Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts, by Josh Long
Well the last few weeks have been chock-full of people talking Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, and all the other big ticket Oscar contenders. If you’re like me, maybe you’d like to take a step back from the madding crowd of repetitive opinions and take a look at the Oscar contenders that you haven’t heard anything about yet – the shorts. Here’s some details (plus my own take) on 2013’s Best Live Action Short Film nominees.
Nominee Henry comes to us from a Canadian actor-turned-director Yan England, who has had a steady career in Canadian film and TV. The story is a very personal one, about an aging pianist’s struggle with memory loss. The film starts with a red herring approach, where the old man (Gerard Poirier) believes that someone has kidnapped his wife Maria, and is somehow holding him hostage. It’s a tired conceit (the old man who’s suffering from dementia seen as a victim of fantastic circumstances) and the cards the filmmaker holds close to his chest are easily transparent to the viewer. However, once we get past that, we get some very nice moments where we understand the old man’s trauma in his inability to grasp his surroundings. The final scenes really capture the pain of not only losing your memory, but the awareness that you’re losing it, in those fleeting moments of clarity. Henry was inspired by the director’s own grandfather, Maurice England, whose moving quote closes the film – “The worst thing about old age is the awareness of being an old man losing his memory.” The film is shot beautifully, and features an emotional classical score. A very austere environment for a very sad tale.
Asad is written and directed by South African Bryan Buckley, who is primarily known for shooting over 40 Super Bowl commercials. Yet he’s clearly able to step away from the madcap marketing style of commercials to tell a small scale, exciting story about Somali refugees. The film revolves around the troubled circumstances of the young title protagonist – should he join his friends who go off to hijack yachts? Should he become a fisherman? How will he help to provide for his mother and sisters? Can he and his friends safely stay clear of vigilantes from Mogadishu? Yet through all of these oh-so serious circumstances, the film doesn’t take the bait and become a depressing slog that pulls on our heart strings until we feel guilt bound to offer it an Oscar. It’s got a pep and life to it consistent with Asad’s outlook. Even when things are life-threateningly dangerous, he makes it out of scrapes like one of the Little Rascals might. Still, the ending – though humorous – does leave a little to be desired in the boy’s story. Shot in Capetown, South Africa, the film’s cast is entirely made up of Somali refugees, which lends an interesting credence to the piece.
Death of a Shadow
Standing out from the pack of reality-based narratives, Death of a Shadow is a fantasy piece in the vein of Guillermo del Toro or Terry Gilliam. The film’s lead character, Mr. Rijckx, is imprisoned by a man who collects the shadows of people as they die. Rijckx uses a kind of steampunk camera to capture the shadows and bring them to the collector. It seems that once he has captured 10,000 shadows, he’ll be able to have a second shot at life, and his hope after doing so is to reconnect with a beautiful woman who had tried to save his life. When he realizes she’s in love with someone else, he must choose whether to take her for himself, or leave her with the man she loves. The production design here is excellent, whether it’s the shadow capturing camera, the hall of shadow portraits, or the machines that choose the next to die. It has that machine fantasy atmosphere you might expect from a Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The mythology behind the film is a little confusing, but the immersive world makes up for it. The enigmatic collector is a fascinating element of the story, both visually and thematically. The director, Tom van Avermaet, is likely one who we will be hearing from again soon, especially in today’s rush for fantasy and comic book movies.
The longest of the shorts, Buzkashi Boys also bears the distinction of being one of the first narrative fiction films to be shot entirely in Kabul, Afghanistan. With a backdrop of war-torn streets and distant snowcapped peaks, it tells the story of two young friends who share an interest in Buzkashi. Buzkashi, a violent version of polo involving the carcass of a dead goat, is perhaps meant as a metaphor for the dangerous atmosphere in modern day Afghanistan. The film features striking visuals and is well acted (Jawanmard Paiz as the young Ahmad particularly stands out). Unfortunately, it falls into mawkish sentiment and meanders to an enigmatic ending. There’s an underlying message about hoping for the future, or dreaming big, but the film quashes that, and it’s unclear whether it’s suggesting that the harsh circumstances won’t allow it, or that the characters are best to keep their heads down and be sensible. Either way, the connection between the theme and the setting seems shaky at best. The film shows Kabul less from the perspective of those who call it home, and more from that of a western journalist, intent on showing how hard life is there.
Curfew, the lone American entry for Best Live Action short, is written, directed by, and starring Shawn Christensen. To date, he is most well-known for writing the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, but don’t hold that against him. Curfew is a bafflingly effective mixture of fun, dark, quirky, and dramatic. Christensen’s Richie is a hopeless drug addict, who is pulled out of his suicide attempt by his sister, coming to him as a last resort for someone to watch her daughter for the evening. The bulk of the short follows Richie and his niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) while he takes her around town, trying to reconnect to a part of his life he thought he had lost. Highlights of the film are a moment where Richie mouths off to two annoying women loudly chatting in a bar (named Gabby and Kathy, snigger), and a surreal but strangely catchy dance number at the bowling alley. The film somehow hits so many different notes without falling into typical dramatic traps. Though its setup is so dark, it quickly gets us to the light moments with Sophia, and before it can seem too lighthearted, it dives into some deep drama. Characters are rich, fleshed out, and fun to watch. Besides, it carries a uniquely American (specifically New York) feel to it, which could be one of the reasons I found it so appealing.
So there you have it – the crop of this year’s best short films (so says Oscar). There are definitely some great selections here, and worth seeing if you get the chance. Maybe the short films can be the kicker to help you finally win your office Oscar pool.