One of my favorite parts of moviegoing is getting to see the animated shorts vying for the Academy Awards each year. The animators and artists who nominate them choose wondrous selections year in and year out. This year, however, I don’t envy them in their decision-making as it might be the best slate of them since I started watching them – over 20 years ago. Indeed, the animated shorts this year are must-see entries: beautifully made, clever, and profoundly moving. And they’re available at a theater near you starting this weekend.
The most impressive from an animation standpoint is ICE MERCHANTS. The story concerns a father and son living in a suspended house on the side of a glacier, who deliver ice for a living. Done as a wordless tale with a minimal underscore, the 14-minute film is both exquisitely beautiful and vertiginously harrowing. Bravo to Portuguese filmmaker João Gonzalez for his wondrous compositions showcasing all kinds of forced perspectives of the mountain and characters. And Gonzalez expertly shifts tones too in the last third, moving from the poetic to the terrifying, making for one truly outstanding cartoon.
Writer Pamela Ribon and director Sara Gunardóttir have fashioned a coming-of-age tale that is both sweet and outrageous, that last descriptor starting with their short’s title – MY YEAR OF DICKS. The animated fantasia explores five different experiences dating boys in Ribon’s senior year of high school back in the 90s, anecdotes that are sexually frank, wickedly witty, and unapologetically profane. (Parents be warned if you’re thinking of schlepping the kids to a screening of cartoons this weekend.) Each of her would-be trysts as she attempts to lose her virginity is awkward and embarrassing, yet knee-slapping hilarious. The animation cleverly recalls various cartoons of that period including AEON FLUX, A SCANNER DARKLY, and even SAILOR MOON, while her film also references plenty of cultural touchpoints of the era as well. (HENRY & JUNE, anyone?) The short feels like a fever dream as much as candid diary entries, capturing teen life and girlhood in all its many shades.
Equally dreamlike, albeit in a quietly tragic way, is THE FLYING SAILOR. Directed by previous nominees Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, this eight-minute short focuses on the aftermath of the devastating Halifax explosion of 1917 with a gruff sailor flying through the air and seeing his life pass before his eyes. Combining 2D animation, CG, and some archival documentary footage, it feels like a meditation on life, altered states between heaven and earth, and the frailty of mankind on this often-dangerous planet. It feels inexplicable at times, and that may keep it from connecting wholly with most audiences, but it’s a quietly devastating portrait of violence, death, and the journey of a soul.
The fourth short is called AN OSTRICH TOLD ME THE WORLD IS FAKE AND I THINK I BELIEVE IT, an 11-minute short as cheeky as its title. The story is a self-consciously snarky examination of both office work and stop-motion animation. Australian Student Academy Award winner Lachlan Pendragon tells the story of Neil, a beleaguered office worker, wasting his life away trying to sell toasters over the phone. His boss threatens to fire him, but even more dismaying to Neil is the discovery that his world is a stop-motion movie set. The titled ostrich shows up to explain it all in this absurdly meta farce about purpose and puppetry.
Finally, the likely winner is the incredibly nuanced examination of friendship in THE BOY, THE MOLE, THE FOX AND THE HORSE. Adapted from Charlie Mackesy’s graphic novel, and directed by the author and filmmaker Peter Baynton, it tells of a lost boy wandering around in the snowy outdoors, and how his journey home leads to connections with three different animals he meets along his way. That plot can’t help but recall THE WIZARD OF OZ, and indeed, this 32-minute short makes a similar case for tolerance and understanding. But this story has its own dreamy feel, one that’s almost ethereal in its grace and beauty. It’s a profoundly moving film, with superb imagery, vocal characterizations, and sound design that places you wholly in this world. And as soon as it ended, I watched it again. And then again.
I cannot think of an Oscar animated short I’ve ever been moved by more. Truly remarkable filmmaking, this one, of all of them this year.