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An Unofficial Guide to the 2023 Best Animated Short Oscar Nominees

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to comment on more Oscar-nominated animated films. Fortunately, I invested far less time in this category than the last, as my screening of all five of these clocked in at just over 90 minutes. Once again, as is true for the Academy voters, my thoughts are entirely subjective no matter how much I dress them up with supposedly objective facts.


And the nominees are…


The Claytrix

The brain-in-the-vat, the idea that we are all living in a constructed dimension and actual reality is virtually inaccessible, is a trendy metaphysical theory popularized by, among other things, The Matrix (1999). This is the central motif of An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It (Australia), this year’s only stop-motion nominee in the short category. The 11-minute film follows Neil, who is stuck in an office job monotonously telemarketing toasters. He begins to find discrepancies in his reality, such as his boss’ face falling apart or his colleague working without a desk, explainable by the fact that his world is a stop-motion construction. His bewilderment understandably increases when an ostrich shows up to tell him that he is living in a lie.


Director Lachlan Pendragon’s movie features characters that, although plastic, look like clay figures (a la Wallace and Gromit), evoking a sense of timelessness in the modern office setting. Pendragon’s meta concept is taken one brilliant step further by having the outer third of the frame be taken up by the actual animators reaching in to perform their craft – for much of the movie, the audience views Neil’s story on an articulating screen (the small screen connected to the side of a digital camera) that takes up the center two-thirds of the frame. Many scenes are played for laughs but the overall effect is freaky. As with The Matrix, we extrapolate the theory proposed by the film into our reality. What if, like Neil, I’m living in a constructed world? Did some Director (for lack of a better concept, God) set me up to be an actor on stage? And diegetically, Neil is not even part of a film but a stop-motion commercial for Ostrich Furniture. Are we living in God’s commercial?


Watch An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It on Vimeo if you want your mind blown, in a vat.


Sailor Moon

Apparently, when you are caught in the impact radius of an explosion, your clothes will be ripped off but you can keep smoking your cigarette. As the film’s preface states, The Flying Sailor (Canada) fictionalizes the shocking true story of a sailor blown skyward by an explosion from a collision of ships. Directors Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby craft a stream-of-consciousness narrative of the life that flashes before our eyes in the near-death experience. The dialogue-less film is effective for its mix of animation styles, which includes animation with live sets. The sailor (usually VERY naked) is always a 2-D hand drawing, whereas the harbor ships are 3-D. Fragments of the sailor’s memories involve hand-drawn objects moving on top of a live-action table or within a real prairie. These elements come together to evoke the imperfection, the seeming randomness, and the rapid pace of adrenaline-induced memory.


Find The Flying Sailor on The New Yorker’s YouTube channel.


Tom Cruise’s Retirement Plan

Ice Merchants (Portugal) is this year’s winner for nominee that best channels Hayao Miyazaki. A man and his son’s daily routine involves skydiving from their home on a high mountain cliff, losing their hats in the process, so that they can sell their harvested ice in town. I could watch the shimmering hand-drawn animation play itself out all day without dialog, much like I do with Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli gems, and that is exactly what director João Gonzalez allows you to do in Ice Merchants. Simply and poignantly colored, this film’s heart is a reflection of daily life after tragic loss and a reminder that the ones we lose can come back to us in the darkest times.


Ice Merchants is available on The New Yorker’s website.


The Little Prince’s Origin Story

The next time a child asks you to read them a book before bed, set up a TV in their room and show them The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse (UK). My first thought reading the title was that I would never remember it, but the movie made sure to imprint it on my mind by making me fall in love with each of the four characters in turn: the Boy, lost and alone in a wintry countryside who begins collecting animal friends like a Pokemon trainer; the Mole, his instant faithful companion and cake enthusiast; the Fox, a quiet and timid loner; and the Horse, the most majestic and wise of the unlikely group. The four face frightening challenges in their journey to find a home, and through these learn the incalculable value of each others’ companionship.


Peter Baynton directs alongside the writer of the film’s storybook source material, Charlie Mackesy. Baynton and Mackesy create a style that mimics the imperfect outlines of drawn characters against gorgeous watercolor backdrops filled with rolling hills of snow. One of the most stunning features of this nominee’s animation is the realism of the animals’ movements; the Fox performs all the sniffing and swerving of a curious canine, and the beautiful Horse’s gaits are spot on. These elements serve a fable for adults dressed as a children’s storybook, the closest relative being Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s literary classic The Little Prince, a whimsical story featuring pointed truths about politics, obsession, romance, and death. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse contains similarly pointed truisms that all center on a theme of anti-depression (“One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things;” “Always remember, you’re enough. Just as you are;” “What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” – “Help.”).


Grab a box of tissues and watch The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse on Apple TV+.


Ramona Flowers’ Origin Story

I debated on whether or not I would even try to come up with a gag title for a film already called My Year of Dicks (USA), but the above title ended up writing itself. Split into five chapters featuring five attempts, the movie follows teenager Pam as she tries desperately to lose her virginity. The major obstacle she faces is that all of the boys she attempts to seduce are, to use the colloquial term, dicks, and she’s not having it.


Director Sara Gunnarsdóttir delivers Pam’s story with hand-drawn, softly colored animation and retro flair matching its ‘90s setting. Each vignette includes a style of its own matching the character of the target boy, the most unique going full anime for a chapter titled “The Sweet One.” The movie is based on the published memoirs of Pamela Ribon (Notes to Boys: And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public) and works as a counter-argument to human civilization’s oldest lie: that women don’t like sex as much as men. It’s also a coming-of-age story in which the woman coming of age learns to take ownership of her sexuality.


My Year of Dicks can be accessed on Vimeo.


And the Oscar goes to…

Out of the movies on this list, only one fills me with the kind of warmth I get from a steaming mug of hot cocoa – The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. It’s also the only one in which Tom Hollander, Idris Elba, and Gabriel Byrne take turns reminding me how to feel good about myself, thus winning my vote for Best Animated Short.


-Josh

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