Outside of the occasional festival screening, Oscar season is often the only time many filmgoers engage with short film, so the nominees better make it count. An Oscar nomination means greater visibility for any film, but its impact is often exponential on short film. Now in its 18th year, ShortsTV offers audiences the chance to immerse themselves in the world of shorts, by giving all of the nominees a theatrical release. If viewers are willing to forego movie stars and step outside their comfort zones, they are in for a real treat.
The animated shorts may have leaned towards kids’ fare in the past, but the category has taken a turn in recent years. This year, only one short, Apple Original Films’ “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse” seems geared towards younger audiences. The rest skew far more mature, like “My Year of Dicks,” a hilarious trip through the hormonal brain of a teenager on a mission to lose her virginity. Other entries include a father and son affected by warming planet, an office worker living inside a simulation, and a sailor’s near death experience.
All in all, the nominees represent a wide range of human experiences told with a beautiful array of animation techniques. It’s a strong group with no real dud. Nonetheless, here’s a ranking of all five contenders.
At least one traditional animation offering must be recognized, and this year it’s a gracious morality tale about a young boy who finds his way home with the help of a motley group of animals. British illustrator and cartoonist Charlie Mackesy adapts his bestseller with the help of animator Peter Baynton, who enlisted the voice talents of Tom Hollander, Idris Elba, and Gabriel Byrne (apparently, female animals don’t exist in this picturesque tundra).
Using glowing yellows and calming blues over snowy white plains, the film doles out a litany of platitudes aimed at children. We are reminded of the importance of getting along across differences, being perfect just as you are, and home being where the heart is. It’s a lovely message, set against a beautiful backdrop.
Based on the true story of a sailor who survived the largest accidental explosion in history, this spirited short takes an abstracted view of a man’s life flashing before his eyes. The inciting incident took place in 1917, when two ships collided in the Halifax Harbor, sending one rough and tumble sailor flying in the air before landing safely, but without any clothes. Canadian animation duo Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, who were previously nominated in this category in 2011, imagine the sailor with a rotund physique and scowling countenance. Though the simple tale doesn’t exactly land anywhere transformative, it’s an amusingly original spin through some inventive imagery.
A jaunty sea shanty scores his heavy gait as he muscles his way through a knockdown brawl only to be stopped in his tough guy tracks by the tragic collision. As he flies through the air, he spins like a rotisserie chicken, his naked body rendering him innocent as a baby. Images from his life swim past; empty portholes, childhood games, and a mother’s concerned look. He eventually evolves into nothing but a pink circular form, floating into the vast unknown of the Milky Way, before he lands safely underwater, puffing through a still-lit cigarette.
The most visually striking film of the nominees, the hauntingly beautiful “Ice Merchants” is an elegiac family tale set on the side of a cliff. Incidentally, it also hails from the youngest filmmaker of the bunch, 27-year-old Portuguese filmmaker João Gonzalez, making “Ice Merchants” the first Portuguese film to earn an Oscar nomination. An illustrator and classically trained pianist as well, he composed the film’s affecting score.
Reminiscent of traditional Japanese illustration, Gonzalez’s distinctive style uses a limited palette of grays, reds, and blues, switching up the brightness for shading. He plays brilliantly with perspective, too, relaying a sweeping vertiginous scale of the film’s dramatic setting. The wordless story follows a father and son who live in a chilly cliffside shack hundreds of yards high, held up by a simple pulley system and staked into a massive sheet of ice. Every day, father straps his son to his chest before the duo parachute down to the local village. When the ice sheet begins to melt, they must make their daring escape. Beautiful to watch and visually inventive, “Ice Merchants” sets the bar high for the future of animation.
Tapping into a surrealist office ennui that is both timeless and depressingly au courant, this mouthful of a title is well worth the extra word count. Australian animator Lachlan Pendragon takes a cheeky look at the whole stop-motion animation apparatus, endowing his main character with self-awareness that leads to an existential crisis. Imagine an Aardman-esque figure taking the red pill, with the mundane office surroundings of “The Truman Show.”
An underperforming toaster salesman, cartoonish protagonist Neil is framed through a monitor within the frame, the first indication that something is up. When a cheerful truth-spitting ostrich tells him he’s living in a simulation, he falls down a literal rabbit hole into a box of his own replacement body parts. Hilarious and clever, with a healthy dose of the filmmaker’s own behind-the-curtain self-awareness, “Ostrich” is a refreshing comedy about the meaning of life.
The film with the catchiest and most provocative title don’t always win out, but in this case, the product delivers as advertised. This autobiographical comedy combines elements of documentary (and even some fuzzy VHS footage) for a nominally hybrid affair, though it’s primarily told through a few different styles of computer animation. Set in 1991, the 25-minute film follows a hormonal teenager’s quest to lose her virginity, and the various disappointing boys she encounters. Complete with a cringe-worthy sex talk from dad and a not-so-clandestine viewing of “Henry and June” (1990), “My Year of Dicks” offers a frank and realistic portrayal of a young woman fumbling towards sexual awakening.
Broken up into five chapters, the film is based on the memoir by Pamela Ribon, a prolific story writer on animated mega-hits like “Moana” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” Listed as writer/creator, Ribon collaborated with Icelandic director Sara Gunnarsdóttir to create a ribald feminist riff on a coming of age story. The most personal film of the group is also the funniest, combining traditional narrative elements with a playful animation style for an excitingly bold swing that really pays off. It should be required viewing in sex-ed classes, if those still exist.
The 2023 Oscar-nominated short films will be available in select theaters on Friday, February 17. Find participating theaters here.