The Oscar animated shorts category has a few familiar faces and one director who adapted his own graphic novel into an animated short.

“Borrowed Time” (7 minutes)Borrowed Time, 2016
Andrew Coats, Lou Hamou-Lhadj (directors)
USA

This is a short, silent Western about guilt and grief and dads, and it does that very well. The animation is made up of cartoonish, caricature cowboys on a lush background of canyons and desert. It’s a blunt instrument of a cartoon, and at seven minutes it’s more of a tone poem than a story. However, the landscape was really beautifully rendered — soaked in moody grays and shadows in the present, flooded with sunlight in the flashbacks.

“Piper” (6 minutes)
Alan Barillaro (director)
USA

The annual Pixar short,“Piper” focuses on a parent and baby sandpiper — it’s time for the baby to learn how to pick little clams out of the sand on it’s own. The film is adorable, a cute puff piece with a thinner plot than the average Pixar extra. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch, and it really shows off Pixar flare for rendering nature. It’s a small joy to watch waves crash over the screen, right over the fluffball protagonist and the camera.

“Blind Vaysha” (8 minutes)Blind Vaysha, 2016
Theodore Ushev (director)
Canada

“Blind Vaysha” is an animated adaptation of a story by contemporary Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov, a fable about a girl whose left eye sees only the past and whose right eye sees only the future, leaving her blind to the present. It’s not incredibly deep, but what really sells the story is the bold linocut-style artwork. There’s something reminiscent of illustrations from illuminated manuscripts in the figures and how they move, giving the fable an air of solemn authenticity. “Blind Vaysha” was Ushev’s fifteenth animated short, and his first Oscar nomination.

“Pearl” (6 minutes)
Patrick Osborne
USA

The first VR film to be nominated for an Academy Award, “Pearl” was initially part of the 360 Google Spotlight Story series. That film is headset compatible, and it’s available to watch in as a 360-degree video online — the hook of the film is that its set almost entirely in the same car, which you can manipulate the camera to look at the entire interior. Despite this, the interactivity of the short had no bearing on its nomination – a version for theatrical release was submitted for Academy consideration. The film itself is a cute story about a single dad, that starts with him taking his small daughter with him as he drives and busks around the country. Eventually, the car passes on to her and the band she forms. The animation was nice but felt a little flat — the depth created by the 360 view is missing in the theatrical cut, though the framing was curated. Patrick Osborne is a familiar name to this category — he took home last year’s award for the Pixar short, “Feast.”

“Pear Cider and Cigarettes” (35 minutes)Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Massive Swerve, 2016
Robert Valley (director)
Canada

“Pear Cider and Cigarettes” is a project that spans years — Robert Valley initially told this story as a graphic novel, including a 2012 Kickstarter for the second volume of the comic, and then another to license the songs used in the film (artists include Pink Floyd, Wilco, Black Sabbath, Morphine, and Cypress Hill). This is clearly a passion project and an ode to Robert Valley’s departed friend Techno Stypes. But it’s just not engaging enough; the film refuses to go deep into why these two are friends or why we should care about Techno as a person.

Valley clearly thinks of Techno as one of his most interesting friends, but the Techno we see in the film is a complete shitshow — he’s a mean alcoholic in need of a liver transplant after a bad blood transfusion. Valley is somehow coerced into spending months in China helping him get sober enough for said liver transplant. There’s a first person narration, and at times the film is literally framed as being Valley’s point of view. Despite all this access to the inner voice of Valley, the film tells us even less about him than it does about Techno. The only emotion expressed comes in self-conscious asides and jokes.

The camera is constantly swiveling and swerving, acting as Robert’s own POV and leading to some slight distortions to what we’re seeing on screen — it’s dynamic but overwhelming at times because there’s almost no stillness. It was a relief to get a few seconds of a stationary view. The women in the film are basically all sexy waifs, whether we see just their vulvas and boobs, or if they’re straight up married to the protagonist. The film seems blissfully unaware that the aesthetic isn’t that innovative, that it’s too long. It’s the animated equivalent to a stranger trying to tell you his favorite story while you’re waiting for a friend at the bar.