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A scene from LETTER TO A PIG, Tal Kantor’s Oscar-nominated, animated short film.

Adults unfamiliar with animated short films may think that they resemble cartoons from their childhood, but this year’s Academy Award nominees are a million miles from the likes of Looney Tunes. The visual styles tend toward the avant-garde, the storylines are heavy with gravitas, and the comedy is kept on the back burner. This year’s five nominees for Oscar’s Best Animated Short Film are, dare I say, short on joy, and quite long on drama. But beautifully haunting and well-worth the trip to the cinema.


The easiest short film to fully grasp, and the likeliest winner of the five, is this 11-minute dramedy directed by Pixar alum Dave Mullins, with a script he co-wrote with Sean Lennon. It concerns two opposing soldiers in what appears to be WWI, playing a chess game, one move at a time, to pass the long hours waiting for battle. The hero of the piece is ostensibly the hard-working pigeon carrying the individual moves scrawled on pieces of paper between the two grunts. The bird dodges all sorts of explosions in its path to help these two pass their boredom vis-a-vis a board game. It’s a mostly wordless piece, conjuring up images of PATHS OF GLORY and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, yet being more than a little cute. Of course, the title gives away the climax, but it packs a powerful punch nonetheless and reminds us that people’s commonalities can bond them more than disparate and entrenched agendas.


My personal favorite of all of this year’s finalists is NINETY-FIVE SENSES, directed by Jared Hess and Joshua Hess (of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE fame), and written by Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer. The story here focuses on a senior citizen with little time left in his life and he’s voiced by the country-fried character actor Tim Blake Nelson. The old-timer recounts his life and how his five senses informed his most palpable memories. Several animation styles percolate throughout this 13-minute opus, and the humor is wry and wise, even when the story turns tragic as it does in several instances. If there was an Oscar for voice-over acting this year, Nelson would be a shoo-in. It’s a vivid performance in a wondrous 13-minute short.


My other favorite short was OUR UNIFORM where an Iranian girl relates her memories of school via the various parts of her school uniform. In a mere seven minutes, filmmaker Yegane Moghaddam describes moments of her life, both happy and sad, and relates their significance to various parts of her wardrobe integral to the story. As her words are heard, the visuals find the action taking place on landscapes that just so happen to be the clothing item at the heart of the chapter. It’s an ingenious way of grounding the tale in context to her clothing, both literally and metaphorically. Special kudos to Moghaddam too for she is the very first Iranian filmmaker to be nominated in this Oscar category.


Another memory play from a young girl’s perspective is the French-produced PACHYDERME. Here, the narrator remembers all the sights, sounds, smells, and more of a summer at the lake with her grandparents. Everything from the smell of the lake to the taste of her grandpa’s spit on a boo-boo is recalled by Louise (Christa Théret) with an earnest and straightforward delivery. It’s countered, however, by some rather cheeky visuals that director Stéphanie Clément and screenwriter Marc Ruis have conjured up to add irony to the telling. In just 11 minutes, the story manages to brim with both innocence and cynicism on a seminal time in the girl’s life.


Finally, there is the haunting LETTER TO A PIG, a 17-minute Israeli/French film from filmmaker Tal Kantor, a hybrid film of hand-drawn frames placed over roto-scoped video. It’s a dream-like remembrance from a Holocaust survivor telling a middle school class how he was saved from the Nazis by hiding in a barn with pigs. As a female student listens, she fantasizes about the specifics through her lens relating to a sense of trauma and even renewal. It’s the most visually arresting of this year’s entries with its combination of simple lines, stark use of negative space, and clever use of German expressionism. (In many ways, its art direction reminded me of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI.)

These shorts, as well as the live-action shorts, are currently in theaters courtesy of the Academy and Catch them now and make up your mind before the Academy announces its selections on March 10th.

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