Every year the Oscars deal with the same old problem, nominating and often rewarding a string of independent (or at least independent-minded) movies that most moviegoers, the casual lot, never see. That problem is compounded in the short subject categories, which typically consist of films that are rarely, if ever, screened in theaters. If your eyes glaze over when the short subject categories are presented at the Oscars, you’re in luck: for the past few years, the short-subject movies have been screened together in select theaters, giving audiences a chance to discover the often-remarkable work being done by some of cinema’s most unsung artists.
This year, the Academy Award nominated short films are being screened at two theaters – the Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles and the Regency South Coast Village 3 in Orange County – but if you’re one of the millions of people who don’t live close to either of those theaters, we’ve got a breakdown of all the animated short subjects below. It’s a really remarkable crop this year – not a bad film in the bunch –and they’re all worth checking out if you have the opportunity. But which one is the best, if I really had to pick? Let’s find out together, in alphabetical order…
Adam and Dog (dir. Minku Lee)
Adam and Dog tells the story of man’s first encounter with a faithful canine, beautifully realized in a style evoking the best works of Studio Ghibli. It’s a remarkable short film, lusciously animated and deceptively simple, with the humanity’s Biblical fall from grace told entirely from the perspective of the world’s first dog. The audience only has a few signifiers to keep them abreast of the larger narrative, with man’s first encounter with a canine followed by his first encounter with a woman, eventually leading to an unsettling image of Adam and Eve hurriedly escaping Eden fully clothed. The dog has no idea what’s going on, and only knows that he wants to be loved, and that heartbreak is palpable. Adam and Dog is a powerful movie that sticks with you long after the credits run.
Fresh Guacamole (dir. Adam Pesapane)
Fresh Guacamole is a plotless short subject from Adam Pesapane, aka “Pes,” who is currently prepping a remake of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, if you can believe it. The film depicts the making of a bowl of guacamole, with other, similar-looking items standing in for the typical ingredients. A grenade is chopped up instead of avocado, a baseball stands in for the onion (with six-sided dice as the diced up onion pieces), the list goes on. Fresh Guacamole looks remarkable, but if there’s any deeper meaning to this non-narrative, it’s a very abstract one. This is the thinnest, shortest animated short nominated this year, and although it’s enjoyable, it’s by far the least interesting.
Head Over Heels (dir. Timothy Reckart)
The greatest animated short nominated this year is probably Head Over Heels, a heartfelt film about an old married couple living in the same house but in different worlds. Director Timothy Reckart illustrates this divide with an exciting metaphor, in which the husband lives on the floor of the house and the wife lives on the roof; or maybe it’s the other way around. When one last attempt to rekindle their relationship goes awry, the couple’s whole world comes literally crashing down. The attention to detail in Head Over Heels is staggering, particularly for a stop-motion animated movie, with the subtle day-to-day motions of this unusual living situation coming across in every frame. There may be an impressive crop of animated shorts this year, but Head Over Heels is the most fully realized of the whole bunch. Flawless.
Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare (dir. David Silverman)
The Simpsons earn their first Oscar nomination in this impressively funny adventure, which stars young Maggie in an Ayn Rand-inspired daycare center, struggling to keep a butterfly safe from her arch-nemesis, the unibrowed Baby Gerald. It’s no exaggeration to say that Maggie Simpson in the Longest Daycare is the best thing to come out “The Simpsons” in many, many years, with tiny, hilarious jokes littering every shot and impressively silent, coherent and emotional storytelling throughout. Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare played in front of the middling feature film Ice Age: Continental Drift, and was almost worth the price of admission on its own.
Paperman (dir. John Kars)
You may have seen Paperman in theaters last year, when it ran in front of the also-Oscar nominated animated feature Wreck-It Ralph. A young man happens upon a pretty woman at a train station, but right when he thinks he’s lost sight of her forever, he spies her in a building opposite his oppressive office complex. To get her attention, he starts using every piece of soul-sucking paperwork available to build paper airplanes to fly through her window. His pluck, ingenuity and increasing desperation are infectious, but ultimately futile because Paperman doesn’t have enough confidence in its characters to let them solve their own problems. When magic sets in to get our heroes together, it’s a dazzling image but a dramatically unsatisfying device with no set-up. This hero is so engaged and motivated that I was never convinced his cause was hopeless, so the outlandish miracle that saves the day plays like an unnecessary deus ex machina instead of a glorious and divine last-minute cavalry charge. Paperman isn’t a bad short, but it’s the weakest of the bunch because of its inconsistency. The impressive black and white animation, with just a sprinkle of color, and the sweeping score by Christophe Beck (The Muppets) almost hide its flaws. Almost.