Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/20

We like animation around these parts. In case that needed clarifying, or something. In that capacity, one of my favorite things year after year is to check out the collection of animated shorts curated by the Chicago International Film Festival, and after having been unable to make that work last year, to my immense disappointment, I'm excited to have the opportunity to make up for it now. Herewith, the films of CIFF's Shorts: Cel Division slate.

The Bungled Child (Simon Filliot, France)
It wears its student film status a little too proudly: there are scenes with complicated "look at me!" lighting effects that plainly exist more to show that the filmmakers know how to do that kind of lighting than to serve the emotional needs of the moment (which isn't to say they're not serving those needs). But it's kind of terrific anyway: the story of burlap doll conjoined twins who didn't want to be separated offers up nonstop chances for morbidly Lynchian imagery. In particular, the opening scene's depiction of a self-conducted burlap caesarian is the kind of casually disturbing thing you only get to see when an inspired madman takes the wheel. Also, there's explicit burlap doll sex, which I imagine excites some internet subgroup or another. 8/10

Chopper (Frederik Palmaers & Lars Damoiseaux, Netherlands)
One joke, and it's a familiar one: medium-sized animals eat littler animals and so on, backwards. The real draw here is unmistakably the animation, an apparent calling-card: this is effectively photorealistic, as praying mantises and frogs and splashes of water are rendered with unholy perfection, flawlessly matching real-live footage in the end. That is, in the design. The actual animation feels distinctly overclocked, with everything moving too quickly and stiffly to feel right, and thus we plunge inexorably into the Uncanny Valley. Besides which, it's a gag reel; they're not great cinema. Still, at just two minutes, the film doesn't pretend to be anything it's not; that helps. 6/10

Collectors (Marcel Hobi, Switzerland)

Special Mention by the Festival jury

One of the absolute weirdest satires of capitalism run amok that I ever expect to see. On a small planet, brightly colored people stretch their gigantic serpentine arms out and take little things, then bigger things, then soon everything that exists is being hoarded by just a couple sunshiny, smiling cartoon blobs too eye catching and silly to be menacing, though the relentless cheeriness of the film starts to be a little threatening itself. The super-saturated, wiggly style is an absolute good, though it certainly couldn't stand up under much more than the five minutes presented here; the message is a bit obvious, but something this short doesn't have the luxury of subtlety, and anyway, the conflation of the massively simplistic rubber hose aesthetic and the unbridled greed displayed through that aesthetic works pretty wonderfully to get the movie's point across. 8/10

Drunker Than a Skunk (Bill Plympton, USA)
Loosely adapted from a poem by the Beat-adjacent poet Walt Curtis, this grotesque parody of Western imagery finds Plympton pushing his color palette and even his character designs into somewhat new registers, but the artist has his style, and he's sticking to it. And frankly, I'm not at all sure that the smeary Bukowskisms of his best work are suited to digital production methods, which have thus far resulted in films that are frankly a little bit too clean-looking for the sick world Plympton presents. All that being the case, the messy scrawls of the imagery and perverse caricature of the animation make for a truly perfect fit with the lazy aggression of the poem recited over it, and now that I've seen it done, I can't believe that Plympton hasn't done something with the Beats previously. 6/10

The Event (Julia Pott, UK)
The third film by New York-based, British-born designer/animator Pott is certainly her most technically accomplished, mixing her webcomic-like animal characters with live-action footage in a most playfully disorienting register of off-kilter madness. Which, for a story about how the apocalypse is experienced by two lovers, is a fine tone to reach for. It's not remotely as accessible as her last film, Belly, and there's something about the willfully obscure poetry underpinning this (in fact, the poem preceded the film) that gets in the way of Pott's beautifully horrifying end-of-world imagery, and there's an unmistakable "NYC hipster" vibe to the whole edifice, but the thing looks striking as all hell, and several of its individual moments are guaranteed to sear themselves into your brain. 7/10

Marcel, King of Tervuren (Tom Schroeder, USA)
Gorgeous as hell to look at: using digital means to create something like moving fingerpaintings, it's a free-form collage of loose shapes and bright colors not quite like anything I've ever seen. I have my doubts about the narrative itself, a dynastic tale of kingships falling told of roosters by the Belgian woman who owned them; maybe because even at six minutes, the story requires a spurious opening act to pad itself out. But the roosters themselves are incredibly beautiful, impressionistic renderings of animals as combinations of lines and patches of color, and that makes up for a lot of strain in the attempt to tell a tragic history out of the behavior of barnyard animals, not even anthropomorphic ones. Style over substance gets you farther in animation than in any other medium, I find. 8/10

Marilyn Myller (Mikey Please, USA)

Winner of a Special Jury Prize in Animation

Straight up: this was the single film at CIFF this year that I was most eager to see, the followup by the creator of The Eagleman Stag, still my favorite film of the decade. It did not disappoint, though I can't say that it was as much of a "rip your head off and stuff the universe into it" experience as Please's awe-inspiring debut. There will, I imagine, come a time when I'm anxious for him to move beyond the foam puppetry of these two movies, but not as long as he's doing such outrageously creative and visually striking things with it; the film opens with a DIY creation of the universe sequence every bit as beautiful as the one in The Tree of Life and more imaginative. The narrative about the artist as merciless god of her own inner world, unforgiving of any failure and her own most of all, is a tiny bit labored, and it winds down rather than comes to a conclusion, but this is still the most ideas-per-minute of any film I've seen all year, and some of the most striking imagery on top of it. 9/10

Peach Juice (Brian Lye, Callum Paterson, & Nathan Gilliss, Canada)
A banner year for the cloth doll fetishist, particularly the pedophilic ones in this case: a cloth teen boy masturbates in one scene, safely off camera. The film itself is simple tale of ill-timed erections that doesn't seem to have much to say about anything besides offering its protagonist "been there, done that" sympathy, and the stop-motion animation, though colorful and creative (the way that the water has been done is particularly impressive), isn't really pushing any boundaries. The whole thing, if I needed to sum it up in a single adjective, would be "charming", which is a positive thing of course, but not an especially deep or enthusiasm-generating one. It's a delicate, empathetic tale, but not one begging to be told, and not so amazingly executed to work as a calling card. Gotta love the way that such simple faces can be so expressive, though.

The Places Where We Lived (Bernardo Britto, USA)
A vague riff on the fear of losing one's past as the physical proof of who we used to be is demolished of forgotten, but there's very little meat to the argument, and the film itself flits from idea to idea without much focus or development. Nothing about the doodled visual style, deliberately stripping the characters of singular personality by reducing them to simple shapes and concepts, is interesting enough to compensate for the foggy script, though I did like the live-action opening, in which a tiny Japanese man narrates something of an abstract gloss of the movie to come. The whole thing is simply unmemorable, unclear, and a little bit whiny, honestly. 5/10

Tap to Retry (Neta Cohen, Israel)

Winner of the Gold Plaque for Best Student Animation

Gorgeously distinctive: it's a 4-minute stop motion animated film in which all of the puppets are paper sculptures, and while I'm sure something in the history of human creative endeavors has looked like this at all, I sure can't name it. It's rigorously non-narrative, presenting a series of failures and mistakes and then using internet-based jargon appearing as words in space, and beeps and bloops from a 1980s video game on the soundtrack, to suggest that we, as a species, have become less equipped to deal with everyday life because of the coddling effect of the information age. I'm not sure that it presents this argument well, mind you, but the energy and puckishness is enough to sell me on the film's merits as poetic art, if not necessarily as a polemic. 8/10

Ziegenort (Tomasz Popakul, Poland)
Visually striking in all ways: the severely limited palette of very little other than white and very dark purple that's almost black, the character design somewhere between line drawings and comic strip figures, and particularly the protagonist, a half-human, half-piscine Fish Boy. It's the exact right kind moody and grim enough that sets the mood for the tale it spins of social acceptance and body horror as Fish Boy tries and fails to understand himself and those around him, and to be honest, I kind of wish that the film (which at 19 minutes, is by far the longest thing here and thus somewhat obligated to have more depth to it) had somewhat more complexity and somewhat less in-the-moment anxiety and confusion. But that said, any movie where the protagonist hectically tries to de-scale himself, or where the sparing use of red is so visually devastating, is doing most things right enough that I can't complain. 7/10

Subconscious Password (Chris Landreth, Canada) was not screened in advance for critics