‘Best’ Versus ‘Most’ at the Oscars

By  · Published on February 9th, 2013

As I watched this year’s nominees for Best Animated Short Film, I noticed something a bit strange. PES’s Fresh Guacamole, a 90-second stop-motion film, has no dialogue at all. Adam and Dog, set in a beautifully drawn Garden of Eden, has no dialogue either. The Simpsons: The Longest Daycare, being entirely about Maggie, of course has no speaking. Paperman is also silent, in the spirit of some more recent Disney and Pixar shorts. Head Over Heels, finally, is just as willfully mute as the rest. There is not a single audible word of dialogue in any of this year’s nominees.

What’s the significance of this? The silence has no bearing on the quality of the shorts, though it works better for Paperman and Fresh Guacamole than it does for Adam and Dog and Head Over Heels. However, I do think it has some relationship with the old Oscar adage of “Most” rather than “Best.” It’s usually more apt to describe categories like Best Production Design or Best Costume Design, but I think it might be applicable here.

With this list of animated short nominees, it’s almost as if the Academy watched the qualified films and picked the shorts that seem most animated. A film without dialogue must be better, right? I blame the critical success of Pixar shorts, which now seem to be the model for the entire category. It could explain the choice to include The Longest Daycare over wordy but brilliant work like The Eagleman Stag.

This is a big year for ‘most’ at the Oscars. One could make the argument that the Academy as a whole went for movies that easily qualify as “Most Picture,” with so many films at the top of the pack running well over two and a half hours. These might not necessarily be giant, expensive productions (though some of them certainly are). Yet they loom over smaller films, usually making it difficult for superior, less flashy work to get in. This year we see the rarest exceptions in the Best Picture category, with Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild capturing nominations. Down the line, however, is another story.

It is, of course, too late to bemoan the fate of work that didn’t make it, and that would border on the tiresome discourse of the “snub” anyway. The Impossible couldn’t make it in Best Visual Effects, there was no way Amour would show up in Best Production Design, and Beasts of the Southern Wild was passed over for Best Original Score. There’s nothing we can do now.

However, we can take a second to root for the atypical work that did actually make it in against the odds. There isn’t much of it this year – the grandiose Best Picture nominees appear frequently enough in the technical categories that exciting surprise nominations are few and far between. There are three categories that stand out for me as places where something exciting could happen.

Best Animated Feature – The Pirates! Band of Misfits

I sat down to watch The Pirates! Band of Misfits with a great deal of skepticism. I generally love Aardman Animation, but I hadn’t heard much about this one and was expecting it to be a lesser work that got in because the British Claymation studio is in the club. Boy, was I wrong. Perhaps they should have kept the original title, The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, which is an awful lot better. So many of the film’s little details take you by surprise with their wit, the absurd humor of Wallace and Gromit at their best. Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin are the villains! It’s more entertaining than Brave, better executed than Frankenweenie, and funnier than Wreck-It Ralph.

Best Original Screenplay – Moonrise Kingdom or Amour

These are underdogs in the sense that they are shorter, more modest works when compared to Zero Dark Thirty, Flight, and Django Unchained. Yet on that same note they are tighter and more astutely written. Moonrise Kingdom is one of Wes Anderson’s best, in large part due to its scope. It’s a sweeping romance in miniature, worthy not only because of the writer/director’s always unique sense of dialog but also because of its careful structure and warmly constructed characters.

Amour would also be a wonderful surprise. Michael Haneke’s bold treatment of love and death at their most extreme may not be the kind of epic narrative that Quentin Tarantino or Mark Boal take almost three hours to tell, but it has the timeless grandeur of its overpowering themes. It should win by a mile, frankly.

Best Animated Short – Fresh Guacamole

I complained about the lack of dialogue in all five films, this is true. But if the Academy wants to value lack of narrative in favor of excellent animation, then they should go all the way. PES’s nomination is my favorite of the entire list this year, in any category. He’s been putting his witty, impeccably designed work on YouTube for years now and deserves the recognition. Fresh Guacamole is among his best work, and there’s more inspiration and originality in a single shot of his film than in the whole running time of one or two of his fellow nominees. And this would be the shortest Oscar-winning film in history. That’s awesome.