Combustible Celluloid

Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016

By Jeffrey M. Anderson


January 28, 2016—This year's five nominees for Best Animated Short includes the usual Pixar entry, but though I quite enjoyed Sanjay's Super Team, which offers some cultural diversity and some nifty superhero action, I can't help but wonder what happened to the incredibly touching Lava, released earlier in the year. Sanjay Patel directs, and it's easy to imagine the story happening to him as a young boy.

Gabriel Osorio Vargas' Bear Story, from Chile, highlights some truly beautiful animation, imagining a story told through tiny mechanical contraptions, shown to customers inside a simple wooden box. The bear who creates this device is presumably telling his own sad story, captured and made to perform in the circus, eventually escaping and attempting to return to his family, only to find them gone (presumably forever). I couldn't quite figure out why the bear would show this tragedy to a young cub, however. He pays a coin to see the show and then happily leaves with a pinwheel, leaving our Bear behind with a heavy heart.

Konstantin Bronzit's We Can't Live Without Cosmos, from Russia, is a hand-drawn story of two astronauts who are also best friends (perhaps lovers?). The first part of this 16-minute short shows them training for a space mission, until we learn that only one of them actually gets to go (the other is a reserve). After a tragedy, the story turns somewhat metaphysical, and I confess I'm not sure I was with it all the way. The artwork is expressive, but simple, and the characters didn't really spring to life for me.

Richard Williams's Prologue, from the UK, bugged me. It's only six minutes, and impressively animated (it looks like hand-drawn, but could be computer aided), but after an intriguing opening wherein a flower suddenly reveals a human face, it turns into a brutal, bloody war parable. It takes place centuries ago with the Spartans and Athenians killing each other with arrows and swords, and we're supposed to come away feeling how horrible war is, but at the same time, secretly thrilled by all the bloodshed.

Thankfully, the batch has one masterpiece. American Don Hertzfeldt was nominated in 2000 for his demented, hilarious Rejected, and he deserves to win this year for the great World of Tomorrow (pictured above). It features two of Hertzfeldt's traditional, simple, stick-like characters, but occupying a truly astounding, disturbing, and hilarious version of the future. Little Emily (voiced by carefree Winona Mae) receives a visit from her third-generation clone, and learns about what the future will be like. Hertzfeldt's use of sound, space, color, and movement is truly amazing, and seems to have come from some painfully primal place.

Live Action

The 2016 nominees for Best Live Action Short are not exceptional, though some good bits and pieces can be discovered. To start, I found Basil Khalil's Ave Maria to be somewhat insulting, as an annoying, stereotypical Jewish family driving through the West Bank crashes into a statue of the Virgin Mary. They barge in on the nuns who have taken a vow of silence and try to get help. Comically, they are not allowed to do anything, as it's now the Sabbath.

Jamie Donoughue's Shok fares somewhat better. Set during the Kosovo war, it tells the heartbreaking story of a boy who has saved for a year to buy a bicycle. His best friend, on the other hand, makes money bringing things to the occupying forces. Of course, the other shoe drops, and the two boys do what they can for each other in the midst of a vast betrayal of human rights. My main quibble, aside from the slightly heavy-handed depiction of war, is the use of a flashback device. A grownup character sees a bike on the road and remembers his childhood; the shot cuts to two boys riding a bike, an we don't know which one is supposed to represent the older fellow. Oh well...

Henry Hughes's Day One has another war setting — very popular among Oscar voters — and some very heavy-handed foreshadowing, but the acting is strong, and it has some moving moments. A beautiful interpreter (Layla Alizada, pictured above) for the U.S. Army has her first day in Afghanistan. It, of course, involves a pregnant woman about to give birth.

I liked Benjamin Cleary's Stutterer, from Ireland, although I was able to guess the ending. A man with a devastating speech impediment has an online romance going, and freaks out when the girl wants to meet in person. We see him going about his day, pretending to be deaf when people speak to him, rather than trying to get through a sentence. He narrates from inside his head, where he can speak clearly, and where he imagines the lives of other people he sees on the street. There are some really lovely passages in this one; it has a big heart.

Patrick Vollrath's Everything Will Be Okay, from Germany and Austria, is probably the winner in my book. It's a simple story, simply told, harrowing and heartbreaking. A divorced father picks up his little girl for a weekend visit, but the day's activities turn strange; they enter a photo booth to take some silly pictures, but then one of the pictures appears to be for a passport... Vollrath's camera stays close on the father and daughter, highlighting their emotions without any obvious, direct, or hysterical dialogue. A picture of a monkey on a juice bottle, for example, betrays incredible sadness and desperation. Everything will be okay, indeed...

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