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Review: The 2020 Oscar Nominated Shorts

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Due to the shortened Oscar season this year, Shorts. TV scrambled to make this year’s animated shorts available just a week before the actual awards. I admit I panicked a bit when I saw that many theaters didn’t schedule the animated shorts until the very weekend they aired. It was a pretty close call for me anyway.

This year’s 5 nominees have the distinction in having 3 women directors behind the scenes as well as a black director and creator which hopefully means greater opportunities for all in the field. Family also seems to be the theme to many of this year’s crop.

“Hair Love” is a Kickstarter produced short acquired by Sony Pictures Animation which was released along with Angry Birds 2. The film was written and directed by former NFL wide receiver Matthew A. Cherry, and it tells the heart-warming story about a black girl trying to tame her ferociously beautiful hair for the day with help from her doting father who finds the task a lot more difficult than first glance.  The short highlights the subject of black natural hair which has sadly gotten a lot of bad publicity in the media of late and the struggles to present it publicly without shaming. In the end, acceptance wins over fighting. If Cherry wins the Oscar, he would like to dedicate it in memory of fellow athlete and short producer, Kobe Bryant (which he did when he won on Sunday night!).

“Dcera (Daughter)” is a wordless Czech short featuring stop-motion hand painted paper-mache figures. The very nature of the paper-mache gives the figures more texture and depth than regular stop-motion materials.  It’s the story about a woman who struggles with her relationship with her dying father ever since the day she brought home a dead bird as a girl.  Her finding is dismissed by her father without a word, and she finds herself constantly reflecting back on that day imagining herself as the bird.  It’s a solemn film about the hardships on being open about one’s feelings to our loved ones before it’s too late.

“Sister” is a joint U.S./China stop-motion short using felt flocked figures in a mostly black-and-white setting. Told in Mandarin (with English subtitles), it’s the story of a Chinese man recalling his childhood in the 90s when his annoying younger sister joined the family.  All his outrageous annoyances with her are depicted in full as real memories. There are some sweet imaginative sibling bonding moments he had with her too though. Despite its sweet and humorous appearance, the film tries to tackle a couple of big polarizing social issues which leaves a bittersweet taste at the end.

“Memorable” is a French stop-motion short using extremely textured clay puppets that invoke the stylized paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and others of the post-Impressionistic period.  It tells the story of an aging artist succumbing to the effects Alzheimer’s disease right before the eyes of his wife who is sadly in a bit of denial of her husband’s condition.  While he struggles with even eating a simple banana without removing the peel, all she does is chide him about his forgetfulness. It’s a scary portrayal of how Alzheimer’s can affect relationships with loved ones. Despite the haze of the disease, there are some touching moments though that remind everyone why they’re together in the first place.

“Kitbull” is a Pixar animated short from their SparkShorts program about the unlikely friendship formed between a scrappy stray kitten and a pit bull when the kitten accidentally wanders into the back alley yard of one behind a seedy looking building. The kitten is pretty wary and apprehensive at first toward the pit bull, but a simple bottle cap soon somewhat remedies the situation. Things get tense though one night when the pit bull is taken into the seedy building, and what happens greatly tests their already tense friendship. Overall, it’s a very sweet story.

Besides the nominees, Shorts. TV showed some highly commended offerings which are definitely worth watching as well.

“Henrietta Bulkowski” is another Kickstarter funded stop-motion animated short about a hunchbacked woman who dreams of flying an airplane. Because of her hunched back though, she can only see down toward the ground, and her doctor has deemed her medically incapable of being qualified to be a pilot.  Undeterred by her doctor’s diagnosis, Henrietta decides to go against the odds and build her own airplane from the scraps of one in a landfill to fly on her own without a license or any training. After months of work scavenging for the parts she needs to complete her plane though, she’s caught by the landfill’s security who tells her the landfill is to be demolished to the ground the next day.  Is she ready for takeoff though? The answer is completely unexpected.

“The Bird and the Whale” is an Irish short completely animated via a series of oil paintings slightly changed for each frame of animation. It’s like watching a painting come to life on a canvas, and each previous frame is completely destroyed by the next. It tells the sweet story of a young humpback whale who gets separated from its pod when it goes off to explore the wreckage of a ship where it finds a songbird in a cage floating among the debris. The 2 form a fast beautiful friendship even though the songbird remains caged.  The ending will break your heart.

“Hors Piste” is a French comical short that had the audience laughing to the point of tears. With a very 80s vibe in the title, the characters, and music, it tells the story of a skier injured atop a mountain. A 2-man team is sent via chopper to rescue the poor skier, but alas, somehow the chopper ends up at the bottom of the mountain without any passengers. It’s up to the rescue team to get the injured skier to safety even if they have to use his trellis wrapped body to do so?!

Finally, “Maestro,” a French short, closes things out with a photorealistic CGI impromptu flash concert of animals in the woods all conducted by a squirrel!  It’s from the same team that gave us the Oscar nominated short “Garden Party” from 2018. Again, we’re treated to a very lushly realistic depiction of animals in their natural habitat except they can sing opera.  It’s a treat for the eyes and a delight to the ears.