The Best Animation Shorts of 2023
The top animation shorts of the year (here 2023) are a useful notion, both a celebratory one and a chance to highlight the year's most eloquent achievements in independent animation (and its shorts variety). At Zippy Frames, we conducted this twice, for 2016 and 2019 animation shorts.
This year's list reveals a welcome (and unsurprising) preponderance of women voices; no wonder that the first position is jointly occupied by two multi-talented animation directors, whose films have been addressed at Zippy Frames (for instance, here, and here, both Oscar-qualified). But not all voices are the same; we dive into those films as if we are experiencing the world from a fresh perspective each time.
Family, neighborhood, and our love-to-hate society are all here addressed in both their straight and queer versions, quasi-historical and intimate ones. At some points, films tend to get inspired and have the look of another era - but all issues to be tackled are here with us.
A note about the procedure: the final list of 16 best animation shorts was selected from a bigger pool that involved 50+ animation shorts. Eligible were animation shorts that were released in 2022 or 2023 and screened at various animation/film festivals during 2023. We selected only 'professional' animation shorts -and left student films for a different, future vote. Another hard decision: we had to exclude Russian state-funded films from consideration.
Our pool of animation shorts was formed by our contributors (Mikhail Gurevich, Kropka, Joseph Norman, and Vassilis Kroustallis); all films were initially ranked, cross-ranked, and voted by everyone. So, what you see is the collective effort of the Zippy Frames team -now for your animation use.
Oscar Wilde famously said that 'the truth is rarely pure and never simple'. These animation shorts below are never simple nor aesthetically or narratively 'pure'; but they are direct, frank, challenging, and always with things to (re)discover -and so much the better for it.
The Top Animation Shorts of 2023
(in reverse order)
14 (tie) 'Christopher at Sea' by Tom CJ Brown
La Traviata and queer Schubert frame this meticulously orchestrated, almost enervating hapless young gay story to its operatic apotheosis. Christopher (in a design whose wavy lines reveal every emotional change) travels to a cargo ship and meets the man of his life -or maybe not. In a masterful composition of shots, which make the La Traviata ship another living character, and a neon-colored aesthetic, 'Christopher at Sea' fully justifies its 20-minute running time and immerses us in old-fashioned eroticism, both tempting and unattainable. The film's politics of traveling between countries and being ready (or be forbidden) to tell your story (check how many times the word 'forbidden' is heard in the film, especially when it comes to cigarettes that light your fire) is another instance of how still LGBTIQ+ stories need to be told. At the same time, the heightened sense of realism and agony that permeates 'Christopher at Sea' confirms how difficult still that is. It's a cherished film. -VK
14 (tie). 'Our Uniform' by Yegane Moghaddam
'Our Uniform' by Yegane Moghaddam (2023, Iran) is quite a brave liberating gesture, in all the variety of ways – and aesthetically as well if not predominantly. The synopsis goes: “An Iranian girl unfolds her school memories on the wrinkles and fabrics of her old uniform” – but it’s more than that. It’s also a cleverly playful, gently witty exploration of the texture(s): first, on the surface, literally, of the clothing – turned into animation technique: as a background, basis for drawing, painting, cutouts, objects on and over it, building the facture-conditional-convincing world-narrative. And then, by extension, or material metaphorizing – of the existential modes and tensions. People have their own textures – the narrator (director’s lyrical-publicistic alter ego, we’d assume) suggests at the opening; and here it's supposed to be the mandatory one-for-all – in feminine role-destiny of the place and time; but not in terms of identity, of course, narrowly or broadly taken. The independent Iranian production carries a disclaimer: “This film is not criticizing ‘Hijab’ and the people who wear it…” The instrumental-artistic messaging opens up in a wide-free angle indeed. -MG
14 (tie). 'Shackle' by Ainslie Henderson
The tactile stop-motion film centers on 3 furry woodland creatures. One of them has tapped into the cosmic beat of the forest, enabling them to hold nature’s cycle in their hands, in the form of an ever-morphing pinecone that opens and closes. They teach a second creature how to harness this magic power; the second creature then uses this power to tap into Nature’s spirit, resulting in a twig caught within an endless cycle of morphing, transforming, and becoming. Together, their cosmic experiments send out an enchanted signal, which is picked up by a third creature, who lives in an alternate world of darkness. This third creature breaks out of the dark space in a bid to steal nature’s spirit. This is a sensitive film that explores ideas of cyclic change. Inherently with the timelapse process shot in a forest, there is a strong sense of time passing, the cycle of life, and seasonal change. The sunlight filters through trees, dappling the surface and building a sense of accelerating change – of body and season, growth and decay. -JN
12 (tie). 'The Master of The Swamps' by Sasha Svirsky
'The Master of the Swamps’ (Germany, 2023) is Sasha Svirsky's first full-blown film (not counting extra-shorts in thematic omnibuses) after fleeing abroad, made within the YouTube-placed emigre collective project on Great Russian Villains that targets the faces-personifications of the neo-post-imperial mythology – the basis of the newly-bloody flourishing ressentiment. Among other commissioned pieces there, Sasha’s one stands out as perhaps the most artistically self-sufficient and, arguably, the most important by design: if only because it aims to deconstruct the figure of none other than Peter the Great, the notorious ‘first emperor’, pitiless westernizer, who would build the imperial body on sweat and blood, and bones of his subjects’ bodies. That’s exactly what comes into play in the visuals here, substituting at large Sasha’s habitual semi-abstract free-flying collaging with more earthy-heavy-topical imagery. Together with quite serious heavy-thoughtful self-written and self-read voice-over narration this hints possibly at new horizons opening up for this director, maybe both thematically and aesthetically. -MG
12 (tie). 'Victimhood' by Gabríela Friðriksdóttir & Pierre-Alain Giraud
In contrast with a lot of Bjork’s other music videos which use various forms of animation, Victimhood is refreshingly low-tech and tactile. There is a striking, almost handmade quality to the animation, developed through a 2D approach that retains its roots in traditional drawing. The imagery is characterized by childlike simplicity and paganistic magic which is evoked through Bjork’s music. Bodies morph, becoming elements of the landscape. Close-ups reveal painterly brush marks and characters move in a bewitched manner. The video feels intimately aligned with Bjork’s obsessive return to themes of the human versus Nature dichotomy, and emotions conceived as sensorial environments. Creatures float and spin, caught within a witchlike dream. Although the video has a handmade quality, it also inhabits the familiar conceptual space of platformer games, with the main character tumbling down between elements of landscape, in the throes of losing another life (as in gameplay), which operates as a way of viewing the end of a relationship. -JN
11. 'Via Dolorosa' by Rachel Gutgarts
This film documents a night spent searching for lost youth and atonement on the streets of Jerusalem. A young woman returns to where she grew up to make the film. The city environment is strikingly brought to life, with deeply atmospheric details such as plants swaying in the breeze. The film is driven by a highly tactile approach, putting the viewer amongst the characters as the night unfolds, with a city of deep folds of shadow and glowing lights providing an atmospherically charged backdrop to her odyssey. The film is drenched in a euphoric sense of wonder, sex, desire, getting high, and being young and alive in the moment. The raw sensuality of experience, which begins with her piss drenching onto the ground, and as she stands up, is followed by a dizzying succession of images - her vulva, then a religious pendant, then a brick-lined tunnel, lastly her mouth – all this is realized as a sensorial fluid transition. The film is startling in its harnessing of the frenetic energy of being young, experiencing desire and euphoria in a heady mix. -JN
10. 'The Meatseller' by Margherita Giusti
It is an animated documentary from a female perspective. The story tells the ominous pilgrimage of Selinna Ajamikoko, a young Nigerian girl, to Italy to fulfill her dream of being a butcher like her mother. From the point of view of aesthetics, technique, as well as the choice of a color palette, the film captivates from the first frame. The film is an animation that, without being impeccable, moves and immerses when listening to Selinna's voice. She openly confesses her dreams, misadventures, and suffering. Making a parallel between her own life and that of those cows that she so venerates and at the same time, sacrifices to survive, such as the sacrifices she has to make to finally arrive in Italy. Although the film is a bit long and could have been resolved with less footage, it is a cinematic exercise that makes clear what animation is for. To tell strong and honest stories without leaving aside the imagination to enhance what is wanted to be told. I hope this emerging director has more stories to tell in the near future. -K
9. 'Eeva' by Lucija Mrzljak & Morten Tšinakov
Among this year's films, some may find 'Eeva' a strange film. Perhaps the most clueless will not know the work of both Lucija Mrzljak and Morten Tšinakov. 'Eeva', as always, is a cryptic film that works with subconscious elements. The world created for these two filmmakers will undoubtedly be the subject of debate and special retrospectives in the future. With 'Eeva', the Croatian-Estonian duo gives us a statement of a way of seeing and approaching animated art. 'Eeva' is a film that can be read individually but also within their previous works. Their films are built with small but powerful details that progressively connect in some way. On a visual level, there is a refinement in the execution of the film that allows us to see one more step towards their maturation as artists. 'Eeva', like their previous films, is not easy to follow. It is weird, funny, and with an original search to provoke mixed emotions and sensations, almost always pleasant. Although many viewers may or may not like the films of this duo, they always have their own brilliance. -K
8. 'The Family Portrait' by Lea Vidaković
It looks deceiving on many levels – though in a noble way, giving more than seems to promise, or just differently. Elaborate quasi-naturalistic puppets, the entire set thoroughly detailed as if in an era-sensitive manner, with exquisite light and sound design – border almost surreal qualities, and can turn mystic or wild almost on a spot. As do the characters or the plot itself. Is it really a bourgeois Viennese apartment, with inhabitants being suddenly disturbed by the influx of unbidden guests – or an outright allegory of the delusive safe haven disrupted by forces beyond its shielding power? Is it the realm of empire life span closing the death spiral; what makes the glassware on the table tremble jarringly – awkward steps or tectonic tremor of the historical rupture to come? And the frontal final portrait – a family presentation or a snapshot of (fading) time?.. All of the above, surely. And the very mode of film presentation: belonging equally to the cinema hall and installation space, with puppets on display in full weird beauty and multiscreen projection in pauses and jumps akin to the inner rhythm and feel. -MG
7. 'Letter to A Pig' by Tal Kantor
A Holocaust survivor describes his story of how a pig saved him from the Nazis. Most films and directors would have ended with that. Not Tal Kantor. This story is only the starting point for a dreamlike (but still discrete), fragmented universe of memories, dreaming, and hallucinations -with both humans and animals. The rotoscoped figures and their environment invite always the uncertainty of what is real and what is not -and reenacting the bad deed does not always have the therapeutic and educational function we hope to pass on. As in Tal Kantor's 'In Other Words' (2016) we deal with a failure to communicate, and the emotions of reverence get swayed by revenge and group 'animality'. A thrilling puzzle of a film that asks epistemological questions conducted in always-changing, never-to-be-trusted character identity traits, and alternates harsh images with soothing scenes. A 17-minute animated rollercoaster of emotions and attitudes, impeccably executed -VK
6. 'La Perra' by Carla Melo Gampert
"Being a daughter, being a mother, being a dog. Become a woman", this is how the author defines her film. The salsa dance sequence in 'La Perra' reminded me of the so-called "salsa sensual" in Latinomérica. Lyrics of metaphorical sexual-romanticism in which “The wet sheets sing the songs” or “I want to run over your body like hot water”.* As children, we already knew they were talking about sexual exploration. 'La Perra' is a film where a bird woman goes in search of that sexuality repressed by an overprotective mother, and the story of thousands of women in Latin America who grow up with guilty feelings of accepting their sexual desires. It outlines the path taken by many girls to discover, in the best cases, the wonderfulness of sexual discovery. But it is also a story of family issues, love, affection, growth, and reconciliation. With an elegant and dynamic visual layout made by hand drawn in ink and watercolors, Carla Melo Gampert offers us an intimate look at a taboo theme with magnificent scenes that create a powerful animated film. -K
*Lyrics of salsa songs ('Amores como el nuestro' and 'Agua Caliente')
5. 'Miserable Miracle' by Ryo Orikasa
Ryo Orikasa from the very beginning, from his student graduate piece 'Writings Fly Away’ (Tokyo University of the Arts, 2011) was showing keen interest in “a film using texts, or a film-book”, thus placing the work as if “between watching and reading”, as he articulates it; with that, I’d say, perhaps dreaming of different quality if not the very mode of filmmaking altogether. In the latest piece ‘Miserable Miracle' (Canada, France, Japan) the director seems to get right on the edge – freely adopting the writings of Henri Michaux under free inspiration of his drawings as well (as credits reveal). This brings us, arguably, up to the rendezvous with so called ‘asemic writing’, which Michaux was in part associated with – and in that, to all the complexity and ambiguity of interplay between the verbal and the pictorial, and the very nature of ‘meaning’. Provocatively ambivalent yet back in high-modernist practices, now all that is being revisited and powerfully refreshed in the tense dramaturgy between the daring ‘textual’ visuals, mixing the abstract and quasi-figurative, and complexly lyrical narrating voice-over. -MG
4. 'Zima' by Tomek Popakul & Kasumi Ozeki
I have selected 'Zima' (Winter), a mysterious and beautifully cinematic short film, because of its intriguing storytelling, involving strange reverse interactions between humans and wild animals. A lonely young woman, Anka, lives in a small, isolated village. She dwells on her relationship with Jesus and cats. The film Is set deep in Winter, in an isolated snowy woodland environment, as well as on an island where unwanted kittens are drowned. People say that animals speak with a human voice at Christmas midnight, and animals take over as a mass pack and hunt humans. The film explores the convergence of primal animal existence with modern society: young skinhead men go hunting, but they become the prey as the pack attacks them, and Anka is discovered physically exploring her love for Jesus in the forest. This is a magical realist world where human-to-human and animal-to-human interactions overlap and combust. It is a strange film, but revealing of contemporary fears and which seems to herald a sense of societal collapse, with Nature taking charge once again. -JN
3. 'The Lovers' by Carolina Sandvik
Swedish animation director Carolina Sandvik has crafted a remarkable (but not always noticed) trajectory in recent stop-motion animation filmmaking. Her 'Paracusia' (2019), 'The Expected' (2021), and 'Declaws' (2021) puppet films have characters tested to the limits, and the unease permeating them (especially the female characters) is palpable. Things are not different in the Locarno-premiered 'The Lovers' puppet film, in which the disintegration of a relationship, and the subordination of the female partner into a companion gets both symbolic and very tangible proportions. The religious comedic undertones won't diminish the power of both the well-placed shots (from close-ups to medium shots), and the most intensely constructed puppet disintegration scene in years. Ostensively, a film about the masks we need to wear; yet, its down-to-earth puppet fabrication and well-placed editing of a relationship that goes haywire make this a very ordinary (and sad) affair to be into. Especially if you're a woman - VK
1 (tie) 'Electra' by Daria Kashcheeva
How a young girl wants to become a doll to please her father -and fails miserably in the process. Daria Kashcheeva (the Oscar-nominated director of 'Daughter') moves into adult territory with a Greek-themed, at-your-face stop-motion film, in which every shot is a narrative surprise. Looping the memories of the 10-year-old Electra continuously into the 26-minute opus, the film has the feel of the off-Broadway experimental theatrical show (with the psychoanalytic Electra syndrome on its focus). This is a major undertaking that could have failed miserably (and easily) in any other lesser director. But Daria Kashcheeva keeps it all in focus, helped by her opulent scenery and life-size puppets, her animating sense of leaving nothing unaccounted for, and her directorial treatment of making the same gendered point of a young woman in crisis as visible as ever. 'Electra' is a film where you can have your birthday cake and eat it too - VK
1 (tie): '27' by Flóra Anna Buda
Let's talk about the film that won the Cannes Palme d'Or (short film). When I finally saw '27', I understood why it had won such an appreciated award. '27' spoke to me from minute one; the honesty of the sexual explosion portrayed in detail in the shapes, colors, and dialogues seemed to me at least genuinely brutal. '27' is a precise, almost surgical animation film, perhaps the most perfect made this year in all aspects, from its narrative aspect to its execution. Visually is addictive, with a sensation of imperfection that gives the film depth and lightness to deliver an instant classic; a piece of art that speaks about the moment in which a generation has not been able to access a house because it would be an economic suicide. At the same time, Airbnbs and hotels sprout like plagues, there are singles and even families without a space to exercise their right to privacy. If we give up the privacy where we can enjoy our sexuality, which is the only real thing we have left, it would be to happily live la petite mort before fading to black. -K
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