In preparation for my Oscar Circuit article next week in this very category, I proudly share my individual reviews of 2013’s elite batch of Oscar®-nominated Live Action Short Films. These short films, as well as the nominated documentary short subject and animated short films, will be released in select theaters across the country, beginning this weekend in Los Angeles. There’s no excuse to forgo these prestigious works if you call yourself an ardent lover of The Academy Awards™, so be sure to check out select venues near your home that screen these aforementioned nominees. Before we begin, I have to start off by saying that the quality of this year’s group of nominees is so stellar that no single film scored below (***) for me. With that said, it’s now time to fully introduce the film-going audience to this fine group of contenders…
Aficionados of Michael Haneke’s grimly poetic Amour might go one of two ways with Yan England’s Henry. Either they’ll fall hard for its eerily similar story of devout elderly love trying to outrun both reality and death, or they’ll stick their noses in the air and shun it, claiming it’s a watered-down version of Haneke’s “masterpiece.” Personally — cue the screams of outrage — I much prefer England’s unpretentious take on elderly protagonists whose physical and mental states come crashing down thanks to an unfortunate event we call “time.” Henry is a retired French pianist, jovial and giddy as though the music he creates courses through his veins all hours of the day. However, his state of happiness isn’t long — not more than a few minutes after he meets a mysterious stranger outside a local restaurant while dining with an equally mysterious middle-aged woman, Henry’s whole world is turned askew by dangerous forces that threaten to strip his fulfilling life away from him. England’s insistence on shaky camerawork gives the film a chaotic angle that compliments Henry’s descent into mild hysteria before discovering a brutal truth. I’ll leave the plot as described until you investigate further, but England certainly knows how to grip an audience with narrative twists that refreshingly come out of nowhere. The performances amongst the cast, especially the awe-inspiring Gérard Poirier as the title character, are all so exquisitely perfect for the sensitive story told. When the film’s plot seems as though it could jump to the silly or sentimental, England reels it back and keeps his specified themes of aging and loss, front and center. If you are looking for the unexpected tearjerker that warms and breaks the heart, Henry impressively fits the bill. (Country: Canada, Running Time: 21 min.)
I love a good science fiction flick, and seeing one that’s so weirdly different yet innovative from beyond our national borders is a downright treat. Tom Van Avermaet’s Death of a Shadow is that international treasure. Matthias Schoenaerts plays the ghost of a World War I soldier whose shadow has found itself trapped by a curator with a time-traveling assignment. The curator is obsessed with images — captured via a uniquely constructed retro camera — of shadows just before they die. Matthias Schoenaerts, under employment by this enigmatic curator who lives in some sort of purgatorial castle where time-travel can be controlled, must photograph two more dying shadows to complete his quota. Upon doing so, his shadow and dead soul will be set free. All these intriguing ideas contained within Death of a Shadow are fascinating and deserve exploration. Unfortunately, the cool factor is set aside for a pretty generic love story: Matthias’ Nathan Rijckx secretly travels back in time to the moment just before he dies, where he can’t help but revisit the love of his life over and over again in the hopes that she’ll notice him once more. What Nathan discovers before his mission for the curator is complete, is something that will drastically change the way his time is spent leading up to his final moments as a shadow. If this is as dramatic and apocalyptic as it sounds, that’s because it is! Schoenaerts disappears into this role to the point where I had no idea it was him until reviewing my press notes, which is the sign of an actor who never ceases to amaze. As for Avermaet’s direction, I do wonder if he was inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, because the deeply romantic/traveling-across-time angle is very reminiscent to that particular sci-fi cult classic. The ending may disappoint some, as it did me, because it’s nearly identical to Rian Johnson’s Looper, but that’s pure coincidence so I can’t be too antagonized. Death of a Shadow is a marvel that oozes in ingenuity the way good sci-fi usually does, but trips over itself somewhat by reverting to a clichéd love story we’ve seen enacted too many bothersome times before. (Country: France/Belgium, Running Time: 20 min.)
Despite its self-importance and total obviousness, Sam French’s skillfully shot Buzkashi Boys certainly knows how to deliver a message. Centering on two Afghani boys of differing social class, French posits his small film as one that teaches us the value of freedom, and that sometimes even in death those who are free are still in a better place than the living, who are bound by the rigid, redundant and enslaved policies of a country that both condemns and fears change. The boys are best friends, but one, Ahmed, is clearly taking full advantage of life and the potential that it offers. The other, Rafi, is trapped by a cycle of duty, where he must carry on the mantle of his father’s blacksmith title like his father did before him, and so on and so forth. Ahmed’s dreams are unlimited because he is homeless. He has nothing to lose, and Sam French makes sure to demonstrate this as Ahmed climbs to dangerous heights atop large buildings and into a public Buzkashi sporting event, which he drags a reluctant Rafi to. Buzkashi is the major sport in Afghanistan — a similar game to polo except one rider must hold onto a dead goat while wrangling his horse. To be a Buzkashi rider is Ahmed’s one and only goal, and you cannot help but feel it’s the most valiant one thanks to Ahmed’s innocent enthusiasm and zest for what his life of freedom can offer. Rafi has no such choice, and when the film twists in a dramatically dark manner, that becomes all the more clear. Sam French presents an honest picture of life in Afghanistan, where ironically it’s those at the bottom who often have more wiggle room than those at the top, who find themselves invisibly chained to honor, religion, duty and family. Buzkashi Boys struggles the most near its conclusion, where events become so predictable and foreseeable that the film’s authentic passion nearly falls by the wayside. Still, the powerful imagery and ideas brought forth from the short film are more than enough to credit its ability to emotionally charge and perhaps galvanize change in the Middle East. (Country: Afghanistan/USA, Running Time: 28 min.)
Few feature-length films can define an entire country in their running time. The magnificent and revolutionary Asad does so in under twenty minutes. Bryan Buckley, my hat is off to you for making what I consider to be one of the most informative and moving pieces of cinema all year. Somehow, Buckley is able to showcase a real, unfiltered Somalia whose inhabitants astoundingly keep their hope alive despite carnage and destruction from all corners of their land. We witness Somalia’s intolerance of homosexuality, its youth’s affection towards Western pop culture — which, we find out, is both a good and bad thing — and the brave trials a ravaged and pillaged Somali town must endure in order to survive on a daily basis. Through the eyes of a young boy named Asad, we realize the impossibility of “childhood” in such violent regions of Africa. Or, better yet, a childhood that is so vastly different from our own, you’d almost believe we were watching beings that exist on some far away planet. Asad is the bravest boy you’ll meet — he’ll use his street-smarts to save the life of another young boy who accidentally utters the wrong thing to a group of town-raiding gunmen. He’ll also provide for his family by fishing out in the open sea, his skinny and emaciated arms triumphantly rowing the gargantuan-sized oars of a rowboat. It’s a much nobler path than the boys who earn money by holding tourists for ransom on-board their fancy catamarans, although can you really blame them in their dire situation? And through it all, Asad the boy and film, shine a light that radiates purity, humor, and goodness. The greatest way to combat an ugly, gruesome existence is to kill all oppositional forces with hope and kindness. Academy voters, I pray this is your short film of choice. (Country: South Africa, Running Time: 18 min.)
It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling yourself not to award a film a perfect score just because it “feels too soon” or “I’ve awarded too many films such a score already.” For me, that line of thinking can often misrepresent a film’s true greatness, hindering both your own expression and the film’s value of excellence. This is why I have absolutely zero qualms awarding two of these Oscar®-nominated shorts with a (****) rating. I am literally obsessed with Asad and Curfew for very different reasons, but I cannot recommend either enough, try as I may. You’ll just have to determine for yourself why I fall to blissful pieces just thinking about these two short films in particular. What I can say in the case of Shawn Christensen’s bold, awkward, quirky, silly, introspective, tonally complex potpourri of a movie is that I haven’t had this much fun since watching Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. What starts off seemingly self-indulgent — Christensen stars in his own film, no less — with a man in a bathtub, finishing the final slices of bodily flesh that will complete his suicide, turns into something a lot more whimsical and humanistic. Christensen plays Richie, a drug addict who’s banned from seeing his sister or his niece, and has reached three walls he is unable to scale: love, acceptance, self-worth. As Richie is about to finalize his death, the phone rings and his sister, Maggie, pleads with Richie to watch her daughter, Sophia, for an evening while she settles personal matters with Sophia’s father. I love experiencing films where the journey and end result are such a mystery, that the pleasure is derived from my quest to find out what on earth I’m seeing. Even if I don’t get all the answers, the adventure with the film and its highly irresistible characters make it all worth it. Curfew is undeniably that type of movie, and so much more. Various genres pop up at random, but with such force and adoration of its mise-en-scene that you cannot help but live in the moment. In particular, the musical number in Curfew that jumps out at you is a shock value I can only compare with the spectacular accordion scene from Holy Motors. These standout components to filmmaking define such directors as original maestros of the craft. Shawn Christensen is such a talent, and he even managed to weave together a touching relationship story between his adorable yet talkative niece and estranged sister, Kim. Once again, bravo to directors like Shawn Christensen who create more movie magic in their short films than most manage on a feature-length production. Curfew is another short film I wouldn’t mind being given the top prize in cinema. (Country: USA, Running Time: 19 min.)
Well, those are my reviews for 2013’s Oscar®-nominated short films. These shorts hit theaters starting today, February 1st, in Los Angeles before following with a national rollout in other parts of the country. Los Angeles residents can catch both programs of the Live Action Short Films and Animated Short Films at the Nuart in West L.A. and the Regency South Coast Village 3 in Orange County. I sincerely hope you scout for them if you live nearby!