Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Best Animated Short - 2014

Well, it was almost a month ago that the Oscar nominations were announced, and sadly I wasn't able all of the nominated films until this past weekend, when they did the showings of the nominated short films in select theaters around the country. I had to drive overnight Thursday night to make it from Florida (where I had been to check out two of the Missing Five). And unfortunately I didn't have time to write the review until now*, almost a week after the showing, so you'll have to excuse the quality of these reviews. However, here it is, the review for the most recent batch of Best Animated Short nominees.

*it was mostly because I was driving all around the northeast visiting graves of 300-game winners. Yes, I sure have my priorities straight.

Before we get started, I suppose we should take a look at some of the other categories. This has been a rather unpredictable year. Boyhood came bursting out in Sundance last year and quickly established itself as the critical favorite, but when the PGA award was held Birdman became the surprising winner of the PGA Guild Award, thereby establishing itself as the front-runner. It could go on to sweep its way to the Oscars a la The King's Speech and Argo. Meanwhile the most powerful live-action film of the year, Ava Duvernay's Selma, was left in the wayside with only a Best Song and a Best Picture nominee, having been the victim of a vicious smear campaign that essentially smashed its chance at Best Picture. The other Best Picture nominees (American Sniper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash) are fine films, but really the race is down to Boyhood and Birdman.

But the one race that I find most compelling is Best Animated Feature. This category has been under fire as of late due to its proclivity to default to the Pixar film (which was a shame for Wreck-It Ralph), but in the past few years the race has been more compelling as the quality of the nominees have gone up. The race was thrown for a loop when the nominations were announced as The Lego Movie, the seeming front-runner since it came out last February, was left out of the final five. That quickly made How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to the 2010 Dreamworks hit and winner of the Golden Globe and Annie Award, the new front-runner. However, my hopes are for a surprise upset by Isao Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Yes, I am a Studio Ghibli fanboy, but I will say that Princess Kaguya is a film that deserves the win. It is a beautiful film through and through, both visually from its simple yet dazzling animation style and emotionally from the complex characterization of the heroine stuck in a world beyond her control. Yes, chances of a win are possibly slim especially since the nominees also include Tomm Moore's Song of the Sea, which may siphon off the visually dazzling art-house film distributed by GKids vote, as well as Disney's Big Hero 6 and Laika's The Boxtrolls. But the race may very well be down to How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

Well sure, there are other categories that we can talk about, but really this is a blog for animated shorts, and I don't want to waste my time talking about some of the other stuff, so let's just go right into it. The Best Animated Short nominees for 2014:

The Bigger Picture
Nick and Richard are two brothers who share the unenviable task of taking care of their elderly mother. Nick is the responsible one that does most of the work while Richard is the one that gets most of the love from his mother. As the mother gets older and places more of a burden on her two children, they become more acutely aware of their own lives ticking away under all these responsibilities. Soon they are forced to confront the problem of whether or not to put their mother in a nursing home, but would they be able to pull it off? Previously there had been plenty of films to deal with the issue of the geriatric population. It had been played for humor in the Oscar nominated animated shorts It's So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House and George and Rosemary, while the Best Picture nominated Amour showed the tragic effects of the cost of aging. The Bigger Picture is one film to tackle the issue on a different angle, one that deals with the personal cost on the caregivers for their elderly and chronically ill relatives. The idea of caregiver well-being is an important but frequently under-appreciated aspect of geriatric care. Caregiver stress is a major topic that could potentially lead to burnout as well as its serious consequences such as elderly abuse or neglect. While the storyline is certainly one thing that makes The Bigger Picture unique, the most striking thing about it is the animation style. The Bigger Picture is billed as a life-sized animated short, but that may be understating it. The characters are seven-feet tall and painted on the wall, and they can reach out of the wall and interact with their surroundings in stop-motion. They don't just do things like reach out of the wall and pick up a plate, but it allows for the expression of some of their internal thoughts through external means. For example, in one scene Nick got his brother to shut up by opening the pantry door that Richard was standing in front of. In another, Nick expressed his desires to get out of the situation by literally vacuuming his family members and everything else in the room. The interface between painted and stop-motion animation is very well designed and the film is a technical marvel. However, the film's visual technique may end up overshadowing the film's story, which feels rather weak in comparison. Maybe it's the fact that I was only able to watch the film once, or because it was very British and heavily steeped in symbolism, but I wasn't able to get much into the film's story, which is a shame because the idea behind the film's story is very important, and only getting more so with the increasing human lifespan.
Where Can I Watch It?
Unfortunately the film is not online right now. However, you can go to one of the showings of the Oscar nominated shorts, or donate to director Daisy Jacobs's Kickstarter for her next film in the same technique and they'll send you a DVD of the film. Meanwhile enjoy the trailer before, and a short film about how the film was made.

The Dam Keeper
Once upon a time, there is a quaint little village populated by anthropomorphic animals that is protected from the cruel dust storms by a dam with a windmill that must be reset a couple times a day by a dam keeper. At this time, the position of the dam keeper is held by a young pig who is dedicated to his responsibilities, but at the same time is also bullied mercilessly by his classmates for his constant dirt and grime from his job. One day his class is joined by a fox, who seems to show the pig some kindness. Could he be a new friend, or is this too good to be true? Bullying has become a rather hot issue in recent years, especially with news reports of bullied children acting out with violence or by taking their own lives. The tale of Michael Morones, the young boy who attempted suicide due to bullying swept the country last year. One thing that seems to be fairly common to those tragic instances is the lack of a support system, either from lack of friends or poor family relations. That appears to be the topic addressed by The Dam Keeper, a film by former Pixar art directors Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi. The film is striking for its stark and vicious treatment of the young porcine protagonist. After seeing him do his job the pig is shown getting made fun of for his appearance, both physical and hygienic, by his fellow classmates who clearly have no idea the important service that the pig provides for the community. The vile treatment heaped upon our young hero certainly gives the audience an emotional attachment to the character. This attachment is crucial for the film, as the rest of the film is pretty much the pig going through highs and lows. Some reviewers have criticized the film for the emotional manipulation, but I personally feel that the emotions portrayed in the film is one of the strengths. Bullying is so ubiquitous that I'm sure we've all experienced it or seen it, and any film that elicits an emotional response to the topic is welcome, since only through an emotional reaction could anything be done about it. The storyline also flows fairly well. It is the longest of the nominees, but seems to end almost as soon as it began. The animation style is soft and whimsical and almost dream-like, with a combination of hand-drawn and computer animation. The character design is also very appealing. It is beautiful to look at and belies the cruelty imposed by the film's characters, and that adds to the emotions felt in the film. The film is largely wordless and driven by the soundtrack. There is narration in the beginning and the end of the film by Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen which kind of felt extraneous and unnecessary. Still, The Dam Keeper is a beautiful film that could potentially be a film at the forefront in the campaign against bullying.
Where Can I Watch It?
Unfortunately the film is not online right now. However, you can go to one of the showings of the Oscar nominated shorts, and the film will be on iTunes starting on February 17, which you can pre-order now. Meanwhile, you can enjoy a one of the many making of documentaries and the trailer.

Winston is a very lucky dog indeed. He was rescued from the streets by a kind owner and allowed to indulge in some of the tastiest foods that mankind has to offer. However, one day the steady stream of nacho chips and French fries had stopped, having been replaced by vegetables, other healthy foods and a sprig of parsley for garnish. He hates all this stuff, but what is a dog to do? One night the delicious foods make a return, but despite this somehow Winston senses that something is not right. Can he make things right? Disney's Feast is undoubtedly the one nominee that had been seen by the most viewers, having played before the box office hit Big Hero 6. While the film is ostensibly about food, having featured more indulgent shots food and good eating on this side of the opening scene of Eat Drink Man Woman, but in reality this film is about a dog's love for his owner. Dogs have been called man's best friend, and it's easy to see why. They are loyal and playful and can be counted on to be there for their owners during times of need, and that is what is at the heart of Feast. The film makes good use of the changes in the food that Winston eats to explore the evolution in his relationship with his human, James. Early in the film Winston gets the good stuff, from pizza to nachos, because James just liked spoiling the dog. However, Winston is shown being fed healthy foods, which he clearly hates, while James is seen being in a relationship. Finally, after a breakup, James goes back to his old eating habits, much to Winston's delight. Yet it quickly became clear to both Winston and the viewers that something is wrong, as at that point James's face is finally shown with a perpetual frown on it. Then Winston know he had to make a sacrifice. This interaction between food and the relationship between Winston and James works well as it is both appetizing and is an effective use of symbolism. It's a tale that would appeal to anybody that likes dogs. The animation in Feast uses the same technique that was featured in the Oscar winning Paperman, one that overlays 2D animation on top of CG-i animation, only with a much more vibrant color palette. It works fairly well and makes all of the food that appears so much more appetizing. Feast is an entertaining film that could play to the heartstrings of any viewer, especially ones that like dogs.
Where Can I Watch It?
The film is still playing in front of Big Hero 6, so you can maybe look for some showings or illegal recording if you can't make it to a showing, or you can wait for Big Hero 6 on Blu-Ray and DVD coming out February 24.

Me and My Moulton
It is the spring of 1965, and bicycles were all the rage in Norway. Our main character is a seven year old girl who is the middle child of a pair of modernist architects, and she finds herself often frustrated by how different they are to her friends and everybody else around town, both in their beliefs and their way of life. She finds herself envious of the more traditional family that lives underneath them. Still, she and her sisters asks her parents for a bicycle. Would her parents ever come to be more conventional, and will they ever get a bicycle? Me and My Moulton is a film by Torill Kove, the Canadian-Norweigan animation director thad been previously nominated for My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts, and had won for her film The Danish Poet. Like the other two films, Me and My Moulton is a reflective look at a particular period of time in Norweigan history. Me and My Moulton is the most personal of the films as it is a heavily dramatized but still autobiographical look at her own childhood. The Moulton in the title refers to the brand of bicycle that the film's parents decided to buy, but in reality the bicycle is only a MacGuffin, an item that serves only to drive the plot. The real core of the film is the changes in the life of Kove's character throughout that summer 50 years ago in her relationship with her family and her friends. The film is largely episodic, full of small anecdotal stories that are seemingly unrelated but in reality builds up the difference between the eccentricities of Kove's family and the more conventional family friend Beatrise, of whom Kove's character is extremely jealous. These anecdotes are full of the gentle humor that have come to be ever present in Torill Kove's films. It does have less of the visual gags and ironic statements from her two previous nominated films. Rather most of the humor is derived from quiet moments that strike a chord with the viewers. It does feel more serious than her previous films, but it works well with the subject matter. Torill Kove's animation style featuring simplistic character design and background has become a defining part of her work, and this is still present in Me and My Moulton. While the animation is quite simple, the film does have some nifty transitions between scenes, many of which utilize a blueprint scheme that fits in with her parents' position of architects, in which characters are seen walking from one scene to the next on a blueprint. The narration provided by Norweigan actress Andrea Bræin Hovig is serviceable. Her deadpan reading of some more unusual lines is the source of much of the humor. Me and My Moulton may not be as entertaining as Torill Kove's previous works, but it is still an enjoyable film that I'm sure would resonate with many other viewers.
Where Can I Watch It?
Well there's always the showing, but the film is also available for download from the NFB website if you so choose to pay for it. Meanwhile, have a trailer.

A Single Life
Pia is a young woman living alone in her cozy, small apartment. One day she is sitting down ready to enjoy a nice pizza when she hears a knock on her door. She looks outside and sees that somebody left a package that contains a vinyl record with a song called "A Single Life." She starts playing the record and the next thing she knows she is done with her pizza. She takes a quizzical look and realize that by adjusting where the needle is on the vinyl, she can travel to different moments in her life. She decides to check out the future, but could she regret her decision? There has been a couple of nominated films that essentially build up to a single joke. The Big Story was nominated back in 1994, and twenty three years before that The Crunch Bird won the Oscar with essentially just a single joke. A Single Life, a film by the Dutch trio of Job, Joris & Marieke, is the latest film that seems to fit in that category. The way it plays out it seems to be building up to a punch line, which is fairly predictable. That said, the punch line is fairly effective, mainly because of just how morbid it is, something that you may not expect from just looking at the film's trailer. In this way, the film does seem to aspire to be more than just a joke. It reflects on the transience of each of our lives, how we have to treasure each moment and not to take any of it for granted. This is evident in the song that plays with the film, one composed by director Job Roggeveen and featuring the vocals of Dutch singer Pien Feith. The song pounds the theme home, with lines such as "Time and again you stall, but the ending is inevitable." Unfortunately the effect of the song is muted in that only a portion of the song plays throughout the film, in a scrambled fashion and you end up not really focusing on the lyrics. This is especially true as one of the mini-jokes features Pia getting stuck in a time loop that happens to be at the "Time and again" line, leading you to find it rather repetitive and annoying. The animation is fairly simple, with low-polygon CGI design, but the directors make up for it by filling the background with loads of specific details that reference Pia's life and the passage of time. For example, Pia has a book called "Time on My Side" by Marty McFly, and later she has a framed Chinese character that means "Time." These little background things may be easily missed but show that Job, Joris & Marieke are aspiring for something more than just a joke, but unfortunately that is what A Single Life feels like.
Where Can I Watch It?
It's not readily available online, but you can find the film in its entirety (just under 3 minutes) on iTunes. Meanwhile, have a trailer.

Well, here are your five nominees. On second glance they are stronger than what I initially thought watching them. They all have their strengths and benefits. Feast is the one that is going to have all of the public support, being the film that everybody has seen and featuring a cute dog. The Bigger Picture is the most dazzling on a technical basis. Me and My Moulton is the one film that seems to win the love of most of the newspaper critics that reviewed the film. A Single Life is short and fun. But personally I feel the strongest film is The Dam Keeper. Yes, some reviewers have complained about the emotional manipulation but I felt that is one of the film's strengths. But does it have what it takes to win? Well I'm not as certain that the Academy would honor Feast as many of the Oscar pundits. I think it could be down to The Bigger Picture or The Dam Keeper, with Me and My Moulton as a possible spoiler. But I don't think I'll mind any of these films winning, except for maybe A Single Life, and I actually enjoyed the film.

My Rankings (By Quality)
The Dam Keeper > Feast > The Bigger Picture > Me and My Moulton > A Single Life

My Rankings (By Preference)
The Dam Keeper > Feast > A Single Life > Me and My Moulton > The Bigger Picture

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