Thursday, November 6, 2014

Top Five Shortlisted, Non-Nominated Films 2009-2013

Earlier this week the Academy announced the shortlist for the animated short Oscar, and that marked the moment when the Best Animated Short race hits into high gear. The shortlist has ten films. Up to five of them will go into history as Oscar nominees, while the rest of the films will be forgotten by all but the most dedicated animation buffs, which is a major pity. I've been following the Best Animated Short race starting at the Shortlist stage since 2009, and there were plenty of films on the shortlist that missed out on a nomination that were worthy. I've already written about the shortlist in some previous posts, but in preparation for the announcement of this year's shortlist, I'm going to write about five films from the previous five shortlists that were most deserving of a nomination. There is going to be a lot of subjectivity, but I hope it will be a good look at some great films that were unfairly denied their chance of Oscar glory.

A note before we get started. I've seen only 24 of the 25 films on the shortlist, which I suppose is a decent total, but I did never did get to find Raul Garcia's The Fall of the House of Usher from the 2012 shortlist, which is a pity. The trailer sure makes it seem like an interesting film.

The Cat Piano (2009)
There exists a city of cats that is defined by their musical scene. There are singers and crooners that make the place a lively place. One of the denizens is a writer who is smitten with a particularly beautiful white cat. One day musical cats began to disappear from the scene. While researching the crime on his own, the writer uncovers evidence of a heinous musical instrument, a piano made solely of cats driven to screech by a nail impaling in their tails. With his city falling into despair, the writer organizes an army to confront the man behind the beastly instrument, but can his mission come to a success? I've already written about The Cat Piano early in my blog's history, but it's always worth it to revisit the film, especially since I suppose it's the film that really inspired this post. The Cat Piano was made in South Australia, and to put it rather simply it's a free-verse, long-form poem set to animation. The tale told in the poem has a neo-noir feel, about an instrument that actually conjectured a couple hundred years ago, but was never actually built. (Apparently one man felt that it could be used to help treat the cognitive impairments found in people with depression.) The poem is full of numerous alliterations and other bothersome elements of poetry that everybody had possibly learned about in school, but the narration by Australian singer Nick Cave navigates through it with ease. It is certainly helped by the amazing animation, which is certainly the film's strongest point. The action is fast-paced and exhilarating, and does a lot to illustrate the plot. The film also features some excellent design. The character animation is well done, with an appealing anthropomorphic design, smooth motion and excellent use of emotions. These aspects really help to create a strong feel of the narrator's mindset, from his terror at the discovery of the Cat Piano, and his palpable attraction for the white cat, which creates a rather powerful ending. Moreover, the animators really capture the neo-noir feel. Light and shadow are balanced in a way to create a tense atmosphere, and the film uses colors very effectively, with a blue tint that becomes more unnerving as the city falls further into chaos, mixed in with other colors like red or green to great effect. The music also helps to build the emotion. The Cat Piano is certainly as powerful as a film now as it was five years ago.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger (2010)
Once upon a time, there was a cow, who really was more like a calf because he was a little cow. One day, he was drinking milk from his mother's udder when his eyes caught sight of a sign. On the sign was a smiling hamburger with the words "Happy Burger" on top of it. At that moment he knew what his life's goal was to be: he wanted to be a hamburger. Alas, when the hamburger men came he was deemed to be too small and was rejected. He knew that in order to achieve his goal he has to train himself to become the best cow he can be. Can this cow reach this dream, and is it everything that he wishes it could be? Bill Plympton is one of the most respected independent animators in the industry. He is well known for his distinctive style that includes the use of colored pencils, his attention to detail, and most of all for his zany sense of humor that often comes with gratuitous and exaggerated violence as well as explicit sexual imagery. His films eventually gained the moniker of "Plymptoons." As I mentioned in yesterday's post, Plympton has had Oscar love with some of his previous films. His films Your Face and Guard Dog were nominated for an Oscar, while Guide Dog and The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger made it onto the shortlist. The latter film, which this is about, has all of the distinctive marks of a typical Plymptoon. The concept itself has the wild and crazy feel of most of Plympton's films, but it doesn't come close to describing the over the top action and outrageous humor that pervades the film. The sight of the cow working out and becoming buff as seen in the trailer below is an example of the type of humor from the film, but it doesn't come close to matching the climax. Yet beneath all of the fun there lies a surprisingly deep film. The theme of "Be Careful What You Wish For" is obvious, but it's also does well in showing a mother's love, which permeates the entirety of the film. The Cow also marks a departure in the Plympton's animation style. Instead of the colored pencil look that most of his films are known for, it instead features a solid palette with squiggly outlines. It's leads to a different feel, but works well in this film, and still distinctively Plympton. The music also gives the feel of playing it seriously, which adds to the experience. Overall The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger is one of Bill Plympton's best films, and a great addition to his filmography.
Where Can I Watch It?
Sadly, the film is not readily available online. There are talks that Bill Plympton has struck a deal with Shorts HD to make his films available on the internet for a small price (which would be well worth it), but it's not ready quite yet. Cartoon Brew says it should be up by the end of November, so we'll hope that's the case.

The Kinematograph (2009)
It is the late 19th century, and in a small village in France, there lives an eccentric inventor and his loving wife. The inventor is working on his greatest invention, a method to capture moving images and sound on film, but one thing still leaves him unsatisfied. He is unable to figure out how to get color within his captured images. His wife is supportive of him, but she holds a dark secret of her own, she is ill with a lung disease, most likely tuberculosis. She helps him figure out the solution to the problem, and he is able to achieve his goal. Yet even though he has realized his dream, he has no idea what he is about to lose. Tomek Baginski is one of the most respected animators in Poland, well known for his beautiful and realistic CGI work. He was the director of the film Katedra, also known as The Cathedral, which was nominated for an Oscar the same year that Spirited Away won the Oscar. The film featured dazzling visuals, but had a confusing and incomprehensible story, and as a result ended up finishing last in my first ranking of Oscar nominated films. With The Kinematograph he decided to adapt a comic book story written by Polish artist and game designer Mateusz Skutnik. The film seems to be the opposite of Katedra. By then the animation had started to look a little bit more dated. It doesn't have the magnificent alien set-pieces, and the characters look a little bit more wooden with their movement and their expressions. And the voice acting, done completely in English, is decidedly subpar and feels more like a bad dub. Yet all that doesn't matter because the story is absolutely heart-breaking and powerful. It could be the strength of the source material, which I haven't seen (being in Polish and all), but Baginski's adaptation really makes it packed with emotion. Despite the limitations in the character design and voice acting, the emotions from the inventor's frustration to the love between the characters are still palpable. This is accomplished by some nifty camera work and editing. That only makes the inevitable climax that much more tragic. Even more so, The Kinematograph serves as a loving tribute to the technical side of film. There is a marvelous sequence of the inventor preparing the cellulose to make the actual filmstrip, and then using chemicals to create the trichromatic display for the color. I have no idea of the technical accuracy of the scene, but the scene really takes me back to my days as a projectionist with 35mm film. The terrific camera work also helps. The Kinematograph does have some flaws, but it's still a touching film about two different loves: one between man and wife and another between filmmaker and film.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Missing Scarf (2013)
One crisp winter morning, Albert the squirrel wakes up to face a brand new beautiful day. However, to his horror he notices that his favorite scarf was nowhere to be seen. How could he face the cold day without neck protection from the chilly winds? So off he went into the forest to search for his missing scarf. On his way, he runs into some of his animal friends who have problems of their own, their fear of the dark, of failure, of rejection. Ever the optimist, Albert helps them talk through their problems. But can they ever have come up with a fear that stumps even Albert, and can he ever find his missing scarf? The meaning of life is a question that has frustrated philosophers for ages, one that is even more difficult to answer with the discovery of the magnitude of space, making our beloved planet nothing more than a small blip in the enormity of the Universe. Several papers and films have come to try to answer this question, and The Missing Scarf, directed by Irish-Canadian filmmaker Eoin Duffy, is possibly one of the most unlikely. One the surface it appears to be nothing more than a forest animal going on a search quest, but ultimately it proves to be far more than that. Albert the squirrel helps his forest friends tackle some difficult problems on how to live life, such as what to do with the unknown or how one should tackle failure. Yet it culminates with an important question, one that drives to the futility of life. It structures the questions we all have very well, yet the counterpoint is not only well crafted but it is also strangely comforting. It's a powerful message that has ought to have us exploring not only how we live our lives (with the helpful lessons from the other animals), but also how we prepare for the future. The ending is also a clever extra touch that adds to the film's impact. The unique animation style is an icing on the cake. Albert the squirrel is done in rendered CGI animation, with the look of an origami animal. However, the world he inhabits is made up of simple vector polygons. The animals themselves are made up of colorful shapes to approximate the appearance of the animal. This style extends to the other aspects of the film. While Albert delivers his profound words of wisdom, it is accompanied by graphic resembling infographics. The images interact seamlessly, creating something visually impressive to go along with the life lessons. And while the graphics look simple, they can actually be surprisingly complex at times. The film's music is such a way that you never expect with a film this deep, and the narration by George Takei is on the spot. He is pleasant for most of the film, but can really reach down and pull out some emotion and wisdom when necessary. The Missing Scarf may look like a simple film, but it is one of the deepest and most profound films we've seen in recent years.
Where Can I Watch It?

Variete (2009)
Welcome to the late-night variety show. Tonight we have as the main attraction the expert plate-spinner. Watch as he spins not only his plate, but also some of the important people in his life, namely his parents. Gasp an awe as he adds more people to the mix from his girlfriend to his professors. Marvel at how he ages in front of your eye. It is truly a performance of a lifetime, but how long can he keep it up? Will be make it last, or will everything come crashing down? Stay tuned and see for yourself! There were many choices I had for the fifth spot. There was the dazzling stop motion animation and Chopin tribute The Magic Piano. There was the beautiful and creative pixilation film Luminaris. There was the profound stop motion film The Eagleman Stag. And there was the raw but breathtaking Gloria Victoria. Yet in the end I decided to award the fifth film to Variete, a film by the Dutch animator Roelof Van den Bergh. The film about a variety show performer is very clearly allegorical, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out the allegory. The film is about all of the responsibilities that we have from childhood to adulthood. Early on we only have to worry about our parents, schoolwork, and a neighborhood crush or so, but as we age we have to juggle family, occupation, friends etc. It's a struggle that becomes especially more relevant for me as I leave behind my childhood and confront my adulthood. As much as I like to sit back and just play video games, I have other responsibilities to attend to, and this is the sort of message captured in this film. I'm sure it speaks to not only me, but most other people watching the film. Yet while it reminds everybody of a rather uncomfortable side of life, it manages to stay appealing with its comedy. The entire film plays out in a light-hearted style. The action is also fast-paced to keep things exciting, even if it's just a guy tossing his pastor and debt collector on top of a spinning plate. The animation has a 2D + CGI style even if the character design is simple and is serviceable. But Variete succeeds by reminding us the harsh truth of life while remaining light-hearted and fun.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, here we go, five films, all of which should have gotten a nomination. The fact that three of the films were from 2009 really shows how much of a shock it was when I saw the actual nomination list. I mean, I enjoyed French Roast and Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty and La Dama y la Muerte well enough, but there's no way that I'd say those films are better than the three on the list. The same can be said about the other films. Then again, everything is subjective and I'm sure there are other films in there that would rank higher than the films that were actually nominated. The point is, it's a tremendous achievement just to make it onto the shortlist, and let's not forget the achievements of these great filmmakers.

And while we're at it, here are the other 20 shortlisted films, just so they can get some attention. I'll include a link to watch them in the title if it's available. And if not I'll try to find a way somehow.

Partly Cloudy (2009) - It's probably one of the most widely seen shortlisted film that failed to get a nomination, considering it's from Pixar and played before Up. It's a fun little tale about a cloud and his tortured stork friend. It's cute, but nothing terribly deep, especially when compared to the film that it played with. There are plenty of versions online with the sound changed, but really why do that when you can just pop in your Up DVD?

Runaway (2009) - Another crazy film from the wacky mind of Cordell Barker, the Oscar nominated Canadian director of such weird classics like The Cat Came Back and Strange Invaders. It's a wild tale about an out of control train. It's got everything you want in a Cordell Barker film, including Richard Condie as a boisterous character with his trademark scream.

Coyote Falls (2010) - Warner Bros.'s Looney Tunes is an indelible piece in the history of animation. The characters have all become beloved icons. In 2010 Warner Bros. Animation began to bring their characters to glorious 3D, and this is the first film, a battle of wits between Wile Coyote and Road Runner. It plays out like a Wile Coyote / Road Runner film, only in 3D CGI.

Sensology (2010) - This abstract film is an example of a film set to music very much in the vein of Fantasia and Allegro non Troppo. It takes a jam session between Barry Guy and Paul Plimley and sets it to visuals with lines and curves. The animation is great and much better than the normal visuals from things like iTunes or Windows Media Player, but the music sounds like a jumbled, cacophonous mess. Avant garde music is clearly not for me.

Le Silence Sous L'ecore (2010) - aka The Silence Beneath the Bark. This simple tale tells the story of two woodland spirits playing in the snow. It's got beautiful animation consisting of minimalist painting and running paint, but the characters are kind of strange looking, and the story is rather slight and somewhat confusing. It's still beautiful to look at.

Urs (2010) - This is a tender tale of a strong young man living in a dying land with his elderly mother. With no hope for the future in this land, he takes his mother on a journey to find a new home, but the mother is not ready to leave. It's a warm tale and features nice CGI animation overlaid on 2D matte art.

Cul de Bouteille (2011) - aka Specky Four Eyes. This French film is about a near-sighted boy who is told to wear glasses, but he prefers to go without them and let his imagination run wild with what he sees. The animation is done in dreary black and white, but it makes up for it with some fantastic imagery. And his shell friend looks like a Kodama from Mononoke Hime. Sadly it's only available in French with Spanish subtitles online.

I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat (2011) - Another film in the 3D CGI reboot of Looney Tunes characters. This one stars Sylvester and Tweety Bird. It plays out like a typical Sylvester and Tweety cartoon, with one interesting twist. It uses an old recording with Mel Blanc and June Foray, so it gives it more authenticity. It does seem to be too much in love with 3D technology.

Luminaris (2011) - This inventive film by Argentina animator Juan Pablo Zaramella tells the tale of a man working in a light bulb factory and his desires to change his life for the better. It features some of the best pixilation animation on this side of Normal MacLaren with inventive use of light and shadow.

The Magic Piano (2011) - This film by Polish animators pays tribute to the work of Frederic Chopin with a tale of magic and adventure. A young girl is sent to live with her aunt while her father goes to work. She and her cousin find a piano that turns into a magical flying machine that takes them on a wild journey. The soundtrack is composed of Chopin etudes played magically by Chinese pianist Lang Lang. I love how the film sneaks in the title of the tune. The stop motion animation is also beautiful. While originally a part of the box office bomb The Flying Machine, the film on its own is available for cheap on the iTunes Store.

Paths of Hate (2011) - This Polish film is about two fighter pilots who engage in an aerial battle. While they focus on the battle, they are consumed by their inner demons while losing their humanity. Meanwhile they miss the similarities between them. The stylistic animation is amazing, but the film is rather grotesque and too full of hate.

Dripped (2012) - I profiled this film two years ago, but it's worth revisiting. This is a tale about Jack, an art thief who gets his high by eating pieces of art and gaining special powers in their art style. When he runs out of art he has to create his own. This features beautiful animation and includes a dazzling scene of him enjoying the fruits of his labor in artistic flair.

The Eagleman Stag (2012) - Another film that was readily available two years ago, this profound film tackles the unfortunate phenomenon of time perception, and the lengths that an entomologist goes to battle this phenomenon with his scientific discovery. The film is quite deep to the point of confusing, but the animation is amazing, and it's a phenomenon we can all identify with.

The Fall of the House of Usher (2012) - Unfortunately, this film by veteran animator Raul Garcia based on the horror story by UVA alumni Edward Allen Poe is not readily available online. The animation from the trailers look like wood carvings and has all of the gothic horror one would expect from a Poe film. Christopher Lee narrates. It seems like it may be a part of Garcia's omnibus project Extraordinary Tales, combining with four other films based on a Poe short story.

Hi no Youjin (2012) - aka Combustible. This film by Japanese animation and manga legend Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) tells the story of Japanese woman betrothed to another man but still has feelings for her childhood friend who became a fireman. She tries to win him back, but her plan has tragic consequences. The film is beautifully done in the style of old Japanese scroll art (as seen in Kaguya-Hime no Monogatari...if you've seen it). The story is a bit slight, though. It is not readily available online, but it is part of the anime omnibus Short Peace (which also produced the Oscar nominated Tsukumo aka Possessions), recently released on DVD.

Tram (2012) - Czech animator Michaela Pavlatova had previously been nominated for an Oscar, with her film Reci Reci Reci (Words Words Words). She came close again with Tram, an R-rated film about a busty tram operator and her erotic fantasies about her male passengers. This film is full of sexual innuendo and phallic imagery, done in a stylistic way. It's a lot of fun for a semi-erotic film.

Gloria Victoria (2013) - I covered this in last year's post as it was the one of the first films to be readily available  This film explores the horrors of war by juxtaposing horrifying scenes of violence and suffering with a triumphant soundtrack. It's a powerful film, although not very easy to watch. Then again, War is Heck.

Hollow Land (2013) - This film by a Canadian-Danish couple tells the story of a couple as they go searching for a place to call home. Initial trailers made it seem like a somewhat comedic story, but in reality it's a gritty drama of love and fear. Most of the film is done in stop motion animation, but it does contain a great scene done in 2D style. It was available online at the NFB website once upon a time, but sadly they've taken it down for now.

Requiem for Romance (2013) - Another film that was released to the public early, this film tells the story of a breakup between two Asian American (or Canadian) youths. While their break-up is over the phone, the images show the ferocious battle that is bubbling underneath, done in the style of wuxia type imagery. The animation is gorgeous, but the conversation feels unrealistic, and doesn't quite match with the action onscreen.

Subconscious Password (2013) - This entertaining film by Canadian animator Chris Landreth, Oscar nominated for The End and winner for Ryan, pokes fun at the uncomfortable social situation of forgetting an acquaintance's name. It does so in a game of Password playing out deep in the mind of the main character Landreth (although playing a writer names Charles). The film is funny and amusing, although it really does get into the surreal in the second half. Bonus points for guest-starring John Dilworth, creating of "Courage the Cowardly Dog" and Oscar nominated for The Chicken from Outer Space.

Whew, so I hope this was a fun voyage back to the wonderful world of the Best Animated Short shortlist. But now we've got a new shortlist to consider. But no matter what happens to this year's shortlist, I hope we don't forget to honor all of the films, both the ones that do get nominated and the ones that don't.

Anyways, what to do if I am to treat the top five films as another set of nominees? Well, I do still really enjoy The Cat Piano, but when it comes to the best film, I think The Missing Scarf might take over the top spot with its profound message and it's unique visual style. I am interested in seeing what else Eoin Duffy has to create. Still, that's not taking anything away from the other four films.

My Rankings (by Quality)
The Missing Scarf > The Cat Piano > The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger > The Kinematograph > Variete

My Rankings (by Preference)
The Cat Piano > The Missing Scarf > The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger > The Kinematograph > Variete

Ah, yes. It feels like the old days, doesn't it?

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