For the past several years, the IFC Center in New York has been showing Oscar-nominated shorts in the animation, live action, and documentary categories. This has been a great opportunity to experience works we might otherwise not know much about. Earlier this week I saw the program of animated shorts. Of the five nominated, my clear favorite is Paperman, which has already received a lot of play, having been shown in theaters with Wreck-It Ralph last year. Paperman has a retro look — black and white with 2D animation that appears to have been actually drawn rather than computer generated — which is announced immediately by the Walt Disney Animation Studios logo at the head with an inset image of Mickey Mouse from the landmark 1928 cartoon, Steamboat Willie. This is a direct connection to Disney’s past and the cartoon that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. Paperman, the first film directed by John Kahrs, has a lot of heart and feeling. In under seven minutes it tells the story of a young man and woman in what looks to be New York in the 1940s, who meet by chance on an elevated subway platform, are immediately separated, and — no surprise! — reunited at the end. There’s an appealing Buster Keatonish aspect to the young man’s frustrated efforts to reconnect with the young woman using paper airplanes. Paperman is a wonderful film, and here it is.
At less than two minutes, Fresh Guacamole is the shortest film ever nominated for an Academy Award. It was made by Adam Pespane, who goes by the name of PES. I’d not heard of him before, but this guy is amazing. He’s been making incredibly inventive stop-motion films since 2001, when he unleashed his first film, Roof Sex, in which two easy chairs have a passionate, no-holds-barred encounter on a New York City rooftop. Caution: This film depicts graphic chair-on-chair sex.
In 2004 PES made KaBoom!, a war film showing a bombing raid on a tiny city using children’s toys and other ordinary objects in very unordinary ways. It makes an effective anti-war statement, or maybe more of a comment than a statement.
His Oscar-nominated film this year, Fresh Guacamole, shows how to make guacamole using materials such as hand grenades and baseballs. It’s brainy and amusing, but doesn’t have much substance beyond showing how clever it is. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun, and I’m glad a film with this kind of spirit could get nominated.
Head Over Heels (10 min.), directed by Timothy Reckart in the UK, is the only nominated animated film not from the United States, which seems a little odd to me. Surely there’s great animation being done in other countries as well. Along with Fresh Guacamole, this claymation film is the most conceptually unusual of the nominees. After a long marriage, Walter and Madge no longer see eye to eye — literally, since what’s up for Walter is down for Madge. The laws of gravity don’t apply; Walter’s ceiling is Madge’s floor. During the course of the film they take tentative steps to reconcile. The trailer gives a sense of what this looks like and how it works.
Adam and Dog (16 min.), directed by Minkyu Lee, is a very interesting film about the first dog’s efforts to become the first man’s best friend in the Garden of Eden. Where they are and who they are isn’t spelled out in so many words, but it becomes obvious rather quickly. There’s also a tasteful honesty in the way Adam, and later Eve, are shown to be anatomically correct, but without drawing attention to it. The animation is quite beautiful.
Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare” (5 min.) I love The Simpsons, and it’s nice seeing the perpetually ageless Maggie get her own story for a change. At the Ayn Rand Daycare Center (nice touch), instead of being put in the “Gifted Area” where she longs to be, Maggie is deposited in a dreary room called “Nothing Special,” where she tries to protect butterflies from demonic, beetle-browed Baby Gerald, who only wants to smash them against the wall with a mallet. The Longest Daycare is fun, though it seems rather slight for an Oscar nomination. Or maybe I’ve gotten so used to seeing the Simpsons world on television that this doesn’t seem new enough.
Last year’s Oscar winner in this category, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, was a truly remarkable, beautifully rendered 15 minute film using a combination of traditional hand-drawn techniques, miniatures, and computer animation. I was particularly interested to learn that the character of Morris Lessmore was visually based on hero of mine, Buster Keaton. The film deservedly received fourteen awards, including the Oscar. If you’ve not seen it before, or want to see it again, here’s your chance.
I want to end by highlighting another short film, the virtually unclassifiable Plastic Bag. It was never nominated for an Oscar and isn’t even animated, but I’m including it here because it’s such a great film, and I don’t think many people know about it. Plastic Bag was made in 2009 by the American-born Iranian director, Ramin Bahrani, whose first two features, Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007), have received international acclaim and numerous awards. The film relates the journey of a plastic kitchen bag in a search for its Maker and the meaning of its life, told by the bag itself in commentary spoken by Werner Herzog. This is, of course, an absurdly fanciful premise, but one that’s taken seriously here. Plastic Bag aspires to achieve a spiritual dimension and a kind of transcendence, and by the time the film is over it very nearly gets there. Herzog’s mesmerizing narration, extraordinary photography by Michael Simmonds (no digital effects were used), and evocative music by Kjartan Sveinsson, help give poetic life and sadness to an everyday object made to be discarded. I was surprised to be as moved as I was by the end. It’s quite an achievement to find the human spirit in a plastic bag and not be joking. – Ted Hicks