Saturday, March 3, 2012

Best Animated Short - 2008

 Ah, the memories. This was the first time I reviewed the Oscar-nominated animated shorts, in the second year that I had seen the nominees before the ceremony. That year most people were interested in seeing how many awards Slumdog Millionaire would win. I wasn't too concerned, as I had only seen four (yes, only four) of all the nominated films at that time, so I can't say I'm too excited about the traditional awards. Therefore, my main focal points were seeing if Heath Ledger can shake off the stigma of being dead and win Best Supporting Actor posthumously...and the Best Animated Short category. It's interesting to look back at my progression at watching the nominees. Back then, two years after trying to watch the winners and a year after starting to watch all the nominees I had seen 73/76 (96%) of the winners and 275 / 317 (87%) of the nominees, or 87%. Three years later I had seen 100% of the winners, and 322/332 (97%) of the nominees. Evidently I've kind of hit the bottleneck. 


Lavatory Lovestory
This Russian short tells the story of a lonely female worker at a public lavatory whose monotonous life goes topsy-turvy one day when somebody leaves her flowers in the change jar. The fact that there is such a position is probably one thing that may be a bit bizarre to we Americans with our free public restrooms. Heck, the idea of having to pay to "do business" was a bit mindblowing to me the first time I saw this short, but this idea plays a crucial role in the way the filmmakers tell the story. The entire film is non-verbal (which is a good thing, considering the difficulty of watching last year's Maya Lyubov without subtitles), and the only sound is the clinking of the change and the squeaking of the turnstiles. The film does a good job in establishing the pattern that any change becomes an important plot point. Lavatory Lovestory is also stylistically very simple, made up of only black lines on a white background. Not only does it allow the filmmakers to do some snappy cutting, but it makes the flowers even more noticeable, since those are the only colorful items in the entire short. And the film is very sweet. I can't imagine how many times I've passed by a toll booth or a parking booth and giving no thought about the person sitting inside. This poor lavatory lady suffers the same fate. Everybody is going on with their lives and their business, giving little notice about the poor woman's hopes, dreams, and disappointments. The filmmakers manage to make these emotions quite visible in her, and the viewers undergo the same ups and downs as the heroine. However, the film does drag a little, taking ten minutes to tell a seven-minute story. I had the urge to go do something else in the middle, and I'm sure most people will too. However, Lavatory Lovestory is a cute little film that is worth a viewing. 

La Maison en Petits Cubes 
La Maison en Petits Cubes tells the story of a stoic old man who lives in a world that has completely flooded over. While most people have vacated the area, the old man stays put in his house, building another layer by hand each time the water level rises. While salvaging his furniture following another move, he drops his beloved pipe, and must undergo a diving expedition to retrieve it. A simple trip to pick up a pipe soon becomes a tender journey through the old man's past. Now this film is interesting. It's a Japanese film that is done in the style of French animation, a la Sylvain Chomet, the director of the Oscar nominated La Vieille Dame Et Les Pigeons and Les Triplettes de Belleville. The character design and animation styles are more akin to such films than the Japanese animation most of us are so familiar with. This was the last nominee that I've seen since it was never on YouTube and didn't make it onto iTunes until this past week. For the longest of time all that was available was a short 30-second clip. And the clip kind of irritated me. There are, I feel, some shorts that are clearly art-house, having more aesthetic qualities than any lasting value. It's like those shorts are nothing but awards-bait. To me this just seems like the case, or maybe it was just sour grapes at being unable to see the film. My opinion has changed now that I've seen the film. Yes, this film does have an aesthetic focus, and yes, the opening is incredibly slow-placed. However, La Maison en Petits Cubes does pack an emotional wallop when you get to the bottom of it. The film uses a simple piano soundtrack and the merging of past and present to tell the old man's tale. By the end of the film the viewer knows what makes the old man tick, and why he continues to stay in his lonely old house. The short may be 12 minutes long, but after you get past the first four minutes, the rest of the thing just flies by. Yes, the film still does have the feel that it was created to win awards, but now that I've seen the darned thing I know it has redeeming value. 

Oktapodi, is the frenetic tale of two octopi's devotion to each other in the face of major obstacles. A pair of octopi are in love, but they live in an aquarium in a life seafood shop. When one of the octopi get taken by an octopus butcher, the other must set out to rescue its lover. The film is short, only two minutes long, and so the film has to move at a rapid pace. The action is fast and furious, and the speedy strings soundtrack complements the action. As one might expect, some things suffer as a result. The 3D animation is a bit on the simple side, although it does have an excellent 2D segment, and features a nice view of a pastoral Greek seaside village. It also takes a lot of liberties with laws of physics, although that's more of an observation than a complaint. Some of the best works of animation throws the laws of physics out the window. And it's not very deep at all, kind of like an anti-La Maison en Petits Cubes. Both films are about love, although one takes a more contemplative look at the meaning of devotion, while the other shows you in a kind of slapsticky way. However, its short running time, furious action, and clever ending means that viewers would most likely be left entertained. Alas, this review will be as short as the film itself.

Of all the nominees, this is the short that has been seen by the most viewers, and probably has the most loyal backing. After all, it was the short that played before Pixar's beloved WALL-E. Presto tells the tale of a hungry rabbit getting revenge on the pompous magician he works for using the top hat/wizards hat portal that is the secret to Presto (the magician)'s magic. It's clear that the directors at Pixar took the concept of the hat-to-hat portal and ran with it any way they could. The end result is a short that, like Oktapodi, is incredibly fast-paced. Yet unlike Oktapodi, the action in Presto requires a lot of thought and a couple of repeat viewings to completely understand. It's almost like watching a magic act. At first one would go, "How did they do that?" However, finding out how everything worked only increases one's admiration for the work; it becomes more like "How did they think of that?" Of course, being a Pixar film, Presto is filled to the brim with zany, madcap comedy. And like most Pixar works, most of the comedy is hilarious, although some feels a bit flat. However, it is still incredibly entertaining. There are some faults. The film isn't very deep, and the animation isn't quite up to par with some of Pixar's other work - most of the aesthetic value of Presto is with the clever action. However, it's deserves the following that it has received, and it is, in my opinion, the best Pixar short since the Academy Award-winning Geri's Game.  

This Way Up 
This Way Up tells a macabre tale of a father/son pair of funeral home workers who have a hellishly bad day at a burial, quite literally. This is to me the most frustrating of all the nominees. The film does a lot of things right. The animation is crisp and clean. The directors create a somber atmosphere without losing the film's comic edge. The characters are quite well-rounded. There is a brilliant Goldberg-esque scene near the beginning of the short. And the climactic dance scene is snappy and sharp. And yet at the same time the film as a whole falls far short of the sum of its parts. The action, while humorous, just seems to meander along without having any indication of going in any direction. The climax comes out of nowhere and never loses its random, haphazard feel. And the ending just feels unsatisfying. I'm not saying that the film is weak. I know a lot of people that absolutely love it. I just feel that it could have been incredible, but as it is it has to settle for being merely good.

Oh-kay...I didn't exactly expect to write so much about three of the films and so little about the other two, but you can probably tell which two films were my favorites. As for my thoughts about that year's "race," Presto seemed like the central player. It was an audience favorite, but it seemed like the prognosticators fell into two categories: They loved Presto and think it's going to win, or they loved Presto but thought that the Academy will turn against Pixar. Most people in the second camp point out the fact that Pixar shorts generally don't win. That's not entirely true, as three Pixar shorts have walked away with the main prize: Tin Toy (in 1988), Geri's Game (in 1997), and For the Birds (in 2003). However, they did lose five times before this year, including their past four nominations: Luxo Jr. (in 1986 to A Greek Tragedy...a tragedy right there), Mike's New Car (in 2002 to The Chubbchubbs), Boundin' (in 2003 to Harvie Krumpet), One Man Band (in 2005 to The Moon and the Son), and Lifted (in 2006 to The Danish Poet). It has since stretched to seven straight. Now this losing streak may be a sign of anti-Pixar backlash, or it could be because the shorts just weren't as good as their feature length films.

Then the question becomes what is the film most likely to upset Presto? I was hoping that it would be La Maison en Petits Cubes, mainly because it was such a beautiful and emotional tale, also because it has such an aesthetic focus. Of course, many prognosticators were beginning to feel that This Way Up could also prevail, although I can't imagine why. So the race essentially came down to a film that I liked vs. a Pixar vs. a film that I disliked. (Gee, where have I heard this before). Thankfully, La Maison en Petits Cubes pulled off the win.

Anyways, my rankings (in both quality and preference)
La Maison en Petits Cubes > Presto > Lavatory Lovestory > Oktapodi > This Way Up


  1. I never had a problem watching "La Maison en Petits Cubes" myself, as I managed to catch a YouTube appearance just before it won the Oscar and knew it would win. While of course the use of a French title and approach to the design was obvious, it reminded me more of similar sentimental works like Federic Back's "Crac", Borg Ring's "Anna & Bella" or Adam Elliot's "Harvie Krumpet", where you do have a life of an individual that is summarized through the course of the film. Kunio Kato's film reflects the theme perfectly through exploration of the man's world, but perhaps also leaving us with unanswered questions such as how it got that way (no doubt climate change was the culprit in this story), I enjoy films that often leave you figuring things out on your own.

    Though I'm not sure if you like to link to videos on your blog for these older entries, here's one off of Vimeo for this film if anyone doesnt mind checking it out.

  2. Although not in the nominees for that year, one short also from France a few of us wished had been in the running was Jeremy Clapin's "Skhizein". Quite an unusual tale of one person's suffering after being hit by a meteorite and finds himself out of sync with his body by 91 centimeters to the left.

  3. Yeah. I would like to link to videos in the older entries but I haven't had the time to do it. And I did see Skhizein. It was interesting, and I probably would have removed This Way Up to fit it in, but I think I prefer La Maison en Petits Cubes.