Having written my list of top 10 best animated features of the decade, I felt I would be doing a disservice to the medium to not also write a list of my 10 favourite animated shorts of the decade. Every year when Oscar nominations are announced, this is the category I most look forward to and yet it is also one of the categories that gets most marginalised, with many websites leaving it off their reports of the year’s winners altogether. Therefore, it brings me enormous pleasure to shine a light on some of these overlooked masterpieces and I hope, given that it rarely takes more than a few minutes to watch them, that the reader might go from here to explore some of these joyous films for themselves
10. The Blue Umbrella
Saschka Unseld’s The Blue Umbrella is one of Pixar’s most beautiful shorts and it was a major surprise when it missed out on an Oscar nomination. Paired with Monsters University, which it thoroughly upstaged, The Blue Umbrella showcased new animation techniques in photorealistic lighting, shading and compositing. While there is a thin central storyline involving two umbrellas falling for each other during a rainstorm, this is largely a hook on which to hang the breathtaking visuals which depict a city overtaken by a torrential rainstorm. So immersive that you practically feel wet but cosy enough in mood to counteract that, The Blue Umbrella brings a city secretly to life. For the most part there are human characters on screen but they are hidden beneath their umbrellas, oblivious to the many eyes that watch them from seemingly inanimate objects. Part of the film’s charm is how the story takes place just above the human element, a whole world literally going over our heads.
Disney legend Glen Keane’s Duet is a gorgeous, hand-drawn animated dance which celebrates life, love and motion in equal measures. Depicting the progress through life from babies to young adults of a boy and a girl, as well as the boy’s puppy’s development into a full-grown dog, Duet sees its characters engaged in independent activities but occasionally meeting up again for a fleeting moment, ultimately heading towards an inevitable union at the end. Though some have dismissed it as sentimental, Duet is actually a deeply sincere ode to joyous moments in life. Its characters are in constant motion, sometimes literally dancing and sometimes running, leaping and tumbling in the glorious dance of existence. Rendered in white line drawings against a blue background and accompanied by a soaring score, it’s a hard-heart that could not find something to be moved by in this treasure of a film.
Pixar animator Trevor Jiminez made his 2017 short film Weekends through Pixar’s co-op program which allows staff to use company resources to create their own independent shorts. The beautiful, autumnal creation that Jiminez came up with ended up winning him an Oscar nomination. Weekends is an evocative, deeply personal film which incorporates elements of surrealistic symbolism into its tale of a divorced child’s contrasting experiences in his Ontario home and visiting his Toronto-based father on weekends. Jiminez based the film on his own experiences but his unusual approach to narrative results in a significantly more effective film than some of the more maudlin fare the Academy has often favoured this decade.
7. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
Konstantin Bronzit Oscar nominated We Can’t Live Without Cosmos is a terrific and wholly unpredictable gem of a film which begins as a hysterical comedy and slowly shifts into something darker. Wonderfully hand drawn in a cartoony style, the fifteen minute film spends its first half following two playful but determined cosmonauts through a gruelling training process. Filled with lovely little comedic moments, the training sequences prepare the viewer for one kind of film but then We Can’t Live Without Cosmos quickly becomes another, with a sudden shift in tone which makes it more dramatic and highlights the overarching themes of friendship that are the films heart. Although it changes significantly, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos never feels jarring. Told without words, the narrative style doesn’t feel disrupted even as the mood alters and small moments of humour poke through the latter half’s tragic observations. One image in particular, the result of an x-ray, is heartbreakingly sad but Bronzit never milks the pathos and continues past the image without a dramatic music cue or slow zoom into the crucial detail. Ending on an ambiguous note which could be taken as tragic, uplifting or somewhere in between, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos is another fantastic film from a director from whom you’re never quite sure what to expect.
6. My Dad
Marcus Armitage’s My Dad is an absolute belter of an animated short which looks at the complex subject of inherited prejudice versus personal inclination. Created with oil pastels and newspaper clippings, My Dad is a viscerally relevant film which highlights the sad fact that racial prejudice isn’t just a thing of the past. The bold, vivid colours mingle with the blunt black and white of the newsprint to create an uncomfortably arresting vision and as the dominant influence of tabloids begins to literally tear through frames of the film, the viewer feels like they are witnessing an almost unstoppable force. But the experience of watching My Dad is not one of hopelessness but of a rallying cry to not allow the opinions of others to batter your own into submission. It’s an invigorating experience akin to a socially-conscious punk song that makes the open-minded viewer feel empowered by the fact that artists like Armitage are out there giving exposure to uncomfortable subjects and hopefully getting through to some people who would otherwise be lost to overbearing parental influence. Nominated for a BAFTA, in my book this hugely important, tremendously effective firecracker of a film should have won.
5. Madagascar, a Journey Diary
Bastien Dubois’s journal of his trip to the titular island, Madagascar, a Journey Diary is a plotless wander around Madagascar. The film achieves unbelievable immersion as Dubois drinks in the scenery, chats to the locals and remembers it all in extraordinarily beautiful artwork. The island is presented as literally being encased in Dubois’s journal, with pages turning onto new locales. The island is in the process of Famadihana, an ancient Malagasy custom that means “the turning of the dead”. An occasion for festivities, it is also a solemn ritual which involves the movement of ancestors remains to their final resting places. Dubois witnesses the customs without comment, presenting them to the viewer to do the same. Watching Madagascar, a Journey Diary is truly a transporting experience and has an effect on me that live-action travelogues rarely do. Dubois captures the sights and sounds of the island and filters it through a point-of-view approach which places the viewer amongst the surroundings and imbues them with the director’s own experiences. Although I have never visited Madagascar myself, I go there every time I watch this film.
4. Wild Life
Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s Wild Life is an animated masterpiece which deserves more attention. I loved Forbis and Tilby’s 1999 Oscar nominee When the Day Breaks but Wild Life trumps even that short. A tragi-comic account of a young Englishman who moves to the Canadian prairie province of Alberta, Wild Life is both very funny and somewhat sad as the man struggles to adapt to his new environment and sends home letters full of lies to his oblivious family. The short has the sort of beautifully unusual visuals we’ve come to expect from Tilby and Forbis and it’s a great compliment that the viewer can easily appreciate how this 13 minute short was 7 years in the making. Aside from the animation itself, the story is told with such wit and skill for switching between moods that I fall for it a little more each time I see it. Wild Life was Oscar nominated too but lost out to The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, an instantaneous crowd-pleaser that I also loved but my choice for the year would undoubtedly have been the more enduring Wild Life.
3. Gloria Victoria
It was a major surprise and disappointment when Theodore Ushev’s Gloria Victoria was not nominated for an Oscar. Most people who had seen it prior to the awards, myself included, imagined it would be a sure fire nominee and probable winner but sadly it ended up as neither. An astonishingly ravishing short that took two years to complete, Ushev’s film is set to Skostakovich’s stirringly dramatic Leningrad Symphony which drives forward the imagery on screen. Combining angular abstraction with recognisable shapes and scenes, Gloria Victoria wordlessly lays out the horrors of war and calls emphatically for peace through the use of images alone. Dark reds, browns and oranges mingle in a peerless evocation of human massacres and senseless loss of life. For all its unflinching graphicness, Gloria Victoria is an uncommonly beautiful film, as overwhelming visually as it is thematically, and it leaves the viewer with a determination to make a better world rather than a sense of despair at what has gone before.
2. World of Tomorrow
Having wowed critics and fans with his extraordinary Bill trilogy, Don Hertzfeldt somehow managed to follow it up with something every bit as astonishingly masterful. Hertzfeldt’s first foray into digital animation, World of Tomorrow retains his simple stick-figure characters but places them in a more colourful, mesmerising world influenced by magazine cover designs from the 50s and 60s. Although always interested in the sci-fi genre, Hertzfeldt was concerned about the inevitability of covering ground already touched upon by other artists but having made the decision to make his first digital film, this seemed like the ideal time to try his hand at sci-fi. Although the story does feature familiar concepts such as clones, robots and time travel, Hertzfeldt puts a totally new spin on them, filtering them through his distinctive but never predictable tragi-comic writing. Much kudos must also be given to Hertzfeldt’s voice actors. Julia Pott is perfect as the monotone but somehow sad-sounding clone, while Winona Mae, Hertzfeldt’s four year old niece, is disarmingly adorable as Emily. By recording her while she was drawing and playing, Hertzfeldt was able to capture the naturally joyous sound of a child which is practically impossible to coax out of actors. Winona’s lovely ramblings are not just non-sequiturs but are incorporated perfectly into the plot, making her the most important, relatable character in the film. Though nominated for an Oscar, World of Tomorrow unbelievably did not win but has been immediately embraced as a masterpiece.
Martine Chartrand’s MacPherson is a latter day animation masterpiece with which I fell in love immediately. Telling the true story of the friendship between singer-songwriter Felix Leclerc and chemical engineer Frank Randolph MacPherson, the film touches on issues of race that were prominently explored in Chartrand’s earlier film Black Soul but MacPherson is primarily a touching tale of a friendship which is stronger than any negative force it comes up against, ultimately even death. Chartrand’s socially-conscious touch is perfectly delicate, evoking themes without pushing them to the forefront. The contrast of black and white is persistently placed on screen in chess pieces and piano keys but the black and white human beings who interact around them are so warmly loving that any difference in their colour is often barely noticed. Leclerc’s beautiful music is used throughout the film and Chartrand segues superbly from fingers picking a guitar into images of log-drivers. It is in moments like these that Chartrand’s paint-on-glass technique shines most, surpassing even the meticulous perfection of Alexandr Petrov in its hypnotic fluidity.