The Oscar-nominated animated shorts once again deliver a highlight among the Academy Award nominees. When derivative garbage like Joker leads the feature nominations, swap the long pants for shorts. While the live action shorts are decent and the short docs are strong but conventional, the animated are top shelf. They are wildly original adventures and formally daring thrills.
Questions of memory and devotion connect the five Oscar-nominated animated short films. They’re a nicely programmed selection even by happy coincidence. No matter which one of the five nominees wins this race, one must applaud the Academy’s choices. (But you’re still not off the hook for snubbing The Physics of Sorrow, guys!)
Hair Love could find itself in good company with last year’s winner Bao. This film by Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing, and Bruce W. Smith is a triumph for inclusion and representation. It hits the sweet spot in what is often the Academy’s weakness. Hair Love offers an affectionate story about a Black father doing his daughter’s hair for the first time. The film tells its story simply and delicately.
Father and daughter work out the kinks in the young girl’s hair and strengthen their bond. The playful and tender act draws them close when they both seek comfort. Hair Love offers an honest portrait of a family dynamic during hard times and observes how seemingly mundane tasks enrich our lives. While the animation of Hair Love is more conventional than the style of the other nominees, simplicity is its strength. The familiar aesthetic evokes the spirit of Saturday morning cartoons—essential family time—and celebrates the young girl’s big bounteous hair. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and is the better for it.
This father-daughter tale offers the flipside of Hair Love. While the strength of Hair Love’s storytelling offsets its relatively basic style, the artistic innovation of Daughter compensates for its wonky writing. Despite the muddled picture, Daughter is a remarkable sight. Daria Kashcheeva directs this Czech production that traces a young girl’s memory of her father. It begins with a hug and takes viewers through a whirlwind of emotions as she learns about letting go.
While the elliptical and elusive narrative of Daughter often proves dizzying and disorienting, it is outstandingly ambitious. Doubly so as a student work – a feat that makes it all the more impressive as it ushers in a new voice. Kashcheeva’s playful puppet animation evokes a melancholy spirit. Her imagery with birds conjures illusions of grief and horror, but also moments of tenderness and freedom. Daughter says nary a word and this extraordinary feat of silent cinema is wonderfully expressive. It’s easy to see how its list of laurels includes a Student Academy Award. A full-blown Oscar might not be out of reach.
The Oscar-nominated animated short films move from daughters to sisters with Siqi Song’s Sister. This heartfelt film ruminates on family relations that could have been. A young woman, portrayed in playful stop-motion puppetry, examines her family in 1990s’ China. It’s the era of the One-Child Policy. The institutionalized cap on siblings haunts the girl. She enjoys flights of the imagination as she considers how different her life could have been if she had a sister with whom to share it. Song’s film poignantly reflects on the implications of the One-Child Policy on parents as well, as the girl observes the hole it rips in her mother.
Nostalgia doesn’t tinge the greyscale animation of Song’s palette. This film is a sad and somber affair. Even when the young girl’s imagination takes flight, Song pulls the story back to reality. The film is a testament to the power of creative expression—and its ability to hold history to account.
Cat people must rejoice for Kitbull. This silent film endears us with the power of our four-legged friends. Director Rosana Sullivan delivers a hilariously whole-hearted ode to the friendly rivalry between cats and dogs. The film simply features a tit-for-tat standoff between a stray kitten and a pit bull. The little black cat, a playful rapscallion, desperately wants to scrap with the little pup across the yard. The dog, meanwhile, suffers silently as his abusive owner keeps him tethered on a chain. Cat and dog defy the laws of nature, though, and enjoy a spot of playtime. They spark hope in the dark and ratty yard in which they find themselves.
Sullivan creates two wonderfully expressive creatures in Kitbull. Without anthropomorphizing either animal, the film gives the characters vibrant personalities. Sullivan captures the unique characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the animals, particularly the cat, which let Kitbull speak straight to a pet owner’s heart. To watch the film is to be reminded of the companionship and joy one’s own four-legged friend brings. It’s a moving essay on the responsibility we share in respecting the rights of animals—especially their right to playtime!
The short that gets this reviewer’s vote, however, is Bruno Collet’s Mémorable. While all the contenders in among the Oscar-nominated animated short films are great, Mémorable is in a league of its own. Particularly since the films deal with questions of family and memory, Collet’s technical ambition and finesse make the film stand out. Mémorable also finds the strongest cohesion between form and content, story and style, and images and meaning.
The film is a dexterously layered essay on the power of love as memory fades away. It witnesses an aging couple as a woman tends to her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease. The intricately detailed characters weather with time as the details etch physical memories onto their beings. They carry markers of time when the man’s mind fades. The husband is also a painter and Collet incorporates art’s ability to express ineffable emotions through the pieces the man creates when after he loses his grasp on reality. The film invites comparison to Chris Landreth’s Oscar winning masterpiece Ryan for its poignant visualization of memory. Collet conveys the image of a person slipping away from himself with the stunningly beautiful animation that see a man morph and melt. For its technical and artistic mastery, Mémorable handily deserves the Oscar for Best Animated Short. It’s simply unforgettable.
The Oscar-nominated animated short films screen at TIFF Lightbox beginning Jan. 31.