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The Aquarius in Palo Alto screens five Oscar-nominated animated shorts
CREATURE FEATURE: The Pixar-sponsored ‘Kitbull' will make you misty-eyed in all the best ways.

Get out your handkerchiefs, because rich tales of sadness constitute this year's selection of Oscar-nominated animated shorts: cancer, Alzheimer's and mistreated animals are among the subjects covered. There are five nominees, showing at The Aquarius this weekend, but I recommend viewing an additional three.

"Hors Piste" from a quartet of animators in Avignon didn't finish in the money, but it's the only funny one. The piece is a dialogue-free, Aardman-style parody of the mountain disaster documentary Touching the Void. A pair of suave ski patrollers—probably living in 1975, judging from their pornstaches, double-knit clothes and oversize eyewear—lose their helicopter, bungle the rescue and accidentally ski-jump their cabin into orbit.

The viewer is going to need that laugh. Ireland's "The Bird and the Whale" is the most dire—quite pretty but too sad to describe. The oddity that is the stop-motion animated "Henrietta Bulkowski" has Mad Men's Christina Hendricks doing the voice of a hunchbacked woman of the 1930s who longs to be a pilot. She's first impeded, then helped, by a security guard (Chris Cooper). The pallid vinyl faces and the downbeat story's settings look like artist Michael McMillen's miniatures, especially in the rusty propeller plane Henrietta hammers together from junkyard wreckage. But the narrator (Ann Dowd) apprises us of both meaning and morals: "Just like that, these lost souls found each other." The talk is all the more redundant given how much power is in the four wordless shorts to come.

First of the contending nominees is Prague's Daria Kascheeva, whose stop-motion work "Daughter" is about an old misunderstanding between a father and his girl, resolved on the former's hospital deathbed. It's as subtle as it is serious. The beep of the monitors is all that's really heard—the flicker of sad eyes all that really moves on rocklike faces. And then a careening bird hits a window, linking past and present.

Matthew A. Cherry's 2D "Hair Love" is about a puzzled African-American dad having to take care of his daughter's bad hair day. If it wins, it'll be justly considered "a little movie that could," because it was Kickstarted to life (the donors names go on for pages). The characters have sweetness and charm, but it's derivatively Disney-ish.

Siqi Song's "Sister" has "Hair Love's" trick of withholding the truth. Song is probably going to do better films than this one. She deploys a unique medium—felt dolls and knitted costumes. It's a sort of textile-arts stop motion animation, telling surreal gray-colored episodes of China when the Communists were dictating social policy. But the reveal of the true story that she evaded doesn't have the emotional punch that was aimed for. All this cute softness doesn't have any real edge.

Far more impressive, even given its limited animation, is Rosana Sullivan's "Kitbull"—a starter film made with Pixar's help. A stray alley kitten, not much bigger than a rat, slowly befriends a pitbull used for fights. The subject sounds unbearable, but it isn't: Sullivan has a restraint here that lets the story grow organically, and it's beautifully observant about the way animals move and show their feelings. Better still, it's set in San Francisco's Mission District—back in the old days, as evidenced by the concertina wire and vibrantly muraled walls (significantly, a clunky junked computer in a backyard trash heap is from 20 years ago). She re-creates a neighborhood that hasn't yet been condo'd to death, and ends with a heroic reveal of the City in just the way the locals like to think of it: as a sanctuary.

Maybe the best in show is Bruno Collet's "Memorable," as good a movie about the wasting away of a mind as Away from Her (2007). It's an impressively told story of Alzheimer's from the POV of the patient. M. Durieux, a French artist losing his recollection of his wife and his times, is left to sit in a litter of Post-its with images on them: hundreds of pictures of the words he's lost. Collet's 3D models have a heavy impasto of paint on them, thick as a Van Gogh self portrait. The rage and delusions of the disease are represented by evaporating droplets of paint that the artist sheds. They first rise, then evaporate into thin air, right after a last dance with a wife who is nothing but a woman-shaped phantom of swirls and patches of paint.

2020 Oscar Short Films: Animation
Unrated; 120 Mins.
Opens Friday at the Aquarius
landmarktheatres.com


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