While the lack of women nominated for Best Director in this year’s Academy Awards has frustrated many people, the nominees for Best Animated Short Film provide a welcome alternative: Three of the five were directed by women, and a fourth features a woman nominee among its producers. That’s not the only way this year’s nominees differ from more prominent categories. The nominees hail from different countries, and they apply a vast array of animation styles and sensibilities nothing like the Best Animated Feature contenders, all of which were released by major studios.
However, the shorts do share a striking overlap of thematic concerns. While they range in length from just under seven minutes to just over 16, they all focus on complex family bonds and their intimate emotional impact on a small set of characters. The tones range from lighthearted to dark and tragic, but all of them build to profound moments readymade to elicit tears from their audiences. And while two substantial nominees stand out as the frontrunners, they all provide satisfying experiences on their own terms.
Here’s a breakdown of the Oscar animated shorts, ranked from worst to best. Stay tuned for more coverage of the other short film categories.
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5. “Hair Love” (Matthew A. Cherry)
Sony Pictures Animation
The most upbeat entry among this year’s nominees, this mostly dialogue-free look at a young black girl whose father helps her with the thorny process of figuring out her hairdo follows a relatively straightforward trajectory. The Sony Pictures short — which screened last year before “Angry Birds 2” in theaters — started as a Kickstarter campaign, and later led to a children’s book adaptation. The title refers to a YouTube channel, hosted by the child’s mother, comprised of instructions for various tricky hairstyles. While her father is initially wary of helping out, the opportunity eventually provides a sweet bonding moment for the pair, undercut by a troubling revelation in the movie’s closing moments. Some black women have voiced concern that the short reiterates stereotypes associated with black women and their hair. However, “Hair Love” has a lot of industry support behind it — Cherry used to be an executive at Jordan Peele’s MonkeyPaw Productions — and the short’s gentle crowdpleasing quality means that it could be the upset of the category.
4. “Kitbull” (Rosana Sullivan)
Produced as part of Pixar’s SparkShorts program, which finances independent shorts by young Pixar artists, “Kitbull” provides the category with its obligatory “cute animals” story. It just happens that this is an exceptionally good one, readymade to appeal to cat and dog lovers alike. Another wordless entry, “Kitbull” finds a rowdy stray kitten attempting to survive a stormy night in a heap of trash, when it encounters a pitbull (get it?) being subjected to abusive owners. The animals are wary and even belligerent towards each other until they come to recognize they stand a better chance at improving their circumstances by joining forces, in a thrilling team-up that leads to the heartwarming adoption of the closing moments. From a narrative standpoint, “Kitbull” doesn’t break any new rules, but the 2-D animation style manages to transform the off-putting contrast of the minuscule cat with the giant canine into an endearing opposites-attract vignette. It’s not a frontrunner, but if there was an Oscar for most adorable nominee, “Kitbull” would see a landslide victory.
3. “Sister” (Siqi Song)
The most outwardly personal nominee in this category is another compelling tale of broken family bonds, in this case one tied to broader historical concerns. While Nanfu Wang’s documentary “One Child Nation” failed to land a nomination in the non-fiction category, the reverberations of China’s one-child policy (which lasted from 1979 – 2015) make an appearance in this affecting mini-memoir. Unfolding in the early nineties, the short revolves around a fictional man recalling his experiences with his younger troublemaking younger sister, only to reveal in the closing moments that she never existed: His parents were forced to abort their pregnancy during his childhood. The playful black-and-white memories leading up to this revelation all stem from the way he has imagined a sibling over the years. The inky visuals suggest the frayed pages of an old family album or 16mm home movies, furthering the intimacy on display, and deepening the emotional impact as the full scope of the project comes into focus. “Sister” isn’t quite as sophisticated as some of the other nominees, but its connection to history means that it wouldn’t be a total surprise winner in this very strong category.
2. “Daughter” (Daria Kashcheeva)
Moscow-born filmmaker Kashcheeva’s moody stop-motion drama was produced as her graduation film for Prague’s FAMU film school. The wordless 15-minute story follows a woman who attempts to reconnect with her estranged father on his hospital bed, while stumbling through old memories of her childhood. The flashback finds the girl encountering a dead bird and attempting to show it to her father, who ignores her; years later, that memory manifests in the hospital room with stirring, magical results that provide her with some measure of closure as she confronts her father’s imminent death. The 2-D animation has a foggy, gothic quality pitched somewhere between nightmarish possibilities and storybook awe, thanks in large part to the innovative way that Kashcheeva combines different animation methods. Her paper-mache figures have an eerie, discarded quality, as if hovering in distant memory banks, while the stop-motion is energized by a jittery, handheld style that injects an unusual degree of realism into the fantastical setting. Though the meandering plot verges on monotonous by its end, Kashcheeva’s ability to transform a familiar template into powerful abstract moments means that “Daughter” stands a good chance of winning many voters over — it’s one of the two most likely winners.
1. “Memorable” (Bruno Collet)
The indisputable frontrunner of the category, French director Collet’s visually complex character study revolves around a painter stricken with Alzheimer’s and slowly losing touch with his surroundings. Inspired by the experiences of painter William Utermohlen, the short tracks the man’s gradual disconnect from his surroundings, as his entire universe — including his own body — devolves into a complex mesh of painterly goo, while his lifelong romance fades into a vanishing palette. Produced with a sophisticated blend of stop-motion puppetry and visual effects, the short feels at once intimate and enigmatic, lost in the murky contours of its senile subject. While certainly the most depressing nominee, “Memorable” is the one that does the best job of synthesizing the many art forms that animation provides — it’s a genuine visual art project infused with humanity that never loses touch with either side of that equation. It’s also one of two longer nominees (at 12 minutes, it’s just behind “Daughter”) and never wastes a frame.
ShortsTV will release the 2020 Oscar nominated short films on more than 500 screens across the United States on January 31, 2020.