The routine disappointment that comes with every year’s Academy Awards’ nominees slate was especially magnified this year, when the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book would seem to have taken spots from quote unquote better films like First Reformed and If Beale Street Could Talk. I know the conversation surrounding Bohemian Rhapsody in particular has called to question its technical merits. The Twitter video of its incoherent editing stirred up a lively debate on the matter – the film, bewilderingly, won an American Cinema Editing Eddie award over the past weekend. Though one has to remember that the Academy Awards has never and will never be a barometer of taste or quality. The very concept of quality itself fluctuates and the nominees, like with any other year, reflect an impossible number of intangibles; intangibles rooted in $$$ above all.
Yet parse through the nominees list and there’s usually plenty worth vouching for, and 2019 is no different. As with most years, the most eclectic set of nominees tend to be centralized in the shorts categories, with this year’s Animated Shorts nominees making up for the best the category has been in a decade.
The least appealing of the quintet is Alison Snowden and David Fine’s Animal Behaviour. The film involves a cadre of animals in a therapy session, in what amounts to a fairly rote examination on how therapy can make a specimen out of its subjects. It’s facile, not especially insightful, terribly didactic, but mercifully brief. Something like Charlie Tyrell’s My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes would’ve been an inspired replacement, but as there’s usually a slot dedicated to more child-friendly animation, Animal Behaviour fulfills the prerequisite without being especially grating.
Domee Shi’s Bao (Noteworthy) is Pixar’s annual inclusion to the category and is predictably beautifully animated – the subtle use of lighting in the film’s final minute is especially gorgeous. Its depiction of empty nest syndrome and a mother’s attempts to reconcile her grief are well-intentioned and rendered with good humor. It’s easily the best of Pixar’s animated shorts since The Blue Umbrella, though it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Day & Night or Partly Cloudy.
Parental grief ends up becoming the prevailing theme that emerges from the category’s offering, with Louise Bagnall’s Late Afternoon (Highly Recommended) examining an elderly woman’s plunges into memory as she recalls passages of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Bagnall’s a standby on Cartoon Saloon’s roster of animators and her work here is profoundly moving as she swiftly moves from past and present with a visual diction of the highest order.
Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas’ One Small Step (Recommended) details a young girl’s interest in astronomy, with her father, a cobbler, supporting her along the way. Eschewing dialogue, the film relies on a moving score to motivate the action, which hits all the grace notes you’d expect. It’s a tender, sweet film, if not terribly obvious in its intentions. Chesworth and Pontillas are Disney standby animators and it’s clearly demonstrated here, though it’s so successful within its limited ambition that it’s hard to really fault it.
Yet my favorite film of the bunch is Trevor Jimenez’ Weekends (Highly Recommended). Detailing a child’s experience as he’s schlepped to his father’s city apartment on weekends and returns to his mother’s suburban enclave during the weekday, the film is utterly devastating in its tiny observations and visual breath. While thematically reminiscent of Paul Dano’s directorial debut from 2018, Wildlife, Jimenez’ animation style reminded me of Craig Thompson’s 2003 graphic novel, Blankets. There’s a busy sketch-book quality to how the characters move within the frame, yet it’s modulated within some beautifully rendered backdrops that keep the images from ever seeming too hurried – i.e., it beckons the memory of some of Bill Plympton’s films, though not as overwhelmingly sensory. Rooted in some very vivid and obviously personal memories, Jimenez has crafted one of those rare shorts that harnesses its brevity to its advantage, challenging its audience to confront clinical truths about their past and family. Weekends is the best short I’ve seen since Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow and certainly one of the best films to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2019.