The year’s heavyweight animation festivals threw up some very interesting winners. Animafest Zagreb awarded Shoko Hara’s Just a Guy, a searingly candid stop-motion documentary portrait of three women — including Hara herself — who formed intimate relationships with serial murderer and rapist Richard Ramirez. Kangmin Kim’s KKUM won at Ottawa Int’l Animation Festival; the film, a touching tribute to the director’s mother and her prescient dreams, was made with a single styrofoam puppet for a total, that Kim claims to be, $80. Annecy Festival awarded Homeless Home, the latest ghoulish social satire from Alberto Vázquez, Spain’s master of the macabre.
All three films are bold, characterful, and unorthodox. It’s hard to imagine any of them getting much traction with Academy voters, whose tastes don’t always align with those of festival juries.
The festival circuit awarded many other distinctive works. We’ve already written about Kids, Michael Frei’s mischievous game-film-installation hybrid, which won at Berlin’s Interfilm. Toomas Beneath the Valley of the Wild Wolves is another ribald comic oddity from Chintis Lundgren; it won at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. Kapaemahu, an atmospheric retelling of a Hawaiian legend, picked up qualifying prizes at numerous festivals. Maryam Mohajer’s Grandad was a Romantic, this year’s Bafta winner, contains the best punchline we’ve seen in any film in a long while.
Although the eventual nominee list always contains some shorts that qualified through festivals, the statuette often ends up going to a big-studio production — increasingly so in recent years. These studio shorts generally qualify through public exhibition.
Pixar’s young Sparkshorts program continues to produce shorts at a fast clip. These films often serve as a test bed for progressive social themes the studio hasn’t tackled before. Contenders this year include Out, a sweet, slapstick short about a gay man who’s emboldened to come out to his parents after he dons a magic dog collar. Then there’s Burrow, which we understand is hand-drawn; it will be released on Disney+ on December 25.
Meanwhile, Dreamworks continues to run its equivalent program, Dreamworks Shorts. Its entry this year, To: Gerard, tells the story of a veteran postal worker with a knack for magic tricks. The director is Dreamworks story artist Taylor Meacham, who describes the film as a love letter to his father.
A big development this year is Netflix’s arrival in the field. For the first time, it has acquired animated shorts — three in all — which it will submit to the Oscars. They are If Anything Happens I Love You, from writer-directors Will McCormack (Toy Story 4) and Michael Govier (Conan); Cops and Robbers, directed by Timothy Ware-Hill (Kinky Boots tour) and Arnon Manor (director, Mondays web series); and Canvas, a passion project from former Pixar animator Frank E. Abney III (who executive-produced last year’s Oscar-winning short Hair Love). Netflix’s marketing muscle means it is likely to make its mark on the race.
Another key player in this race is the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), the country’s powerhouse public producer of film and digital media. The NFB’s animated shorts are stylistically and thematically eclectic, often pushing the boundaries of the medium; in Oscar campaigning, the organization’s resources give its films an edge over most of its indie rivals. Its entries this year include Andreas Hykade’s Altötting (which we previously covered) as well as The Great Malaise, a gnomic study of anxiety by illustrator Catherine Lepage; and I, Barnabé, Jean-François Lévesque’s virtuosic stop-motion short about a suicidal priest, which deftly mixes mediums.
The 93rd Academy Awards will be held on April 25, 2021.
Images at top, left to right: “KKUM,” “I, Barnabé,” “Cops and Robbers.”