2017 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Animation

Below is a ranking of the five short films that were nominated in the Animated Short category at this year’s Oscars.

5. Pearl.

The coolest thing about Pearl can’t be seen in the theater. Previous Oscar winner George Osborne decided to shoot this movie with Google 360 technology, meaning that if you watch this online, you can play around with the camera as you follow this story of a girl, her dad, and their shared love of folk music. From a technical perspective, then, it’s well-made, and Osborne’s decision to depict all the scenes in relation to the inside of a car underscores the constantly changing nature of the characters’ musical lifestyle. Yet that same changing nature also renders most of what we see — the girl is traveling cross-country and then is suddenly going on playdates, she grows up and finds herself driving to places we don’t recognize with people we don’t know for reasons we don’t quite get — too transitory and confusing to resonate. And in the end, that makes the remarkable technical achievements of the short feel more like a gimmick than anything else.

4. Borrowed Time.

Borrowed Time, a Western short directed by Pixar’s Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, packs a lot of hard-hitting moments into its brief running time. It opens with an aging, grief-stricken sheriff standing hunched on the top of a cliff, dark clouds looming on the horizon. When the story flashes back, we discover that he’s reflecting on a memory from his youth, when he and his father were attacked by a group of bandits on a wagon trip — and the harrowing sequence that we see unfold makes The Lion King almost look kind. Yet for all the intensity they create around their main character, Coats and Hamou-Lhadj don’t seem to know what to do with the portrait of trauma they’ve so painstakingly created; since we never find out where the man’s grief stands in relation to other parts of his life, said portrait ends up just sitting there and degenerating into a ball of angst. It doesn’t help, either, that the bandits mysteriously vanish right before the big climactic moment: the fast editing leaves a large, annoying question mark over their fate. Still, while it all lasts, the thrills do make for a good watch.

3. Piper (Oscar winner).

This is the short that played just before Finding Dory this past summer. For those who don’t recall: a little sandpiper has to learn to grow up and get her own food, even if that means facing down her fear of the water. It’s a cute story — you’ll easily find yourself rooting for the adorable protagonist — and with the camerawork, a tiny tidal wave really does look like it could bring on the apocalypse. But that’s about all there is to like about this short. In the moment, you’ll laugh…and then you’ll immediately forget it after you see the two shorts below. Pleasant but forgettable: that also happens to be a decent encapsulation of the quality of most of Pixar’s recent full-length features.

2. Blind Vaysha.

Montreal artist Theodore Ushev has made shorts for over a decade, but as he himself stated, he always worried his work was “too dark” to obtain Academy recognition. Blind Vaysha shows his fear wasn’t entirely unfounded. It recounts the life of a girl named Vaysha who’s born with a peculiar disability: she sees the past with her left eye and the future with her right. As cool as that may sound at first, her inability to see things in the present means she’s blind in the parts of time where it counts, to the point that she’s unable to entertain suitors or even do the most menial types of labor. Throughout it all, the voicework by Caroline Dhavernas strikes a haunting tone that’s perfectly in keeping with the animation, which is designed in a woodcut printmaking style that makes the story look like a distorted creation of the Grimm brothers. And although the short veers off at the last minute into a philosophical twist that feels a bit forced, it at its best moments provides a bleak but stirring affirmation of the importance of getting the most out of the present. Stare too far into either the past or the future like Vaysha does, after all, and you’ll only find primitivity or destruction — nothing, in other words, but reasons to despair. Now is all that you’ve really got, if any time at all.

1. Pear Cider and Cigarettes.

If Blind Vaysha shows us the importance of living in the present, Peter Valley’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes, the longest of this quintet, shows us that that certainly doesn’t entail YOLOing away all worldly responsibilities. It recounts the true-life story of Valley’s friend Techno, a guy who rode high on the SAD (sex, alcohol, drugs) life…until it caught up to him in the form of a malfunctioning liver and indefinite confinement to a hospital in Guangzhou. Valley has said that he’s gotten some flak for using Photoshop to design the whole thing, but in light of the remarkable visuals he’s created, the flak is undeserved: the way he distorts, twists, and exaggerates his figures ends up perfectly bringing out the crazy and ultimately destructive nature of Techno’s lifestyle. Equally engrossing, too, is the use he makes of colors — in the heyday phase of Techno’s life, Techno is often depicted against a bright, half-cool-half-ominous backdrop of red, orange, and yellow, but with the exception of Techno himself, who with his hunched back and jaundiced complexion soon comes off as a cross between the Grim Reaper and the gold-loving King Midas, those colors eventually fade to a dreary white and gray in Guangzhou. And all of this serves a story that, unlike other films dealing with the SAD life (The Wolf of Wall Street, Dead Poets Society, 20th Century Women), succeeds in doing justice to Techno’s memory without romanticizing, glorifying, or condoning his bum lifestyle. This is undeniably the best of the lot, and it’s a shame Oscar passed it over.