Best Oscars Short Films of 1989: The Remarkable Nominees

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Written By Kelsey Waddell

Kelsey Waddell is a freelance writer living in Virginia. She's a fan of science fiction, Iron Chef, and anything with a musical number and a happy ending.

The Academy Awards, fondly known as the Oscars, have always been a prestigious celebration of cinematic excellence.

While feature films often dominate the limelight, the shorts category holds a special place in the hearts of film enthusiasts and connoisseurs alike.

In 1989, the Oscars honored a remarkable collection of short films that captivated audiences with their ingenuity, storytelling prowess, and artistic vision.

The year was marked by a plethora of compelling narratives, imaginative animation, and thought-provoking documentaries, each offering a unique and unforgettable cinematic experience.

In this article, we will delve into the very best of the Oscars Short Films category from 1989, shining a spotlight on the remarkable works that left an indelible mark on the history of cinema.

From heartwarming tales of human connection to abstract visual journeys, these films represent the creative diversity and innovation that has always defined the art of short filmmaking.

Animated Short Films

Tin Toy

Tin Toy is a heartwarming and visually stunning animated short film directed by John Lasseter and Bill Reeves. The film was released in 1988 and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film!

As a movie reviewer, I chose to review Tin Toy because of its significant contribution to the world of animation and its timeless appeal.

The plot revolves around a small tin toy named Tinny, who comes to life and finds himself in a world full of danger and excitement. Tinny is a lovable and relatable character who captures the hearts of viewers with his wide-eyed wonder and childlike innocence.

While Tinny is initially thrilled to be alive, he soon realizes that his world is full of perilous obstacles, including a rambunctious and curious baby who wants to play with him. The story follows Tinny as he tries to escape the baby’s grasp and find safety in the world around him.

The animation style of Tin Toy is truly remarkable and contributes greatly to the storytelling. The animators used computer-generated imagery (CGI) to bring the characters to life, making Tinny and the baby look incredibly realistic. The attention to detail in the animation is impressive, from the way Tinny’s joints move to the baby’s chubby cheeks and tiny fingers.

The use of light and shadow also adds to the film’s atmosphere, creating a sense of depth and realism.

There are several scenes in the film that stand out as particularly memorable to me. One of the most captivating moments is when Tinny first comes to life and discovers the world around him. The animation perfectly captures his sense of wonder and amazement as he explores his surroundings.

Another standout scene is when Tinny tries to escape the baby’s grasp, and the camera follows him through a maze of toys and obstacles. The tension and excitement in this scene are palpable, and it keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.

A delightful and heartwarming animated short film, Tin Toy is sure to captivate viewers of all ages. The animation style is truly remarkable, and the story is both engaging and relatable.

I highly recommend this film to anyone who appreciates the art of animation and wants to experience a story that will leave them feeling uplifted. This film would be particularly enjoyable for families with young children, as they will be able to relate to Tinny’s sense of wonder and adventure.

The Cat Came Back

The Cat Came Back is a 1988 animated short film directed by Cordell Barker. It tells the story of a man named Mr. Johnson who tries everything in his power to get rid of a pesky feline that just won’t leave him alone.

The film is based on the folk song of the same name and is a darkly comedic take on the classic “cat and mouse” scenario.

The animation style of The Cat Came Back is a unique blend of hand-drawn and stop-motion animation. This contributes greatly to the storytelling by allowing for a wide range of movement and expression in the characters, as well as giving the film a distinct and quirky look.

One of the standout scenes in the film is when Mr. Johnson tries to drown the cat in a river, only to have it come back to him unscathed. This scene is both hilarious and disturbing, as we see Mr. Johnson descend into madness and desperation as he tries to rid himself of the cat.

Delightfully twisted and entertaining, The Cat Came Back will appeal to fans of dark comedy and offbeat animation. While it may not be suitable for younger audiences, adults will appreciate its clever writing, inventive animation, and macabre sense of humor.

Technological Threat

Technological Threat is a 1988 animated short film directed by Brian Jennings and Bill Kroyer. 

The film’s plot revolves around a group of forest animals, including a squirrel, a rabbit, and a bird. Joined by a mysterious stranger, they must come together to stop an evil robot from destroying their home.

The visual style of Technological Threat is impressive, with stunning animation that brings the forest to life. The film’s use of color is particularly striking, with vibrant hues that highlight the beauty of the natural world. The animation style contributes to the storytelling by creating a vivid and immersive world that draws the viewer into the story.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when the animals first encounter the robot. The tension is palpable as they realize the danger they are facing.

Another standout moment is when the animals work together to create a plan to stop the robot. The scene is both exciting and heartwarming, as the animals put aside their differences and work together for a common goal.

A well-crafted and engaging animated short film, Technological Threat is recommended for audiences of all ages who enjoy a good adventure story with a message about the importance of working together and protecting the environment.

The film’s stunning animation and engaging characters make it a must-see for animation fans!

Live Action Short Films

The Appointments of Dennis Jennings

The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, directed by Dean Parisot and Steven Wright, is a quirky and offbeat film that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Film in 1989.

The film tells the story of Dennis Jennings, a neurotic and anxiety-ridden man who is struggling to find meaning and purpose in his life.

The film is shot in a visually striking style, with a mix of live-action and animation that adds a unique and surreal quality to the storytelling. The animation style is used to represent Dennis’s inner thoughts and fears, which are often depicted as strange and abstract images that are both unsettling and captivating.

The main character, Dennis Jennings, is played by comedian Steven Wright, who also co-directed the film. Wright’s deadpan delivery and dry sense of humor are perfectly suited to the character of Dennis, who is both funny and tragic in equal measure.

The supporting cast includes talented actors like Rowan Atkinson and Laurie Metcalf, who add depth and nuance to the film’s various characters.

One of the standout scenes in the film is a dream sequence in which Dennis imagines himself as a giant monster rampaging through the streets of New York City. The animation in this scene is particularly impressive, with the use of bold colors and abstract shapes creating a sense of chaos and confusion that perfectly captures Dennis’s inner turmoil.

The Appointments of Dennis Jennings is a unique and engaging film that will appeal to fans of offbeat and unconventional storytelling.

While the film’s humor and style may not be for everyone, it is a thought-provoking and visually stunning work of art that is well worth watching. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different.

Cadillac Dreams

Cadillac Dreams, directed by Matia Karrell and Abbee Goldstein, is a charming and heartwarming film that was released in 1988.

The movie follows the story of a young boy named Charlie, played by the talented Joshua Morrell, who dreams of owning a Cadillac. He works tirelessly to earn enough money to buy the car of his dreams, but he faces numerous obstacles along the way.

The film is set in the 1950s and features a stunning visual style that captures the spirit of the era. The costumes, hairstyles, and set design are all carefully crafted to transport viewers back in time. The animation style used throughout the film is also noteworthy, as it adds an extra layer of magic to the storytelling.

One of the standout scenes in the movie involves Charlie’s encounter with a group of street performers. The performers use their talents to help Charlie earn the money he needs to buy his Cadillac, and their lively energy infuses the scene with a sense of joy and excitement.

Another memorable moment involves a car race that takes place near the end of the film. The race is expertly choreographed and shot, and it adds a thrilling edge to the story.

A movie that will appeal to audiences of all ages, Cadillac Dreams’ themes of perseverance, friendship, and chasing your dreams are universal and relatable.

I highly recommend this film to anyone looking for a heartwarming and engaging film. Its nostalgic charm and inspiring message make it a movie that will leave a lasting impression on viewers.

Gullah Tales

Gullah Tales is a 1988 live-action film directed by George deGolian and Gary Moss. The movie is based on the Gullah culture of the South Carolina and Georgia coast, which is a blend of West African, European, and Native American cultures.

The film follows the story of a young girl named B’rer Rabbit, who is on a mission to outsmart the cunning B’rer Fox and B’rer Bear.

The movie’s visual style is unique, with a combination of live-action and stop-motion animation. The animation style contributes to the storytelling by bringing the Gullah folktales to life in a way that is both entertaining and educational. The stop-motion animation of the animals, in particular, adds a whimsical touch to the film and helps to create a magical world that is full of wonder and excitement.

One of the standout moments in the film is when B’rer Rabbit is caught in a trap set by B’rer Fox. In this scene, the stop-motion animation of the animals is used to great effect, as the animals come to life in a way that is both comical and heartwarming.

Another memorable moment is when B’rer Rabbit outwits B’rer Fox by tricking him into getting stuck in a honey jar.

Gullah Tales is a charming and delightful movie that is sure to entertain audiences of all ages. I highly recommend this film to anyone who is interested in learning more about the Gullah culture or who simply enjoys a good folk tale.

Documentary Short Films

You Don’t Have to Die

You Don’t Have to Die is a gripping and emotional documentary directed by Malcolm Clarke and Bill Guttentag. The film tells the story of the courageous efforts of Dr. Judah Folkman, a Harvard Medical School researcher, and his team to find a cure for cancer.

The film follows the story of a young boy named Lawrence who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and given only a few months to live. Desperate to save their son, Lawrence’s parents turn to Dr. Folkman, who has been working for years on a revolutionary idea – to cut off the blood supply to tumors, effectively starving them to death.

Through interviews with Lawrence’s parents, doctors, and researchers, as well as archival footage, the film explores groundbreaking research and the personal struggles of those involved. The film’s style and cinematography are simple yet effective, with a focus on the emotional impact of the story.

One of the standout scenes in the film is when Lawrence’s parents meet with Dr. Folkman for the first time. The tension and desperation in the room are palpable, and the viewer can feel the weight of the situation.

Another impactful moment is when Lawrence’s parents make the decision to allow their son to participate in a risky experimental treatment. The fear and uncertainty on their faces are heart-wrenching.

You Don’t Have to Die is a powerful and inspiring film that showcases the importance of perseverance and innovation in the face of adversity.

I would highly recommend this film to anyone interested in medical research, the fight against cancer, or stories of hope and resilience. This film would be particularly appealing to those who enjoy documentaries that tug at the heartstrings.

The Children’s Storefront

The Children’s Storefront is a powerful and emotional documentary directed by Karen Goodman that explores the daily lives of children attending a small, nonprofit school in Harlem, New York City.

The film takes viewers inside the school and shows how it provides a safe and nurturing environment for children who would otherwise fall through the cracks of the public school system.

The main subjects of the film are the students themselves, who come from a variety of backgrounds and face a range of challenges. We meet children who have lost their parents to violence, who struggle with learning disabilities, and who are dealing with poverty and neglect at home. Despite these obstacles, the children are shown as resilient and determined, eager to learn and grow.

The visual style of The Children’s Storefront is intimate and immersive, with the camera often following the children as they go about their day. The film is shot in a cinema verite style, which means that the camera captures real-life situations as they happen, without any scripted dialogue or staged scenes. This approach creates a sense of authenticity and immediacy that draws viewers into the world of the school and its students.

One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way it uses cinematography to convey the emotions of the children. There are several scenes where the camera lingers on a child’s face as they struggle to express themselves or hold back tears. These moments are powerful and poignant, and they give viewers a sense of the emotional weight that these children carry with them every day.

A deeply affecting documentary, The Children’s Storefront shines a light on an often-overlooked segment of society. It is a film that will leave viewers feeling both heartbroken and inspired, and it is a testament to the resilience and determination of the human spirit.

I highly recommend this film to anyone who is interested in social justice issues and education. 

Family Gathering

Family Gathering is a thought-provoking documentary directed by Lise Yasui and Ann Tegnell that takes a closer look at the Yasui family and their experiences as Japanese Americans.

The film explores the impact of the Yasui family’s internment during World War II, as well as the cultural differences and tensions that exist within the family.

The film’s main subjects are the Yasui family members, particularly the patriarch, Minoru Yasui. Minoru was a civil rights activist who challenged the legality of Japanese American internment during World War II.

Through interviews with family members, archival footage, and reenactments, the film delves into the family’s history and the complex relationships between its members. The viewer gains a sense of intimacy and a personal connection with the Yasui family and an insight into the family’s thoughts and feelings.

The cinematography is particularly impressive, with beautiful shots of the Oregon landscape and intimate close-ups of the family members. 

The filmmakers also use music and sound design to great effect, creating an immersive and emotional experience for the viewer.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is a reenactment of Minoru’s arrest during World War II. The scene is shot in black and white and is intercut with footage of the actual event. The use of archival footage and reenactment creates a powerful juxtaposition that highlights the gravity of the situation.

Family Gathering is a moving and thought-provoking documentary that offers a glimpse into the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The film is recommended for anyone interested in American history, civil rights, or family dynamics. The film would particularly appeal to those interested in Japanese American culture and history.

Gang Cops

Gang Cops is a gripping and thought-provoking documentary directed by Thomas B. Fleming and Daniel J. Marks. It explores the gritty world of gang violence and the brave law enforcement officers who risk their lives to combat it.

The film takes place in the late 1980s, during a time when gang-related crimes were at an all-time high in Los Angeles, and the police force was struggling to keep up with the escalating violence.

The documentary follows several LAPD officers as they navigate the dangerous and complex world of gang activity, often putting their own safety on the line to protect their communities. The main subjects of the film are Officer Larry Davis, who works in the notorious “Crips” neighborhood of South Central, and Officer Tony Moreno, who is part of the elite “Gang Task Force” charged with taking down the most dangerous gang members in the city.

The visual style of Gang Cops is raw and intense, with gritty footage that captures the harsh realities of life on the streets. The filmmakers use a mix of handheld camera work and stationary shots to create a sense of immediacy and urgency, placing the viewer right in the middle of the action. 

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Officer Davis is called to a domestic disturbance in a gang-infested neighborhood and ends up getting into a heated altercation with a group of gang members. The officers try to diffuse the situation, and the viewer can feel the danger and uncertainty of the moment.

Gang Cops is a powerful and important documentary that sheds light on a critical issue facing our society. While the film is certainly not for the faint of heart, it offers a compelling and authentic look at the realities of gang violence and the brave men and women who work tirelessly to combat it.

I would highly recommend this film to anyone interested in social justice issues, law enforcement, or simply looking for a thought-provoking and engaging documentary. However, due to its intense subject matter and graphic content, it may not be suitable for all audiences.

Portrait of Imogen

Portrait of Imogen is a 1988 documentary directed by Nancy Hale and Meg Partridge. It explores the life and work of Imogen Cunningham, a pioneering American photographer who was known for her portraits, nudes, and botanical photography.

The film takes us on a journey through Cunningham’s career, from her early days as a student at the California School of Fine Arts in the 1920s to her later years as an accomplished artist. Along the way, we meet some important people in her life, including her husband, the artist Roi Partridge, and her three sons.

One of the things that makes Portrait of Imogen so compelling is the way that it uses Cunningham’s own photographs to tell her story. The film is filled with stunning images of her work, ranging from intimate portraits of her family to abstract compositions of plants and flowers. These photographs are not just beautiful to look at; they also provide a window into Cunningham’s creative process and the way that she saw the world.

The film’s style and cinematography also contribute to its storytelling. The filmmakers use a combination of interviews, archival footage, and voiceover narration to give us a sense of who Cunningham was as a person and an artist.

The use of black and white footage and the slow, deliberate pacing of the film give it a timeless quality that feels appropriate for a documentary about a photographer whose work has endured for decades.

There are many scenes and moments in Portrait of Imogen that stand out, but one that particularly struck me was a sequence in which Cunningham talks about her decision to photograph nudes. She explains that she wanted to capture the beauty of the human form and challenge people’s assumptions about what was appropriate to show in art.

This moment encapsulates much of what makes Cunningham such an important figure in the history of photography, and it is a testament to the filmmakers’ ability to capture her voice and perspective.

Overall, I would highly recommend Portrait of Imogen to anyone who is interested in photography, art, or the lives of creative women. The film is a beautiful tribute to an important artist, and it offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of photography in the 20th century.

While it may not be the most action-packed or fast-paced documentary out there, it is a thoughtful and engaging film that rewards careful attention and reflection.

1989 Oscar Short Film Winners

Animated – Tin Toy

Live Action – The Appointments of Dennis Jennings

Documentary – You Don’t Have to Die