Ojari and Mikey Please
This is the one kid’s movie in the bunch. Produced by Aardman Animations, the studio behind Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, this Christmas short is a bit of a departure, opting for felt-based textures to the stop-motion sets and characters rather than claymation. This is a sweet little film in line with a lot of other British Christmas specials in recent years, and is available on Netflix if you can’t make it to a full screening of the entire category.
The very simple plot is about a robin (voiced by Bronte Carmichael from Christopher Robin; is this a typecast?) who, while still in her egg, accidentally rolled out of her nest and was discovered by a family of mice (led by Adeel Akhtar as the father). Once she hatches, the mice take her in and raise her as one of their own. In her attempts to fit in with the family (her design includes small, curved “mouse” ears on top of her head), she accompanies them to “Who-man” houses to steal crumbs of food. However, being bigger and rounder than her adoptive siblings, she finds she cannot operate with the stealth required to be a proper sneak, making way too much noise and being far too clumsy, alerting the humans to their presence, and eliminating their houses as targets once the people put in pest control measures.
Sad for her shortcomings and desperate to prove herself, Robin leaves the small hidey-hole that houses her family and tries to steal an entire sandwich on her own, leading to a potentially deadly encounter with a cat voiced by Gillian Anderson. She then makes a new friend in the form of a magpie with a broken wing (Richard E. Grant), who loves collecting trinkets like bottle caps and hoards them in a thorned tree root for protection. He points out a shining star on a nearby house’s Christmas tree, saying that if you have one on this very night (Christmas Eve), whatever you wish for will come true, so the pair hatch a scheme to nick it.
At its heart, this is just a story about the love of family in whatever way it manifests itself, and embracing your flaws rather than being ashamed of them. The character design is very cute, particularly Robin, and for the age level of the film, the Cat is genuinely menacing. The whole thing is very safe, especially when compared to the much heavier, adult themes and content of the rest of the nominees, but that might end up being an advantage, because it’s the closest to a traditional animated short in the group. And even though the filmmakers went for a different material than the studio’s normal output, this still has that undeniable Aardman charm, and it fits neatly alongside its fellow quirky British animal colleagues.
The Windshield Wiper – Alberto Mielgo and Leo Sanchez
Alberto Mielgo is a name you might recognize if you follow the animation world closely. He’s won four Emmy Awards and two Annie Awards for his work on Tron: Uprising and Love, Death & Robots. This short, based on anecdotes from his travels around the world, is certainly reminiscent of those shows’ styles, particularly the latter. Through a series of vignettes, he creates highly-detailed 2D models enhanced with seemingly random lines and curls within the main body instead of the outlines to create a 3D illusion with his characters. He also employs a very rich color palette and lighting scheme to establish background mood.
The problem, at least for me, is that the plot is empty. First off, the title makes no sense. It’s never referenced or explained in any way. If it’s meant to be some grand metaphor or literary reference, I’m sorry but I missed it entirely. Instead, the film features a man in a café overhearing people talking at other tables when the question is posed: “What is love?” The movie then cuts to its various scenes to illustrate the conflicting, impossible idea of trying to define the greatest human emotion. Among other things, we see a couple smoking weed on the beach (the girl noticeably topless), a different couple having passionate sex, a Japanese schoolgirl committing suicide, and a pair of hipsters so addicted to their phones in a grocery store that they don’t even notice when they match with each other while standing next to each other. The whole thing wraps up with the man in the café giving what may be the most stupid, meaningless answer to the key question that you could possibly come up with.
There are some hints of good ideas here, but it feels like Mielgo was more concerned about making a cartoon that looked like an animated beat poetry session than trying to attempt any kind of relevant commentary. Yes, young people are way too into their phones. That’s been the case ever since mobile devices became prominent in society over 20 years ago. And I have absolutely no idea what a suicidal schoolgirl has to do with love, unless we’re making a very deep cut shoutout to Rinko Kikuchi from Babel. The artwork is undeniably gorgeous, but the story has absolutely no substance.
Or maybe it does. Like I said at the top, the reason to go see the Shorts with other people is to get the varied opinions. This film did almost nothing for me, but for my ex, she said it spoke to her more than any other, highlighting insecurities in the characters that she herself has felt multiple times, even when we were dating. She clearly saw something that I didn’t, which is what makes this such an enriching experience. That said, I still found this film pretentious, and I couldn’t help but play Haddaway in my head throughout.
1) Affairs of the Art
3) Robin Robin
4) The Windshield Wiper
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, we end the week with one of the few categories Disney wasn’t allowed to purge, though I’m sure they would have if given the chance, since again, there are no Disney nominees. It’s Best Actor!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen the Shorts yet? Which category is your favorite? How important is it to have animation purely for an adult audience? Let me know!