Oscar Weekend Movie Reviews: Best Live Action Shorts
The Academy Awards are tonight, so I thought I’d take a look at some of the less-examined nominees. Luckily, a nearby theater is running a complete series of the films nominated for Best Live Action Short. Although each of these touching and carefully wrought films merits full appreciation and analysis, here are some brief reviews of brief movies.
General Thoughts: Short filmmakers are a depressing bunch apparently. Or perhaps with The Simpsons and a sweet Disney movie getting nods in the animated short category, the Academy thought they needed more gravitas in the live action department. There are two films about what a bummer it is being a kid in a war torn country, another about what a bummer it is getting old, and a Gothic sci-fi tragedy. The remaining nominee is probably the most lighthearted, and it opens with the protagonist slashing his wrist.
Also, three of the five nominees focus on precocious children in difficult environments. This trope is getting pretty worn out for indie filmmakers.
Here, in the order they were shown, are thoughts on the films:
Death of a Shadow (Belgium/France)
A Belgian soldier killed in World War I can return to life and the woman he loves if he pays off his debt to the grim reaper, a gallery curator who collects silhouettes of deaths. The only “genre” film in the group, Shadow is dark and moody throughout. But I thought it leaned too much on its visuals, with a thin script and acting. A good parable, not exactly predictable, but simple.
Henry, an aging concert pianist, is thrown into a nightmare when his wife disappears and he is mysteriously imprisoned. This film reminds us that getting old sucks (the comparisons to this year’s Amour are undeniable). And anyone who has seen a loved one with dementia knows pretty early on where this film is going. But writer/director Yal England ambitiously immerses the audience in the experience, committing to Henry’s fractured and terrifying perception until the very end. The staging, which moves Henry seamlessly through time and space, is impressive. Gérard Poirier’s lead performance is varied and masterful. Heartbreaking.
Richie has just slit his wrist in the bathtub when his estranged sister calls and angrily begs him to watch her daughter for a few hours. Writer/director/star Shawn Christensen finds life in the precocious kid genre, as he mines humor from some dark subject matter. The warming relationship between Richie and Sofia, the niece he’s never known, feels real, growing out of their flaws, not in spite of them. A musical number in a hipster Brooklyn bowling alley is somewhat unexplained- is it a brief glimpse into Richie’s depressed mind? A sign that he can find magic in the world without drugs?- but it’s awesome none the less.
Buzkashi Boys (Afghanistan/USA)
Rafi, a blacksmith’s son, and Ahmad, an orphan beggar, are best friends in Kabul who dream of becoming stars of Afghanistan’s national sport, buzkashi. A gorgeously shot coming-of-age story about young boys who already (humorously, at times) chat and bear responsibility like old men. The lead performances from the two boys are eerily charismatic and deep. But I thought Buzkashi Boys went on a little too long, and could have concluded more ambiguously and open-ended, without hammering home (no blacksmith pun intended) it’s dual message of tragedy and hope.
Asad (South Africa/USA)
Young Asad must finally catch a fish to feed his family, and break his streak of bad luck. If possible, this is a funny, whimsical tale of growing up in a pirate village in present-day war-torn Somalia. Using a cast entirely of Somali refugees, the filmmakers present pirates and sociopathic soldiers from Mogadishu without sensationalism, as a part of everyday life. But they might have gone too far, with their sunny settings and amateur cast denying some of the true terror of the scenes portrayed.
Long story short, Curfew is reportedly the favorite to win tonight, and I’d agree. It seemed the most fully realized, naturally living out its story in the short form, but creating characters and an environment that have unseen depth. But I also think Buzkashi Boys could have a shot; though, as one blogger notes, it tries to squeeze a feature-length film into 30 minutes, it does so with some success and gorgeous visuals.
Have you seen the films? What do you think?