I rarely ever watch the shorts nominated for the Oscars, and sometimes wonder if anyone does. The last time I paid attention to this category, Pixar dominated technically and drove the category toward slick homogeneity, so it’s good to see that 2020’s selections include more international and diverse offerings in a wide variety of media and formats. That said, the quality and artistry also vary widely, making the selections more than trivially uneven. It’s almost as if short animations don’t get multi-million dollar budgets from mainstream studios.
What the 2020 finalists lack in financing, however, they make up for in heart. As the Washington Post put it, “If, as a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch joked, white male rage is the common denominator in many of this year’s feature nominees, then family — the kind you’re born into and the kind you make — is the hallmark of the shorts.” I can’t disagree. All of the five offerings (Daughter, Hair Love, Kitbull, Memorable and Sister) have a genuine emotional core, though how each touches you will depend greatly on your background.
Which leaves me wondering how you determine what “best” means in this context. Does best mean the most evocative, most technically accomplished, most beautiful, original or best plotted? I imagine it’s a combination of all those, but this year it really shouldn’t matter — Memorable is by far the best in the category — but it’s so white I’m guessing they’ll compensate for the #OscarSoWhite feature film category by picking something more politically appropriate (i.e., Hair Love).
No matter; they’re all delightful in their own way, and I highly recommend watching every one. They’re short after all. My random notes follow in order of my completely uninformed ranking from “most best” (Memorable) to “least best” (Kitbull), but read it in whatever order makes you happy.
All initial descriptions are from the Oscars site.
1. Memorable (France)
“Painter Louis and his wife Michelle are experiencing strange events. Their world seems to be mutating. Slowly, furniture, objects, and people lose their realism. They are “destructuring,” sometimes disintegrating.”
This is the single most visually compelling rendition of dementia and it’s emotional impact I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful, seamless and devastating. Assuming that people realize dementia is a serious disability impacting millions of all races, ethnicity, and genders, this should be the obvious choice for the Oscar. However, the the animators and characters are all white, mostly male (and it’s subtitled and French), so there’s probably not much of a chance (given the political need to balance the lack of diverse contenders in other categories).
Cynicism aside, the imagery and allegory in memorable is just stunning. What I know about stop-motion animation can fit in the period at the end of this sentence, so I have no input on anything other than the result: when Memorable ended, I was gutted but still wanted more. It’s gorgeous.
Where to watch it: Used to be on Vimeo, now theaters only?
2. Dcera (Daughter) (Czech Republic)
“In a hospital room, the Daughter recalls a difficult childhood moment when as a little girl she tried to share her experience with an injured bird with her Father.”
Artistically, this story of a strained father-daughter relationship was no worse than second on the list and possible first. The use of dark paper mache and a muted blue pallet are a somber mix, but these thin paper skins are the perfect metaphors for the cracked emotional shells we wear everyday. If not for a few odd breaks in flow, and a painfully obvious ending, this would have come closer to a first-place tie. That said, who cares how it ranks? There’s something insidious and reductive about ranking art. It’s great. Watch it.
Where to watch it: Movie theaters or for rent on Vimeo.
3. Hair Love (USA / 6:48)
“An African-American father learns to do his daughter’s hair for the first time.”
To me Hair Love–the story of a father struggling with his daughter’s big curly hair–is a lot like Black Panther; great not because it was the great per se (though it was excellent), but because it’s the first (?) movie to effectively represent a culture and topic that is important and neglected–the importance, beauty and challenge of black hair in black culture. It’s good. It’s important. But it’s also a bit like Frotasia; dramatic, adorable, sweet, topical and utterly predictable. While it’s delightful to see visual representation of neglected groups, and a dad who (while of course fumbling and incompetent) eventually rises to the occasion, it’s not the “best” anything. Okay, maybe that’s not true; it’s the happiest and most positive of these shorts, and it today’s world, that’s probably worth a lot.
4. Sister (China)
“A man remembers his childhood and growing up with an annoying little sister in 1990s China. How would his life have been if things had gone differently?”
So, spoiler alert, this short is about a sister who doesn’t exist because she was aborted. As China looks back at the consequences of it’s One Child policy, it’s an important and thoughtful work, but the result is mixed at best. There’s some great exploration of what might have been via highly effective narration and interesting visuals, but thematically it’s all a bit twee. The counter-factual rhetorical construct is the same I used in my “Dear Jenny” post, which itself was hardly original, but…I just don’t think it’s that great. The problem might be that this a personal anecdote about an almost literal holocaust of the unborn, but has none of the emotional impact of, say, Schindler’s List. Which is probably a lot to ask of a short animation…
Where to watch it: Movie theaters or for rent on Vimeo.
5. Kitbull (USA)
“A fiercely independent stray kitten and a chained-up pit bull experience friendship for the first time.”
Like Hair, Kitbull is more about message than visual artistry, with the usual trope that if two injured and lonely spirits find each other, magic magically happens, two become one and they live happily ever after. The character play between animals is delightful, especially the cat’s hyperkinetic physicality, but the contextual framing is flat and obvious. Where Sister was twee, Kitbull is trite even if it still leaves you smiling.
Just some random resources and other insights, usually better than mine.
- IndieWire Predictions (Hair Love is favorite, Memorable…last)
- Polygon Summary
- Slant Magazine Predictions (Hair Love vs. Memorable)
- Washington Post Picks (Sister)