Animation is a cinematographic medium and not a genre exclusively for children. Case in point: four of five nominees for the Best Animated Short Oscar are adult-oriented. I go as far as saying the one candidate concerned with serving kids is the weakest of the bunch. Not that it will make it lose the award, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Check out our take on the Best Animated Shorts nominated for the 2023 Oscar, and catch one or two without leaving this page.
With Aardman Studios concentrating on kiddie fare, this Australian production scratches your itch for stop-motion animation for grownups. Director Lachlan Pendragon - great name! - voices Neil, a telemarketer on the verge of getting dismissed from his dire job for not making a single sale. More pressing concerns arise when he notices strange phenomena pointing to the artificiality of the reality he inhabits. Lachlan shows us the world outside the scaled-down diorama set and the green screen flashing on and off outside the window, alternating with a photograph of buildings. We see the many faces of Neil in a box, ready to be used to animate his bewildered expressions. Poor Neil confirms his suspicions with a talking ostrich who tells him what we know. The world - his world - is fake.
This sly comedy works as both a short and a documentary of its own making by exposing the innards of artifice. It is quite a nifty trick, but it puts it at a disadvantage in a category that tends to reward less complex narrative exercises.
Portuguese filmmakers Joao Gonzalez and Bruno Caetano offer an understated family drama that defies expectations and physics. The ice merchants are a father and son team living in a cabin perilously hanging off the side of a mountain. They harvest ice and sell it in the town below. Every day, they plunge into the abyss and fly via parachute to their market. It looks rather impractical and dangerous, but the plasticity of the drawings goes a long way toward helping you accept flights of fancy like this one. The style may remind you of Soviet-era animation, but the sneaky environmental concerns and the family pathos are all too current. Ice Merchants is available to stream on The New Yorker’s YouTube channel.
Directors Amanda Forbes and Andy Tiby get their third Oscar nomination for this lovely work that finds poignancy in a stranger-than-fiction historical anecdote. In 1917, at Halifax Harbor in Nova Scotia, Canada, the Norwegian SS Imo and the French SS Mont-Blanc collided catastrophically. One of the vessels carried highly volatile benzol, provoking an explosion that decimated buildings around a half-mile radius and started a destructive tsunami. Sixteen hundred people died, and 9000 were injured. Among the survivors: a sailor found two kilometers away from the site, stark naked but unharmed.
Forbes and Tiby recreate his close encounter with death, animating mixed media. The main characters are drawn in flat lines contrasting with tactile 3-D backgrounds: real smoke, ashes, and debris. Snippets of filmed images of nature enter the composition as life flashes before the eyes of the flying man, friction taking his clothes off and leaving him naked as a baby. It is a sort of catastrophic rebirth. The filmmaking duo are not strangers to film festivals. They won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at 1999 Cannes for When The Day Breaks. See The Flying Sailor now on The New Yorker's YouTube channel.
Charlie Mackesy's much-beloved book began as a series of posts on social media. By 2019, it was a New York Times Best Seller, a crossover hit with children and adults. A boy lost in a snowy forest strikes an unlikely friendship with a mole, a fox, and a horse, who gang up to help him find a home. The characters speak in inspirational aphorisms fit for those who find The Little Prince way too harsh. The film adaptation, directed by Mackesy and Peter Boynton, is lovely to look at, if too syrupy for my taste. Alas, it has a leg up due to star power. Actor Woody Harrelson is one of the producers, and the cast includes well-known stars Gabriel Byrne, Idris Elba, and Tom Hollander. The Academy will not be able to resist this. Also, the powerful Disney PR machine should be working overtime to secure an Oscar. The movie is currently streaming on AppleTV+ and Disney+.
If there were any justice, directors Sara Gunnarsdóttir and Pamela Ribbon would get the Oscar for Best Animated Short and would have, at least, scored a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. "My Year of Dicks" is a genial sex comedy centered on the efforts of an early '90s teen girl trying to lose her virginity. Over a year, Pam (Brie Hilton) goes through five candidates, each identified by a personality type. First, The Vampire, a skater with filed-down nails that look like claws, and then Wally, a movie buff working as an usher at a dingy Art House. Every beau brings an opportunity for hilariously bad and inept attempts at seduction. The constant is the complicity of her best friends, Karina (Clarissa Hernandez) and Sam (Jackson Kelly).
The movie takes its aesthetic cue from the doodles a kid makes in the back of her notebook to fend off boredom during high school. Concrete illustrative reality gets spiced up with fancy asides that convey reactions to the annoying behavior of people. Check out the exquisite excruciation of the scene where Dad (Chris Kerman) gives Pam the talk after she pulls off an all-nighter at a disastrous party. True to the grungy spirit of the times, this is like a time capsule of style and attitude, smartly signaling some cultural signpost of the generation.
Check out how Pam throws herself at the movie usher inspired by Henry & June (Phillip Kauffman, 1990), the scandalous biopic about the relationship between writers Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. The movie is famous for being among the first to earn the NC-17 rating. American youth's growing enthusiasm for anime gets a wink when this style overtakes the middle chapter. Pam courts sensitive Robert (Sean Stack) during a summer visit to a state fair, with faithful Sam tagging along. The date goes spectacularly wrong.
The movie is frank but never vulgar, which makes the warning even more ridiculous. "My Year of Dicks" closes down the showcase making the rounds in theaters everywhere. It gets an alarming disclaimer before beginning, allowing sensitive audience members and children to leave. It is the same one used in 2022 before Bestia (Hugo Covarrubias, 2021) and Oscar-winner The Windshield Wiper (Sebastian Mielgo, 2021). The first one brought to life the story of a ruthless Chilean torturer during the Pinochet dictatorship. The second one features a suicide. In those cases, I would say it was warranted.
The warning before My Year of Dicks is frankly ridiculous, an accidental joke tackled before the comedy starts. It speaks more of American prudishness than any liberty the movie takes discussing the sexual subject matter. In the immortal words of Sarah Michelle Gellar in Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006), "Teenage horniness is not a crime." For the record: no penises are ever on display - as opposed to The Flying Sailor, who crosses the sky in slow motion on the altogether.
It might defeat the creative purpose of the filmmakers to wish the movie were longer, but I could have easily spent a full-feature-length film with these characters. It is not just the best short of this category but one of the best romantic comedies of 2022. Watch it in...well, full...at Vimeo.
* Update: I was right, but still, it's wrong! The Academy chose "The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Fox" as the Best Animated Short, 2023.
When Esra misses her train and kills time playing a fast-paced, flashy game on her smartphone, a vintage Rubik's Cube challenges her attention.Stream Now
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