Mike’s Favorite Animated Shorts of the Decade (10-1)

This might be the one list I was most excited for. It’s the last one I came up with, too. I had all the others and then, I don’t know, about two weeks before I unveiled that I was gonna be doing all this, I thought, “Animated shorts would be a really terrific list to pull off.” Because, like songs, animated films are something that we all can consume pretty quickly and easily and have real opinions on. And each year, it’s one of my favorite categories to delve into when we get to awards season. And all too often do we forget about all the great ones we watch and never go back to them. When in reality, a perfectly crafted animated short of is one of the greatest viewing experiences you can ever have.

This was also a list I had to do the most homework for. Because aside from what gets shortlisted for awards, there are also dozens of other shorts that come out each year that most people don’t even know about. Occasionally they’ll be highlighted on a video site or get press, but most of the time they come and go without anyone knowing about them. So I really tried to dig and find stuff that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about in the hopes of making a list that was truly worth discussing. I almost wanted to be as inclusive as possible and go to 100, but in the end, I felt 50 was the way to go. Because I’m really happy with the 50 that I chose.

I’m gonna try to make this a point going forward, that I’m going to seek out more animated shorts on a yearly basis, and make them a part of my repertoire for watching and showing people things. Here’s what I’d suggest we all start doing — before you sit down for a movie night with friends or family or your children or whomever… just put on one animated short before your film. Like Disney and Pixar do. They give you a short film, and then the feature starts. I think it’s a great way of doing things and exposing yourself to great, compressed stories that you wouldn’t otherwise get to see.

So, in the spirit of that, here are my favorite animated short films from this past decade:

Note: All of these films should be widely available to find online. I haven’t posted links just because of how often these things get taken down. But with a simple search, I bet you can find most, if not all, of the films on this list. And do look them up, because they’re all worth seeing.

10. The Me Bird

This is a short I was not expecting to have on this list at all. It came to me very late in the process of finding and watching shorts, and I was just blown away by it. I had no idea it existed, and I came out thinking, “There’s no way I can’t have this in my top ten.” It calls itself a ‘free interpretation’ of the poem by Pablo Neruda, and it’s just a masterpiece of visual splendor. You don’t even need to follow what story the visuals are trying to tell. Just watching it is like having an outer-body experience. I mentioned something else on the list as feeling like the iTunes visualizer. This is like that. This is almost like you’re on your own personal drug trip, in the best way possible. I just want to sit there and watch this on a loop. The colors and images are like a personal happy place for me. (And yes, second shortest short in the bunch, barely beating out Fresh Guacamole by a handful of seconds.)

9. Get a Horse!

Disney again. This is a short where I wasn’t know what I was gonna get at first. Because it starts like an old school, 1920s Mickey Mouse short. It’s almost like watching something they rediscovered in the vault. And then it does this ingenious thing where it combines the hand-drawn, black-and-white, 2D animation with color 3D animation. The bad guy captures Minnie and kicks Mickey out of the picture (literally). So he ends up in the theater with (presumably) us, the audience. And then they get meta with it, by starting to play with the screen and the film in really inventive ways. I just… maybe people don’t see the genius in this that I do, but I think this is the smartest and most well-put-together shorts I’ve ever seen. To the point where I don’t even mind the 3D animation aspect (which looks really creepy to me). I like how they mixed the two together to create this really inventive and playful story. And any time something breaks that fourth wall and actively uses the audience or the perceived space of the audience in its story is a major plus to me as well.

8. Bear Story

We all cried at this one, right? I feel like that’s gonna be a recurring theme throughout this top ten. There are a lot of tearjerkers here because of how beautiful their stories are. I’ll also note at this point that eight of the top ten shorts on this list were nominated for Oscars, with three (including this one) actually winning.

This is a short about a bear who travels around with a mechanical diorama that he shows to people for a nickel a piece. And so we watch as she shows a younger bear this story, which is so clearly his own story. And it becomes heartbreaking, seeing him stolen from his family by the circus, beaten and forced to work against his will, eventually escaping and doing everything he can to get back to them. It really brings you through all the emotions, and it’s so beautifully told through the diorama conceit. It’s hard not to love this one.

7. Lost & Found

I imagine most of the shorts on this top ten list people would know straight out. This one, I’m not so sure about. It was shortlisted a few years ago, but they never nominated it, and typically when that happens, people are a lot less likely to have come across it. This is one of those shorts where I’d say, if it doesn’t make you emotional, I might question your emotions. It’s just so touching.

It’s the story of a friendship between two knit stuffed animals, a fox and a dinosaur, and the story of what happens one day when the dinosaur discovers that the fox is in trouble. This is the kind of short that should get someone hired by Pixar immediately. The story, the progression of it, the stakes, the pathos, it’s all there. That moment in Pixar that makes you cry when you watch their movies… you feel it. This is a love story that hits you in such a simple and profound way. Truly one of the best shorts out there from this decade and honestly, probably ever. And the most touching thing about it? Its final shot. If that doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, I don’t know what will.

6. World of Tomorrow

I discussed this one briefly earlier in the list when Part 2 (The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts) appeared on the list. Both shorts are absolutely incredible.

It’s funny watching a short that is so perfectly a Don Hertzfeldt short in terms of how he draws his characters but also something so visually resplendent (which isn’t particularly something he’s known for). The point of the short is that a young girl is visited by a clone of her future self hundreds of years in the future, who is going to explain to her what has happened to humanity and all of the things she remembers from the ensuing years. And the joke of it all is that this adult voice is saying all of these complex things and the little girl — whose dialogue is taken entirely from Hertzfeldt’s four-year-old niece from while they were drawing together — is stuff like, “I drew a triangle!” And the juxtaposition is absolutely hilarious to see.

The thing about Hertzfeldt’s work is, I’ve never shown any of it to someone and not had them think it was hilarious/amazing. This one in particular is just a real joy because it goes places you’re not expecting, the sudden things the little girl says become so funny, and then it also has this really smart commentary on one’s place in the universe within the context of the sci-fi genre. It’s a really incredible film. Not even just in terms of animation or a short. If you just showed someone this as a film, the way people watch La Jetée or An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, they’d probably love it.

5. Bao

Shorts like this show you the magic of Pixar and remind you of how they’ve done some of the best animation out there, both now and ever. This short accomplishes in six minutes what most can’t accomplish in 96 minutes. It’s the story of a woman whose dumpling comes to life. So she begins to raise it like a son. And that’s really all you need to know. Because it’s this beautiful story about empty nest syndrome and parenthood in general. There are a lot of truths here that should strike a chord with just about everyone who watches it. I haven’t seen too many better shorts than this one.

4. Paperman

This is probably the one short of the entire decade that managed to crossover into the mainstream. I feel like everyone knows about this, and I’m really glad they do, because it’s one of the best you’ll ever see.

It’s the story of a lowly office worker who meets a woman on the train platform. He finds he has a connection with her and becomes desperate to see her again. Then, upon noticing her in the building across the street from his, he takes the giant pile of paper on his desk (that’s the beauty of animation, the use of tried and true visual symbols) to try to get her attention. And it’s just this lovely underdog romance where you’re really just rooting for these two people to get together, even when it seems the odds are against it. And of course it’s got its own healthy dose of Disney/movie magic to it that really makes the whole thing soar in such a lovely way.

I don’t know how anyone who sees this doesn’t love it. This is everything you want in a story.

3. Day & Night

One of my biggest gripes this entire decade has been about why this short did not end up winning the Oscar the year it came out. I remember sitting down in the theater for Toy Story 3 (and keep in mind, I was already an emotional bundle of nerves just knowing what I was going into there), and this came on beforehand. And it was (and still is) one of the most ingenious and beautiful shorts I have ever seen.

It’s the story of two people. Day has daytimes scenes showing inside them, while Night has nighttime scenes inside. So the whole short takes place against this stark black background, and all of the color happens within these two characters. And whenever they walk, the view of each scene changes. When you see it happen in real time, it’s just incredible. So the two come across each other, and at first can’t understand why what they see in the other person, they can’t see in themselves. But of course, they eventually find common ground.

And that’s the beauty of it. It’s this visually stunning short but also has the message of understanding and learning to get along with others even though they may have differences from you. It’s one of the most succinct metaphors for friendship you’ll ever see. This should be taught in schools and shown to every child of a certain age because of how simple and beautiful it is in getting its message across while simply just being one of the greatest technical achievements you’ll ever see on the screen.

2. One Small Step

I say this every time I talk about this short, and I’m never ashamed to say it — I wept when I first saw this, and I cry every time I watch it. It’s one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever seen.

This is love personified, this short. It’s the story of a young girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut, and the story of her relationship with her father, who works tirelessly to raise her and help her make her dream come true. It’s the story of the magic of childhood and the things our parents do for us to make our lives better than theirs.

I really can’t get through this short without actually sobbing. I know people say that all the time, but I really mean that. There’s just something so personal to me about this short that affects me more than most features do.

1. Pearl

There was never any question for me what the #1 short of the decade was going to be. I couldn’t believe what I was watching the first time I saw this. I had no context for the Google Spotlight Stories or what they were trying to do. I just saw this and watched it and was absolutely blown away.

You’ve seen me talk about the Spotlight Stories throughout this list, and they were a branch of Google animation that created shorts designed for VR, that could be watched in full 360°. They made 12 in all, and I think by consensus this would be considered the best. It’s by Patrick Osborne, who also made Feast, and is the story of a father and daughter as told through their car.

It starts with the car abandoned on the side of the road as a woman comes inside to find a tape recorder sitting on the seat. And as she hits play, a song begins and takes us back to the early days of the car and the father and daughter. And it’s that song that takes us through the story of the short, as the father and daughter go around the country (he’s a traveling musician). And then we follow the car and their lives as he decides to settle down so she can have a normal life and then as she grows up and eventually takes ownership of the car herself. Which is when the short does something so beautiful… which is have her take over and continue singing the song, as she makes her own way in life.

It’s just so moving. This is the peak of animation to me. This achieves everything you want to achieve within about five minutes and uses technology and the medium to create something truly profound and special. In a way, this is the major reason I wanted to create this list in the first place, because I’m going to cherish this short and a lot of the others on this list for the rest of my life, and all too often do we ignore or forget about these shorts as beautiful pieces of art that can move us and make us feel and think differently about the word around us or the people around us. And I think we all need to go back and watch these sometimes to realize that you can make something great even within a limited space so long as there’s truly a story you have to tell. Animation is a powerful medium, and when done right, there’s nothing better.

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