Oscar Nominated Short Animation

There’s no point in commenting on the big Oscar nominations unless you live in a place where all of the films have opened; to wit Los Angeles or New York. I’ve seen just three of the Best Picture nominees, of which Parasite was my favorite. (A Korean film has about as much chance of winning as a lone slice of pizza has of surviving a kegger.) I did see a program of Oscar-nominated short animation, plus several honorable mention entries. Here’s the dope:

One film is head and shoulders above the competition, but probably won’t win because it’s French. Mémorable (12 minutes, directed by Bruno Collet and Jean François Le Carre) is a Claymation production of an aging artist struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. If that sounds depressing, rest assured that it’s more poignant than heart-wrenching. The figures–the painter and his wife–are done with dappled Impressionist colors, akin to what was done in the stop-motion animated feature film Loving Vincent (2017). Trust me when I say you will find the film sad and beautiful. What better way to represent the long decline of an artist than to depict colorful drops dripping from his hands, rising into the air, and floating away? If you’ve never been around someone with dementia, lucky you. If you have, though, you will instantly relate to the dance between sublime moments of clarity followed by those in which they mind shatters like a thin crystal goblet knocked from its mental shelf. Though it’s just 12 minutes long, Mémorable is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.

My second favorite film was Sister (8 minutes, directed by Siqi Song). It’s another film that detours down a side road. This one uses boiled wool figures. We come in upon a young Chinese boy whose life as the apple of his parents’ eyes is disrupted by a new baby sister. The film is narrated by the boy as if he is sharing childhood memories about sibling rivalry. Then it dawns upon the viewer that under China’s one-child policy, there is no sister. Siqi Song gives us a unique perspective on loneliness.

If I had to pick the odds-on favorite for the Oscar, it would be Hair Love (7 minutes, directed by M. A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver). It has the elements Hollywood likes: cartoon animation, made in the USA, and African American characters. (Hollywood loves to throw PC bones to small films to ‘prove’ how culturally sensitive it is.) It wouldn’t be a travesty if this film were to win, though. It’s a very cute take on a dad who needs to comb and style his daughter’s hair while mom is in the hospital. Call it little girl/really big hair. We’re talking hair that has a mind of its own. Discovering why mom is in the hospital is an ah-gee moment. Hair Love crosses the border between sweet and saccharine a bit too often for my taste, but it’s a crowd pleaser.

If Hair Love doesn’t win, Kitbull (9 minutes, directed by Rosana Sullivan and Kathryn Hendrickson) probably will. Not because it’s all that good, but because: Pixar. Let me just say that I find Pixar cartoons obvious, annoying, and about as substantive as cotton candy. This one is about the unlikely friendship between a stray kitten and an abused pitbull. Yeah, whatever.

Dcera/Daughter (15 minutes, directed by Daria Kascheera) is certainly the dark horse, unless you think the Academy has been dying to honor a Czech papier-mâché production. It’s emotionally heavy–a daughter holding vigil at her father’s deathbed and sifting memories of times in which she had been unkind to him. I found the storyline a bit fragmented, but mostly I found the papier-mâché figures grotesque.


To round out full-length theater releases of such short material, the Academy includes Honorable Mentions. Three of these could have easily replaced Kitbull or Dcera. You can catch several of these on YouTube, including the hysterical Maestro (French, 2 minutes, directed by Florian Babakian). A bluebird sits on a branch and just when you think things will be too-too precious, the bird lifts her wing and blasts out an aria. Cue the squirrel conductor and a marsh full of animals for the chorus. The abrupt ending is tone perfect.

On a more touching note, Henrietta Bulkowski (16 minutes, directed by Rachel Johnson) is a stop-action fairytale-like story of a young woman afflicted by kyphosis. Her hunchback is so severe that she can only look down and must use a mirror to see behind her. If only she could become a pilot, she could see the world normally. Know any airline that would allow someone like Henrietta fly? Instead she seeks to salvage a junkyard wreck under the nose of Danny (voiced by Chris Cooper), who guards the grounds. Danny has his own challenges and Henrietta Bulkowski is ultimately a nice take on disabilities. The ending is a bit odd, though, and tilts toward cliché.

The Irish film The Bird and the Whale (7 minutes, directed by Carol Freeman) also suffers from cliché, tinged with Pixar-like schmaltz. An undersized whale calf who cannot sing is rejected by his pod. He swims alone and comes upon a shipwreck whose only survivor is a caged bird. The two become friends and ultimately the whale finds his voice. What, are we 10-years-old?

French animators were busy last year. Leo Brunel and three others directed Hors Piste (6 minutes), which features the most inept ski patrol duo of all time. Even their names are funny: Salami and Parmesan. Their “rescue” of a backwoods skier adds insult to injury, which is doled out through broad but hilarious slapstick. It’s basically a frozen version of sappy TV fare like Baywatch and might have fared better had it been made 4 decades ago. Its look is very 1980s. Still, I confess to laughing aloud–even at the obvious pranks.

Rob Weir


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is How Things Should Be

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by Frank Capra
Columbia, 130 minutes, Not-Rated (lots of gosh darns!)

Cynicism over American politics is nothing new. Even George Washington had his detractors. But let’s face it folks, we are living in deeply cynical times. Maybe Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is just the antidote we need.

This Frank Capra comedy/drama is a quintessential New Deal film, a delicious leftover from a time in which millions believed that government could solve their problems. President Franklin Roosevelt, though a wealthy man, often railed against the rich and those who sought to parlay political power into personal gain. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is based on a Lewis Fowler story titled “The Gentleman from Montana,” but no particular location is identified in the film other than “a Western state.”

The movie opens with a crisis for Governor Hubert “Happy” Hooper (Guy Kibble). One of his state’s U.S. Senators has died and Hooper is faced with appointing a new one. Like everyone else in the state and quite a few in Congress, Hooper is controlled by political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Taylor demands that Hooper appoint Henry Hill, who will go along with a scheme to build a dam in a recreational area that, not coincidentally, would make a tidy profit for Taylor and selected cronies. The plan goes slightly awry when Hooper’s six sons and all their pals pressure the governor to appoint their scout leader Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart). Hey, it’s 1939, so who’s going to go against a bunch of kids?

Hooper, Taylor, and the state’s other senator, Joe Paine (Claude Rains) aren’t worried. They see Smith as a gee-whiz rube, plus Smith worships Paine as an icon and mentor. They’re right about the rube part; Smith is in awe of Washington and whenever they or his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) can’t find him, he’s out sightseeing with star-spangled dust in his eyes. The Lincoln Memorial practically intoxicates Senator Smith. He’s so goofily patriotic that the news media laps it up and he’s too naïve to know he’s an object of ridicule. He’s the perfect foil for the Taylor machine. One small problem: Jefferson Smith has a conscience.

This sets the table for high drama. Paine will try various tricks and cajolery, including baiting Smith with his glamorous daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn). When all else fails, use blackmail, smear, and crucifixion. Soon, Smith goes from joke to villain but, by gum, Jeff Smith learned at the Lincoln Memorial that truth and principle are worth fighting for. Stewart’s filibuster is a legendary Hollywood scene, and Harry Carey’s role of the bemused president of the Senate provides lots of comic relief. Jean Arthur is also perfectly cast as a tough-skinned scoffer trying to recover her ideals.

The best way to enjoy Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is to surrender to its innocence. Historians are fond of saying, “It was a different time,” when discussing the past. Those who roll their eyes at the film’s wonderment and unfiltered patriotism are products of the jaded perspectives of the present. Like all Frank Capra screwball comedies, this one is broad. As in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart’s character isn’t meant to be taken literally; Stewart is an Everyman archetype. Nor are Capra’s films intended to snapshots of reality but, gosh darn it, they are the way things should be.

Early on I pegged Mr. Smith as a New Deal film. It, like numerous films from the 1930s, is an indirect reference to FDR. When the writer Tillie Olsen was asked decades later what she recalled of the Great Depression, she noted that it was a time in which ordinary people came to believe that the government was on their side. She gave Roosevelt credit for that. FDR was neither saint nor superhero, but wouldn’t it be nice to experience what Olsen felt? And wouldn’t it be nicer still if the government really was on the side of the masses rather than the asses?

 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 10 Oscars and only captured one. That went to Foster for Best Writing, Original Story, which is ironic as his “The Gentleman from Montana” went unpublished. Want to know why Mr. Smith didn’t win more? 1939 was an extraordinary year in cinema and Mr. Smith had to compete against Gone with the Wind, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz. As the years have passed, though, Mr. Smith has weathered better than optimism. The American Film Institute ranks it as #29 on its list of greatest American movies. Give it a watch. It sure beats cynicism.

Rob Weir


Ocean Vuong's Debut Novel Only Partly Compelling

On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous (2019)
By Ocean Vuong
Penguin, 256 pages.

As is often the case with art, reputation sometimes leads critics by the nose ring like so many bulls being chained to a post. On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous has been lavishly praised by reviewers, though reader comments have been mixed. Score one for the readers. This is a bittersweet novel that is filled with lovely poetic passages. Note the adjective “poetic.” Ocean Vuong is a brilliant poet whose Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016) staggered me. It also garnered numerous awards and Vuong was given a MacArthur “genius” grant. Had I never read his poetry or known his biography, I would have been more impressed by On Earth, his debut novel. As it is, I too have mixed feelings.

In brief, the 31-year-old Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). His grandfather is a white GI, and that spells trouble in postwar Vietnam. Racism is a universal problem and Vietnam’s version has a unique dimension. Under Vietnamese law, mixed race individuals are restricted to menial jobs; they are also ostracized by other Vietnamese. Because of discrimination, Vuong, his grandmother, mother, siblings, and two other relatives left and made their way to a Filipino refugee camp before immigrating to Hartford, Connecticut, when Ocean was just two-years-old. His mother worked in nail salons and Ocean, the first to gain English literacy, often acted as the ears, voice, and advocate for a household of women. (His grandfather tried to return to Vietnam, but Saigon fell to the communists. He returned to the States, married, and started a new family.)

You already know this if you’ve read the Night Sky poems. You also know of Vuong’s deep bonds with his grandmother, his sometimes-violent clashes with his mother, and of his openly gay identity. On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous isn’t really a novel; it is a thinly disguised autobiography. He is “Little Dog” in the novel, his mother is the illiterate Hong (“Rose”), Lan is his grandmother and primary role model, and Paul the man he comes to call “grandfather.” Little Dog grows up as an American boy in love with popular culture, fast food, rock music, and other such external accoutrements of Western capitalism. He is also the first-person narrator of two interlocking tales, both of which are structured as a letter to his mother.

The first is his investigation of what happened in Vietnam, a place he does not remember. This entails unveiling his grandmother’s tale–she a rural farm girl who performed occasional acts of prostitution to help her family until she met, fell in love with, and married an American GI. As noted, she didn’t get out before Saigon fell and her husband had no way of contacting her. For all he knew, she was dead. (There are several twists in this story that I will not spoil.)

The second part is more of a confessional. Little Dog has a summer job working on a Connecticut River tobacco farm owned by the family of a boy named “Trevor.” He’s of the classic American type one might label “bad boy.” Trevor smokes, uses drugs, and is prone to indolence; he is also Little Dog’s first lover and the one who opens the hidden door to same-sex desire. This part of the book is visceral and occasionally sexually graphic. There is a sort of coda in which summertime love yields to the passing of the seasons and a parting of ways on various ways (emotionally, intellectually, aspirationally).

There is an elegiac tone to Vuong’s novel, one whose sadness is thinly masked as regret, misty longing, melancholy, reservation, and ex post facto reflection. Such things yearn for a poetic touch and Vuong is certainly in his element in such matters. This is the kind of book that lends itself to pull-out passages of astonishingly beautiful imagery. There are, in my mind, no hard-fast requirements for what makes a book a work of fiction. It’s more like a sniff test, and On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is infused with an odor of contrivance. I found myself wondering why Vuong didn’t simply call it a memoir and be done with it.

Vuong’s command of language and his willingness to lay bare his soul are deeply moving. His skill is such that it’s hard to call this a failed novel. Ultimately, though, there is a flatness to its arc. The two halves are forced together with crinkly tape that fails to secure differently shaped stories that are less compatible on the page than in Vuong’s mind. What remains to be seen is how Vuong handles a novel in which he is not a Zelig-like protagonist. Can he allow his imagination to break free from autobiography?

Rob Weir