2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Animated
2020, NR, 83 min. Directed by Various.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 31, 2020
When it comes to this year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts, the clear front runner before voting even started was Matthew A. Cherry's "Hair Love." It's such a simple story about natural hair and a father who has to get his daughter ready for a very important day. While the subject of natural hair has recently been a huge issue in mainstream depictions of African American people, Cherry's isn't simply about acceptance. Yes, it's about how hard having curls can be (a how-to-style-your-hair video plays) but as much as that it's about a dad trying to look after his kid, told in a sincere, touching, and wry fashion through pastel-shaded 2D CG.
Yet, personally, it's just edged out by "Kitbull." Stylistically similar (it could be set down the block from "Hair Love" or at least a couple of neighborhoods away), Rosana Sullivan's story of the unlikely friendship between a stray kitten (an adorable hairball with huge, expressive eyes) and an abused pit bull is not only heartwarming, it's also beautifully observed. The cat acts like a cat, the dog like a dog – and people, tragically, like people. Cutting back on the cartoonishness makes it more of a wonderful fable.
Of course, the high-quality computer animation makes it clear that there are big studios behind both these shorts (Sony and Pixar, respectively), but the form has always called to unique and singular talents. Daria Kashcheeva's "Dcera" is a perfect example of this: Another intimate drama about father-daughter relationships, it's "Hair Love"'s darker reflection. There's no violence or abuse, but simply miscommunication, as a woman looks back on years of lost moments with her doting dad while he lies in a hospital room. "Dcera" is more a technical than narrative achievement, with Kashcheeva truly pushing beyond the current limits of papier-mâché stop motion.
The theme of family continues in Siqi Song’s “Sister" (which screened locally as part of the Austin Asian American Film Festival), a companion piece of sorts to the Oscar-nominated documentary feature One Child Nation. Using felt puppets and cardboard miniature sets – all captured in soft-grain black-and-white – adds poignancy to Song's story, told in the form of a letter from a man to an absent sister.
Its underlying sense of grief and loss is matched by "Memorable," Bruno Collet's glimpse through the eyes of an artist suffering dementia. Like so many people whose brain is slowly starting to betray them, Louis (voiced by André Wilms) isn't even aware that it's happening, but that's what makes this so special. Most dementia and Alzheimer's dramas concentrate on the caregiver (in this case Louis' wife Michelle, voiced by Dominique Reymond), but Collet instead pulls on impressionist influences to give Louis' perspective, and how what we see from outside as horror for the sufferer may, strangely, be a place of grace and wonder.
As always, the Academy rounds out these shorts with a handful of equally worthy extras (well, almost all worthy: mountain rescue comedy "Hors Piste" is funny enough, but how it made the cut here is baffling). Rachel Johnson's "Henrietta Bulkowski" is a Kickstarter-funded fairytale with a stellar cast: narrated by Anne Dowd, with Christina Hendricks as a woman with a hunched back who wishes she could see the world as others do and Chris Cooper as a short policeman who pretends he is tall, this luminescent stop motion wonder could easily have been nominated. Similarly, the hand-painted (in oils, much like Loving Vincent) bittersweet joy that is "The Bird and the Whale" swims the same waters of unlikely friendship as "Kitbull" but with a more melancholic tone.