Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Best Animated Short - 2016


Well, as you might have heard, the Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and five more films entered into the rank of Best Animated Short nominees along with such luminaries as Small Talk, A Greek Tragedy, and The Jaywalker. I had talked a little bit about the nominees earlier today, but for the first time since 2009, I was able to watch all of the nominees not only before the Shorts International theatrical showing, but also on the day of the nomination. After all, four of the five shortlisted films I had seen received nomination, and the National Film Board made the final nominee available for purchase. So, since I have seen all five films I might as well get the review out of the way. I just hope this isn't going to take six hours (although knowing how slow my computer is now it probably will take more than six hours.)

Blind Vaysha
Once upon a time, in a small village somewhere in Eastern Europe a beautiful little girl was born. Her name was Vaysha. Her parents were proud of her, but they quickly noticed that something was not right with the girl. As it turns out, her left eye can see only the past, and her right eye can only see the future. With no ability to see the present, poor Vaysha is essentially blind to the world. Her parents invited some medicine women to help restore her normal vision, but to no avail. With no good way to distinguish between reality and her perceptions, she lives a life of loneliness despite her great beauty. How can anybody be able to live a normal life with this disability? Blind Vaysha is the latest film by Bulgarian-Canadian animator Theodore Ushev. Ushev has had a long career where he developed a stark style defined by the utilization of the linocut style. He had previously been in the Oscar radar back in 2013, when his film Gloria Victoria, which was named the Most Well Liked Animated Short, made the shortlist, but was ultimately overlooked by the Oscar. Undeterred, he made Blind Vaysha, based off a short story by his friend the Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov. Using the same linocut style, Ushev tells the tragic story of a beautiful woman trapped in her disabilities. The film tells a cautionary tale of living in the present. Too often we are too fixated on the comfort of the past or the terrifying unknown of the future that we overlook the very moment where our lives can have the most meaning. We become nothing more than the blind. And perhaps it is because I have embarked on a psychiatry training, I think Blind Vaysha is also a stirring allegory of the damaging effects of psychosis. People with psychosis are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. To them, the hallucinations that they experience are reality. How is this different from Vaysha, whose visions of the past and the future is her reality? This understanding of their affliction is important for anybody dealing with people with psychiatric illnesses. Just as the fact that you can't tell Vaysha to snap out of it, you can't tell anybody with psychosis or depression or anxiety to just snap out of it. Ushev'stark linocut style and the grotesque character design that results give the film a very chilling feel. It plays very much almost like a horror film, but then again the life of Vaysha is probably one of constant terror. Blind Vaysha makes great use of Henry Purcell's classic "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary," a piece previously known for its use in the opening of Stanley Kubrick's Oscar nominated A Clockwork Orange (and parodied in Rare's 2001 classic Conker's Bad Fur Day, which was where I know the piece.) The narration by Caroline Dhavernas is adequate although a little bit underwhelming. Still, that doesn't keep Blind Vaysha from being a great film.
Where Can I Watch It?
The NFB is usually pretty good about making their films available to the public, and after a short delay they have made Blind Vaysha available for download. If you don't want to spend money, then tough luck. Maybe they'll make it streamable for free, but maybe not.

Borrowed Time
It is late afternoon on a dark and cloudy day. An old sheriff walks along the edges of a dusty old ravine. His furrowed brow and haggard experience shows that he carries the weight of a sordid past on his shoulders. As he makes his way closer to the edge, his memory goes back to his days as a young man traveling with his father, who was the sheriff before him. On that fateful day, they were beset by bandits. They managed to get away, but the stagecoach flips over and his father is thrown across the ravine, the same ravine that the old sheriff comes to all of those years later. What happens next will forever change the life of both men. Borrowed Time was an independent film made by Andrew Coates and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, two veteran animators with Pixar. Having seen animated films being cast as mostly kiddy fare, even the Oscar winning films that they were working on. They wanted to make a film that challenged this notion of animation being made primarily for kids. They did this by making a film that was much darker in tone and style, and they started out with a topic that isn't often addressed in traditional children's entertainment: forgiveness. Forgiveness is a key tenet in many religions, but it is exceedingly difficult in practice, especially when the target is one's own self. It's something much easier said than done, and many a psychiatric practice is spent trying to teach this to patients. It is especially poignant when paired with the Western genre where men were supposed to kill without hesitation and emotion was supposed to be something shoved to the unconscious. Borrowed Time does this fairly well. There was originally supposed to be additional scenes giving more of a backstory, but the way the film is structured by showing the old man and the incident that haunts him in flashbacks is effective enough. The animation is the most impressive aspect of this film. The characters and the backgrounds are rendered in incredible detail. There is a tremendous amount of realism without crossing the dreaded uncanny valley. Furthermore, the use of colors is great, with the contrast of a more gray tone in "present" scenes to the bright orange look in the "past" scenes providing an emotional push. Borrowed Time is a great film, just like another film by commercial industry veterans making an independent film tackling mature themes: The Dam Keeper.
Where Can I Watch It?
Borrowed Time was posted online on Vimeo a few months back and it became a viral hit of some sorts. There is some possibility you might have seen it. Of course, they've since taken it down and if you want to watch it now you may just have to go to a showing. They may make it available because of the Oscar nomination, but they may not.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes
One winter night, animator Robert Valley received a letter on his doorstep. It was from an old friend of his by the name of Techno Stypes. Robert immediately thinks back to his memories of Techno, a man who lived life to the fullest but was ultimately brought down by his caustic and self-destructive lifestyle. He became rich through a couple of motor vehicle accidents that left him with millions but broke his body, and his love of pear cider eventually gave him cirrhosis of the liver, complicated by Hepatitis C from a bad blood transfusion. At one point Robert had to travel to Guangzhou, China where Techno had to wait for a liver to be transplanted. Can Robert keep him from drinking long enough to allow him to remain alive when an appropriate liver becomes available? Pear Cider and Cigarettes is a film by Canadian animator Robert Valley based on his real-life friend, (who was not named Techno) which in a way makes it a documentary. The film is essentially split up into two halves. The first half of the film introduces the viewers to Techno, first as a schoolboy with prodigious athletic talents to his eventual descent into drug and alcohol use that led to his physical ailments. The second half of the film focuses on Techno's tortured wait for a new liver in a military hospital in China. The entirety of the film was presents a fascinating character study. The film paints a picture of a complicated fellow who had tremendous talents but was also on the precipice of disaster. I suspect he probably had some personality issues, the most likely being some sort of an antisocial personality disorder. We mostly think of people with antisocial personality disorder being psychopaths not deserving of any pity, but with Techno it shows that it's not always as simple as it seems. The story is told very deftly. Pear Cider and Cigarettes may have been the longest animated short in the category's history at 35 minutes, just five minutes below the maximum limit for a short film, but the film flows quickly. Even the second half where relatively little happens compared to the first half keeps the viewers' attention. It's a triumph in storytelling. The animation is relatively simple compared to the story. The character movements are choppy and limited and there is a lot of repeated sequences, but the visual style is so dynamic with some extreme camera angles and character design that you forget the simplicity of the animation. The monotone narration (I believe by director Valley) is strangely effective. And the film features songs by Robert Trujillo, bassist for Metallica. Pear Cider and Cigarettes is a great film and a worthy addition to the Best Animated Short lineup.
Where Can I Watch It?
Pear Cider and Cigarettes is available online through Vimeo On Demand. It requires some money, but I think it's well worth it.

Pearl
Once upon a time, there was a car sitting in a vacant lot with a tape player sitting in the middle of the front seat. One day, a young woman comes across to the car and finds the tape player. She presses play on the tape player. She is instantly transported back to her childhood. The car, named "Pearl," had belonged to her father who was a traveling musician. He took his daughter, Sarah, around the country, teaching her to play guitar and a love for music. Eventually he decided that it would be best if he settles down and give Sarah a stable home, but Sarah has developed a love of music as well, and she sets off to make her own name in the music world, taking Pearl along for her musical journey. Pearl was a film commissioned for the Google Spotlight Stories project designed to take viewers on an immersive experience where they can turn their smartphones and watch the films from a 360-degree angle. One of the first films was Glen Keane's Duet which made the Best Animated Short shortlist but was passed over for a nomination. Pearl was a later film, directed by former Disney animator Patrick Osborne, who incidentally directed Feast which won the Oscar that year. It tells the story of a father and daughter relationship that is linked by the titular car as well as music. The father and daughter relationship is an important one based on the psychoanalysis theory, and it was told poignantly in Pearl. Like Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Pearl is a story of two halves. The first half focuses on the father's musical career, while halfway through Sarah grows up and begins her own story after her father's sacrifice for her benefit. The film's structure really makes the relationship a solid and believable one. The link is represented through the song "No Wrong Way Home" by songwriter Alexis Harte. The first half features Kelley Stoltz as the father singing the song, and the second half begins when Nicki Bluhm starts singing the same song as Sarah. The utilization of the car as a central theme is major part of the film. Each scene is set within the confines of the car, and this allows for the Spotlight Stories aspect as the viewers can watch the movie as though they were sitting in the passenger's seat. The animation style and character design is similar to that of Feast. It's nothing special but it serves its purpose for the story. To be honest the 360 degree aspect of Pearl is a little bit annoying, but I do have to admire the ability to animate a whole 360 degree film.
Where Can I Watch It?
Pearl is available on the Google Spotlight Story app. It is also available on YouTube in the 360 degree view. The Academy clearly didn't watch the 360-degree version because it's very difficult to decide where to look. It would be nice to see what the Academy saw. Anyways, here's the 360 degree version.


Piper
One morning a group of sandpiper comes rushing out onto the morning surf. Their mission is to find food to give them energy. One young sandpiper is ready for her mother to help feed her the clams that make up their diet. However, the mother wants the young piper to be able to find its own food. The little bird goes out exploring on the beach, but it is traumatized by a passing wave. The little piper struggles to overcome its fear of the waves while at the same time dealing with its worsening hunger. Can the little piper successfully overcome its fear and get something to eat? Perhaps its new friend the small hermit crab can help out. Pixar is probably the most respected animation studio in the business today, with their reputation resting solidly on their groundbreaking animated films. However, beyond that they have also produced numerous short films, which have traditionally be used as an avenue for younger directors to gain experience. They have also been ways to try out new animation or storytelling techniques. Piper had been a film that does both. The director is veteran animator Alan Barillaro and he infused the film with photo-realistic animation. Inspired by his own memories of watching birds running between waves, Barillaro studied real sandpiper to give the film its look, and the results were marvelous. Piper features some of the most dazzling CGI animation out there. The backgrounds look almost like live action, with each grain of sand animated with great detail. The design and motion of the birds look true to life while still retaining the animated expressions that make them eminently relate-able. It's jaw-droppingly good and really immerses the viewers within the world of the sandpiper. The design of the little sandpiper is especially well down and allows for maximum adorableness. The story is a bit on the simpler side, but it's still an effective coming of age story that reflects a young children's need to answer the question of industry versus inferiority as proposed by psychologist Erik Erikson. But still, Piper is an enormous crowd-pleaser that combines incredible animation with adorable characters and a plausible story to stand out as a memorable entry in Pixar's short film collection.
Where Can I Watch It?
Piper played before Finding Dory, which was the highest grossing animated film in American history, and so I suspect that it is perhaps the most watched animated short nominee before the ceremony (if that makes sense.) Still, if you want to see it now it is on the Finding Dory DVD and Blu-Ray set. I'm sure there are illegal copies uploaded online, but I'll let you find them yourselves.

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Well, here are the five nominees. And it took me only five hours, so that's good. It's really hard to predict how the Academy will vote in this category. They often like the longer, more thematically deep films which is a plus for Pear Cider and Cigarettes, but that's not always a given. They could fall in love with Piper and give Pixar their first win since For the Birds in 2001, but if they couldn't do that with Day & Night then I'm not so sure that would happen either. Of course, Blind Vaysha, Borrowed Time and Pearl aren't out of the running either. So yeah, I'm essentially punting. I will give you my rankings by quality and preference like all of my other reviews. They may have changed since I first watched them back in November.

My rankings (by quality)
Pear Cider and Cigarettes > Piper > Blind Vaysha > Borrowed Time > Pearl

My rankings (by preference)
Pear Cider and Cigarettes > Piper > Borrowed Time > Blind Vaysha > Pearl

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