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'The 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows' is One of the Most Profound Cinematic Experiences of 2015

Potent creativity often comes in small concentrated doses and when you collect a couple dozen of these morsels, powerfully laced with astute ingenuity, you get an overwhelmingly delightful sample platter with some of the most diverse flavors out there unified by their topnotch quality. That’s the best way to describe what you get when watching the visual and tonal tapestry of the Animation Show of Shows. Now in its 17th edition, this program created originally to be screened at Hollywood studios with the purpose of highlighting the best artists working in the independent animation landscape and curated by Ron Diamond, Executive Producer of Acme Filmworks, Inc. and co-founder and President of Animation World Network, will come to theaters across the U.S. for the first time to allow audience to partake in the fun and discovery.

Constructed of 11 fantastic animated shorts showcasing a wide range of techniques within the medium’s spectrum, plus four documentary portraits on selected filmmakers, this feature-length festival of wonder overflows with sublime craftsmanship, but it’s also one of the most profound cinematic experiences of the year. The level of introspection and insight on the human condition contained in these colorful gems surpasses that of most films, animated or live-action, released in recent memory. What they might lack in running time individually, they make up in poignant observations and moments that will stir up a genuine smile.

The program kicks off with “The Story of Percival Pilts,” a stop-motion tale narrated in rhyme about a boy who became fascinated with stilts and declared his feet will never touch the ground ever again. Living his life on stilts, which get increasingly taller as he gets older, Percival cherishes the views and tranquility that such great heights offer. Marvelously achieved and organically suited for the physicality of the chosen technique, this film from Aussie John Lewis and Kiwi Janette Goodey, touches on familiar perils of those who live outside the norm with a classically inspired story told from the protagonist’s brother’s perspective. Tiny sheets of paper stand in as leaves on tress, detailed period costumes adorn the petite bodies of the numerous figures, and cheeky phrases move the plot along while a sky painted in pink and purple hues drench it all with a perpetual “magic hour” feel.

Percival” is followed by a tiny 3D animated work titled “Tant de Forets” (So Many Forests) from French/Turkish team Geoffrey Godet and Burcu Sankur, which uses basic shapes and aesthetics borrowed from the world of graphic design to bring to life a poem by Jacques Prévert on the horrific deforestation of the planet to satisfy our voracious needs for paper.

Evocative and delicately paced, Conor Whelan’s “Snowfall” is the first Lgbt animated short to be part of the Animation Show of Shows, and though it’s clear about its lead character’s sexual orientation, the film is much more focused on depicting how we experience anxiety and deal with rejection in a truly cinematic manner. On a snowy night in Amsterdam a young man arrives at a party where he casually meets a friendly guy. They seem to hit it off, but it soon becomes clear that their interest in one another comes from very different angles. Centered on this romantic misconnection, “Snowfall” is a tender and seemingly melancholic 2D animated meditation where emotions take on a beautiful ethereal form.

Claypainting takes center stage with Lynn Tomlinson’s exquisite “The Ballad of Holland Island House.” Driven by a folksy tune this house reflects on its lifespan from the time it was just wood without purpose, to becoming a family’s home, and eventually being abandoned and consumed by the rising Atlantic Ocean. Tomlinson’s mastery of the stunning technique that blends the tangible material to create rustic moving frames resembles the work of veteran artist Joan C. Gratz – the Academy Award-winning claypainting pioneer.

In Amanda Palmer and Avi Ofer’s “Behind the Trees” scratchy hand-drawn dream sequences turn a voice memo into a brief but deliciously cheeky trip into the subconscious of a man who mumbles abstract statements while asleep. Each incoherent, revealing, honest, or perhaps utterly irrelevant line is transformed into an unconventional artistic interpretation via the imperfectly sleek doodles.

Playfully realized with the charm of a Saturday morning cartoon, yet layered with bittersweet notions about friendship, grief, and solitude, Academy Award-nominated Russian animator Konstantin Bronzit’s latest film “We Can't Live Without Cosmos" is a bite-size animated masterpiece that is as profoundly moving as it’s enchantingly entertaining. On a mission to become the top cosmonauts in their class and earn the privilege to go into space as a team, two lifelong friends work tirelessly everyday using their common dream as fuel to endure the challenging tasks. Their bond, an idealized iteration of fraternal companionship that we could all aspire to, clearly emerges as a more significant and precious motivation than the outer space voyage itself. With clever visual gags, endearing character design reminiscent of bygone artistry, and inventive sharp editing, Bronzit’s virtuous storytelling abilities amuse and tug at our heartstrings till the very last shot. “We Can't Live Without Cosmos" is one of the best films of the year of any length and in any medium.

A hungry cat and a helpless goldfish set an unlikely love story in motion in Isabel Favez curious short “Messages Dans L’Air.” Uniquely designed with an elegantly simple style, Favez world is entirely made out of paper and she uses this particular trait as a perfect narrative device for the film’s scope. Written on a folded paper bird, a lovely message makes its way to a young woman while her mischievous feline constantly attempts to devour a tiny fish that belongs to a bulky boxer who lives near by. Such problematic relationship between their pets will be the catalyst for the mismatch lovebirds to connect.

Passionate admirers of Walt Disney’s classic films, Iranian brothers Babak & Behnoud Nekooei crafted a remarkable 2D animated piece in which their influences are unmistakable but not without reinvention. “Stripy” centers on an enthusiastic factory worker in a city where homogeneity is paramount. His job is simply to paint dark stripes on every box that comes through the assembly line; however, the spirited young man decides that a more vibrant pattern would make the repetitive labor more interesting. Individuality and the power that comes from refusing to conform are crucial themes weaved into the Nekooei brothers’ melodically structured short. Without explicitly touching on their country’s politics, the filmmakers created a subtly rebellious work of art that transcends divisive discourses and ideologies.

Landscapes so realistically rendered that could nearly fool you into thinking they were indeed extracted from our world are one of the extraordinary elements in 3D animated adventure “Ascension,” by a French team of artist form by Colin Laubry, Thomas Bourdis, Martin de Coutenhove, Caroline Domergue, and Florian Vecchione. Two bold mountain climbers are on their way to the top carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary when one of them suffers an accident that leaves her without functional limbs. Devotion and their relentless desire to succeed a will keep them focused on their almost impossible mission. The astonishing backgrounds alone are spectacular enough to merit significant recognition.

Darkly comedic and brutally honest, “Love in Times of March Madness” is a black-and-white animated personal essay by Melissa Johnson and Robertino Zambrano, which dissects Johnson’s mishaps and realizations as she navigates life as a 6’4” tall woman. Among the many quotidian complications she must face, dating is by far one of the thorniest facets of Johnson’s above average existence. Insecure shorter men and the judging stares from a world that equates physical differences with unforgivable inadequacies are part of the tricky deck she’s been given. By sharing hilarious anecdotes and analyzing why other people reflect their fears on her appearance, Johnson gives us a lesson in acceptance with the help of vividly surreal vignettes that illustrate her unique perspective.

Capping off this outstanding selection of small-scale treasures is Don Hertzfeldt's thought-provoking and visionary Sundance-winning short "World of Tomorrow." Easily the best animated film of the year, this 17-minute science fiction journey is a mind-bending study on the essence of humanity and how technology’s ferocious advances to know and control it all endanger our ability to notice what’s truly meaningful. Employing his signature stick figures, the filmmaker introduces us to Emily Prime (Winona Mae), a young girl who has just met an older, cloned version of herself living far into the future. Emily (Julia Pott), as the film simply refers to the adult replica, has come from her time to meet Emily Prime and inform her about the terrifying dangers of what lies ahead. Loneliness reigns and falling in love is a futile enterprise in a future where wealthy individuals get to live forever by virtually saving their consciousness into data cubes. Life as we know it is no more and people, always longing for fulfillment, have adapted to the hopelessness of their condition. Miraculously, Hertzfeldt packs all of these components within his intricate and engrossing vision into a plot that includes lighter moments of intelligent comedy. Besides the thematic brilliance of the concepts and ideas discussed in “World of Tomorrow,” the film is also testament to Hertzfeld’s admiration and loyalty to the film medium in its most authentic state, while at the same time being unafraid to experiment. Handcrafted on one of the last remaining functioning 35mm rostrum animation stands, the film exists as a bridge between what some consider to be obsolete and the boundless freedom of independent animation in the 21st century. Furthermore, all the amazing special effects were created directly on film, using traditional double exposures, in-camera mattes, and new experimental techniques to transport the avid viewer into a land of intoxicating color, frightening warnings, and inconspicuous wisdom.

In every fragment used to the build “The 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows” audiences will find a heartfelt antidote to formulaic tent poles and will most likely see some of the films that will make headlines as Oscar contenders and nominees in the upcoming months. Undoubtedly, the individual quality of each work is stellar, but the emotional gravitas of the program as a whole is absolutely disarming.

The 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows” is now playing in Los Angeles at the ArcLight Hollywood and will travel to 20 more cities across the U.S. in the following weeks.

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