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
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
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.
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
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
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