Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1988 to the present, many of which were worth the hunt. The eight nominees for Best Picture of the Pandemic Year may pose more of a viewing challenge…
Each year since 2009 my wife Anne and I have paid a visit to our city’s singular, fully dedicated art-film theater to view the big-screen release of the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film. Results vary each time and aren’t always for all audiences, but we appreciate this opportunity to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether we agree with their collective opinions or not.
This year’s environment threw a wrench into the works. On the bright side, by the end of the pandemic Indianapolis may have as many as three such theaters to its credit if our old standby and the two hopeful newcomers can stay solvent till then. On the downside…well, there’s that notorious pandemic. Unlike certain Best Picture producers we could denigrate here, the folks at Shorts.tv, which packages the nominees for theatrical release each year, realizes not everyone is ready for theaters yet, and won’t be for a good while to come, not even for Oscars season. In their benevolent cognizance they made special arrangements to let email followers of participating theaters rent streaming access to this year’s shorts for a limited time and a fair price, with the respective theaters receiving a cut of our proceeds. Those theaters get a little help living a little longer, and in exchange so do we.
Our annual shorts rundowns begin with the Animated Short Film nominees. I’d offer links to watch them if I could, but nominees in this category are traditionally removed from their previous posts until sometime after the awards are over. I also usually rank them, but this year’s lineup were so apples-and-oranges that I’m sticking with unhelpful alphabetical order because no one’s forcing me to rank things and in this case I don’t feel like it. Onward!
* Burrow: The mandatory Disney nominee is from Pixar’s “Sparkshorts” series and is of course available on Disney+. One eager bunny’s dreams of underground homeownership hit multiple snags when he fails to heed the boundaries of his new neighbors’ yards. In his defense, they’re impossible to see until he accidentally tunnels into them and creates all sorts of awkwardness. One mistake in particular threatens the structural integrity of everyone around him, but this is the kind of optimistic fantasy where all the neighbors know each other, get along, and even pitch in whenever someone else is in trouble, even if it’s their own fault. This klutzy rabbit is lucky they’re all a rather affable lot with fidgety charms like Beatrix Potter doing Pokemon and don’t see him as food, let alone prey on him for endangering them.
* Genius Loci: Dictionary.com defines the eponymous term as “the prevailing character or atmosphere of a place”. It’s challenging to nail down what’s prevailing in this particular “place” where the troubled protagonist filters everything through a chaotic worldview that radically shifts each moment between assorted post-1900 art movements. (Cubism! Dadaism! African movements I’m unqualified to distinguished! And so on!) Our young lady leaves her family’s place to go hang out with friends in the city, where nothing is as it seams, but rather how it feels to her within her fluid, sometimes discombobulated reality. And there may or may not be dogs. French director/co-writer Adrien Merigeau worked on past nominees such as The Secret of Kells but here works in a nonrepresentational spirit that in my mind feels more akin to Don Hertzfeldt minus the SF bent, with less skeptical bemusement and more sympathetic to the search for something resembling stability.
* If Anything Happens I Love You: A Netflix Original about a couple devastated by the death of their daughter, separated by grief while their shadows watch helplessly, remembering how they used to act toward each other and wishing they could offer consolation. Memories of good times slowly resurface, walled off behind one tragic moment that may take years to bypass, if ever. The trailer spoils the hot-button cause of death (so does the title, if you think too hard where you might’ve heard it before) that can jolt viewers out of the film who think it’s either too soon, too wrenching, or too partisan. I’m sure the victim’s families have opinions, not to mention exactly the sort of disconnection that rends families and countries asunder in equal, painful measure. The nonlinear storytelling approach dulls the potential impact, though, not unlike a lot of TV shows that love kicking off every episode with “One Week Earlier…” setups.
* Opera: The complete short from beginning to end is a single, contemplative tracking shot of a voluminous, mountainous, frenetic stick-figure microcosm of the entire history of the world — its interlocking, concurrent civilizations and movements, its dueling cyclical natures, its destructive tendencies, its regressions into old patterns, and its striking similarities among its seemingly disparate jigsaw pieces. Watching clips of it would technically spoil the experience, but mastermind Erick Oh (a Pixar veteran veering light years beyond their borders here) has posted pieces of it on Instagram that hint at its staggering complexity, albeit with considerable assembly required. Anyone who’s ever read Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library now has the chance to see its peculiar, formerly unique nature writ larger and tinier and busier and all the more maddeningly awesome for it.
* Yes-People: Straight out of Iceland comes this stop-motion mini-tapestry woven from slice-of-life invocations of the word “yes” in multiple contexts, inflections, and consequences, from the years-later regrets of a single misplaced “yes” to livelier, bawdier affirmatives that can be exchanged in one’s golden years if its sharers have still “got it”. It’s the only word spoken, and it says a mouthful every time.
Each year the theatrical Animated Short Film program also includes “Highly Commendable” bonuses to fill out the runtime to an acceptable length for the ticket price. This year the folks at Shorts.tv provided three extra cartoons from the original pre-nomination shortlist. At 97 minutes the total Animated Shorts program wasn’t a bad deal for the quality offered. Those bonus offerings, then:
* Kapaemahu: A while back I was surprised to learn Hawaiian was on the endangered language list for years, which seems utterly wrong. Educational efforts have been underway to keep it alive and well for future generations to remember and even embrace — efforts such as this very tale told entirely in Olelo Niihau (the most persistent version of the language) about a legendary quartet of dual-spirited ancestral figures whose spiritual benevolence is celebrated by a stone monument on Waikiki Beach. With an assist from an animation director previously nominated in this category for a short called “Feral”, and with a vibrancy that matches the narration for historical poignancy, it’s the one bonus pick I’m most surprised missed the cut.
* The Snail and the Whale: The animators who brought us previous nominees and near-nominees “The Gruffalo”, “The Gruffalo’s Child”, “Room on the Broom”, and “Revolting Rhymes”, UK studio Magic Light Pictures adapts yet another children’s book, this time about a snail (Sally Hawkins from Shape of Water) gets tired of everyday snail life and decides some hitchhiking is in order. Along comes a whale (Rob Brydon from “The Gruffalo”) to offer his tail as a ferry and take the snail on an oceanic tour. Cute, cuddly sightseeing ensues with mild touches of danger including but not limited to pesky sharks and a whale’s worst enemy: a beach. Uncommon parents who anxiously comb each year’s Animated Shorts program for child-friendly fare will find this one a passable babysitter. Classic TV fans will appreciate the kindly rhyming narrator, the late Dame Diana Rigg in one of her final projects.
* To: Gerard: I believe this one’s available on Peacock, which I keep forgetting we have in our house. DreamWorks Animation came this close to getting in the Oscar ring against Pixar with this touching story of a stage magician superfan who wanted to be like his idol, stayed an average schmuck like the rest of us who are geeks about anything, and then in his humdrum mailroom job has a chance encounter with a youngster who may just become his very first fan…if he can get over his initial self-absorbed impulses. An endearingly told encouragement for fans of stuff to welcome and foster new generations of fans and professionals poised to inherit their favorite hobby.