Saturday, February 18, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Animated Short

Pixar's Piper is nominated for Best Animated Short.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Animated Short

The nominees are:

Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes

Every year, I have to remind myself Pixar has not won this award since 2001. This year represents the company’s ninth nomination since that last victory and 13th overall. It is almost inconceivable it has been 15 years since the greatest modern force in film animation won this award. There is almost certainly no conspiracy here, but it seems an odd coincidence the company has not won the short award since the inception of the Animated Feature category, which it has absolutely dominated.

I am not suggesting other nominees have not been more deserving over the years, but eight straight losses? It strikes me as highly implausible the team producing the best animated features around – hell, some of the best features of any kind, often – is not also doing incomparable work with its short films. So, one must wonder what Pixar has to do to win this award again. This year, I believe Pixar has produced the finest animated short in Piper. I do not believe it will win, but I am at a loss to explain why.

Piper – Writer-director Alan Barillaro’s short played in front of Pixar’s massive smash-hit sequel Finding Dory, so if it has a leg up on the competition anywhere, it is in exposure. Of course, the Pixar shorts have that advantage every year, and it has not produced a victory in quite some time. Barillaro has been with Pixar for nearly 20 years and was a supervising animator on Best Animated Feature winners The IncrediblesWall-E, and Brave. This is his first film as director, and it is a doozy.

It follows the story of a young sandpiper whose mother tries to teach it to find food on its own. After a traumatic incident involving a rogue wave, the little sandpiper must learn to overcome its fears and join its community on the beach. It is a sweet, simple story, well told and impressively communicated. If that were not enough, it features some of the most photorealistic animation I have ever seen. The water effects in particular are jaw dropping and are alone worthy of honor. It must be seen to be believed.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes – This is the nominee for the adults. You can tell because in theaters, it plays last, after the other nominees and highly commended non-nominees, with a warning to take children out of the theaters. Director Robert Valley uses animation to tell the true story of his relationship with a wild childhood friend, Techno, who is suffering from terminal liver disease and holed up in a military hospital in China.

The film, which runs 35 minutes and is longer than the rest of the nominees combined, is essentially a blow-by-blow account of Techno’s hard-partying lifestyle and later his debilitating illness. It is honest, unsentimental, and unflinching in its account and shot through with a jazzy, neo-noir style that seems a perfect fit for the material. Valley obviously cares deeply for his friend, but the film’s major flaw is that it never gives the audience as much reason to care. The director’s dedication carries the film a long way, but the film ultimately lingers on the surface. As much as it wants us to know Techno, we never get close enough truly to see him.

Pearl – Produced in part by Google, director Patrick Osborne’s touching father-daughter travelogue is the first virtual reality film to be nominated for an Academy Award. It is a laudable achievement and no doubt one of which voters will likely be aware, but I wonder how many will have the opportunity to see it with its full virtual reality setup.

I saw it in a traditional 2D theater environment, and while the story is sweet and relatable, much of the film plays like a glorified, if impressive, music video. This makes sense in a way, since the story concerns a father who gives up his dreams of being a musician to provide a stable life for his daughter only to see her follow his nomadic path out on the road with her band. Osborne won an Oscar in this category two years ago for the visually stunning and emotionally moving Feast. While Pearl does not reach those heights, it is possible voters will be swayed by its technical innovation as much as its story.

Borrowed Time – Spawned from the minds at Pixar but having nothing to do with Pixar, directors Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj spent five years developing this film while working in various capacities on films such as Inside OutBrave, and Toy Story 3. Their day jobs clearly had a deep influence on the art and style of their side project, but it is unique, both in execution and its decidedly more adult subject matter.

The film depicts an Old West sheriff approaching the scene of a long-ago accident and remembering the feelings of guilt and despair that have brought him back to this place. The animation is lovely, and in particular, the moving clouds in the sky in some of the wide shots are remarkable. The care and effort Coats and Hamou-Lhadj put into the animation is palpable, but the story seems under-baked by just a hair, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. It ultimately feels like a brilliant opening act to a movie I want to see the rest of.

Blind Vaysha – If I explain to you the concept of director Theodore Ushev’s Blind Vaysha, it will sound like a wonderfully intriguing idea. However, you will quickly wonder where this idea goes. Let’s give it a try: Vaysha is born with a condition in which she sees the past through one eye and the future with the other, which means she is perpetually unable to live in the moment. Based on a story by Georgi Gospodinov, Ushev smartly cops to the film’s lack of internal logic and proceeds dream-like through a fable whose moral is stated explicitly to the audience in the final passages.

The Bulgarian filmmaker is a legend in the animation community and rightly so. Blind Vaysha is stunning to look at, replicating a classic wood-cut style with all of the flaws and inconsistencies that make it feel real. The film’s presentation of the dual timelines through which Vaysha sees the world is a feast for the eyes, but with a story that goes nowhere and a simplistic closing scene, Blind Vaysha is probably the least of these nominees and also the least likely to win.

The final analysis

The two most likely winners are Pear Cider and Cigarettes for the scope of its story and its moody presentation and Pearl for its technological breakthrough and heartfelt plotline. I hold out hope Piper can end Pixar’s ridiculous drought in this category, but I won’t count on it. Because I think Academy members will have difficulty identifying the innovation of Pearl without seeing it in its intended virtual reality format, I give the slight edge to Pear Cider and Cigarettes.

Will win: Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Should win: Piper
Should have been here: Inner Workings

Tomorrow: Best Documentary

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