The thing that sucked about Quibi is that a streaming service dedicated to short films is honorable in theory. The short is a criminally undervalued art form, too frequently condescended to as mere launchpads to making “real movies.” Meshes of the Afternoon, La Jetée, World of Tomorrow, The House Is Black, and countless others are essential works in and of themselves.
So it’s with a sense of eternal shame and hypocrisy that I sit down each year to watch the annual roundup of the Academy’s Oscar nominated short subjects, once more embarrassed by my inability to follow the goings-on of a cinematic landscape populated with unsung treasures.
And while the animation category is often a seemingly arbitrary grab-bag in terms of style and content, this year’s crop in particular is abnormally compelling, perhaps speaking to the shake-ups in Academy membership in recent years that have resulted in stuff like Drive My Car and The Worst Person in the World appearing in major categories once reserved for Harvey Weinstein-backed fare. That Animated Short was among the eight categories cut from this year’s live broadcast is something of a one step forward, two steps back deal.
This year’s slate opens with the handsomely produced Robin Robin (available on Netflix), a charming if bland entry by Aardman Animations (of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep fame) whose inclusion seems more like a cruel practical joke when juxtaposed with what’s to come. A clumsy Robin (Bronte Carmichael) raised by mice teams up with a Magpie (Richard E. Grant) to steal a Christmas tree ornament. Songs are sung (including, bizarrely, a riff on Mr. Burns’s “Be Our Guest” parody, “See My Vest”), lessons learned. Gillian Anderson voices a menacing house cat. It’s fine.
Boxballet (not yet streaming) is what Frank Miller’s golem Marv might have been had the Robocop 2 writer been in a better mood at the time. A damaged boxer and ballerina fall in love, finding a shared physical and social exploitation endemic to both sports. A date at an art museum set to dance music is the emotional highlight of the bunch.
Affairs of the Art (available on YouTube) is a continuation of Joanna Quinn’s short films centered around Beryl (Menna Trussler), a middle-aged factory worker and compulsive struggling artist. Beryl first appeared in Quinn’s 1987 short Girls Night Out, a misadventure involving a male stripper. This latest entry explores the idiosyncrasies of Beryl’s family, from her taxidermy obsessed sister to her doting nude husband, subject to various Jackassian indignities in the name of the avant-garde. This was my first exposure to Quinn’s filmography, and I look forward to rectifying that.
The genuinely upsetting Bestia (available on Vimeo) is a surrealist short inspired by Íngrid Olderöck, a member of the Chilean secret police during the Pinochet regime. Olderöck here is an expressionless porcelain doll, suggesting a kind of banality of evil as she impassively commits atrocities, feeds her dog, and dreams of decapitations. Director Hugo Covarrubias maintains a sense of deliberate, careful dread in the film’s mercifully brief 15 minutes that would be unendurable at feature length. Bestia might be a masterpiece. I hope I never see it again.
The Windshield Wiper (available on Short of the Week) is saddled with the unenviable and perhaps unfair task of following Bestia and rounding out the program. A series of vignettes revolving around love in the modern era, the short reads a bit pat, missed connections and isolation in overpopulated metropolises juxtaposed with spontaneous passion. One of the more obvious gags involves two oblivious hipsters too hypnotized by their online dating apps to notice one another standing in a grocery store. In her book Future Sex, Emily Witt had an observation to the effect that apps like Tinder put us in contact with more people but didn’t tell us what to do with them. I wish The Windshield Wiper had something that incisive to it. It doesn’t matter; there’s probably another short somewhere out there that does.
It’s just a matter of digging around to find it.