Luckily for devoted moviegoers like you and yours truly, the Motion Picture Academy has again made their Oscar nominated shorts available for our viewing pleasure. The short form animated, live action and documentary films are being released wide this weekend. And if you can’t catch them this now, you can catch them all on iTunes and VOD starting February 19th. (Find out how to see them here: http://bit.ly/wrPvnv)
Four of the five nominated films in the live action short category this year are intense dramas. There isn’t anything that comes close to the sunny optimism of the winning short “God of Love” from two years ago (http://bit.ly/Z1N3ru). Still, they’re all entertaining, even if they are dark and moody. Here’s my mini-review of each mini-film:
This is a bleak but riveting film about it a Somalian boy named Asad who is feeling the pull to become a pirate versus the honest fisherman vocation he had hoped for. It’s a tough film to watch, made all the more harsh and realistic by its superb location work and all Somali refugee cast. Still, you do care for the boy’s dilemma and there is some cheeky wit around the periphery, particularly at the end. And director Bryan Buckley, who is one of the greatest TV commercial directors of all time, has made a film a million miles away from that world that shows his directing talent to be one with no limitations.
Similar in many ways to “Asad”, this coming-of-age saga concerns two boys in Afghanistan who long to escape the doldrums of their lives in their third world cities. These Kabul youth rush off to watch a Buzkashi match, the Afghan sport of brutal horse polo with a dead goat, and dream of a better life. Director Sam French has filmed a harsh and unflinching tale, full of quiet despair and striking location work all over Kabul. His film will make you feel deep empathy for the boys’ plights, despite their affections for such an awful sporting event.
The title character here is an elderly concert pianist who believes that his musician wife has disappeared. His memories of her keep colliding with his search and flashbacks of his past keep interfering with the present. There are times this film plays like a psychological thriller, but Montrealer filmmaker Yan England is after something deeper here. This is about the devastation of aging and it reminded me of the similarly themed Best Picture nominee “Amour”. Both are frank and tragic dissertations on love and loss.
“Death of a Shadow”
Director Tom Van Avermaet’s tale is a surreal one about Nathan, a soldier who died in WWII and is now being held captive by a sinister collector of death shadows. He’s tasked with capturing the deceased in their last throes and he’s just two shy of the quota that will get him another shot at life. Is the collector the devil? Perhaps so. But much is left to the imagination here with no Rod Serling-esque explanations. In fact, it’s all rather blind until the very end. This thriller is an unsettling journey, shot with burnished browns and yes, sinister shadows throughout every scene. It’s period noir, full of dread and sadness, and could very well sustain a feature length thriller.
My favorite of the bunch is the most accessible, and thus is likely to win the Oscar. “Curfew” concerns Richie, a ne’er-do-well slacker who is in the midst of slashing his wrists when he gets a phone call from his estranged sister begging him to watch her daughter Sophia for a few hours. Richie cleans himself up and jumps at the chance to connect with his niece, even though he hasn’t seen her since she was a baby. She turns out to be quite a handful and their odd couple pairing gives their nocturnal bonding session a darkly comic tug-o-war. Writer/director/star Shawn Christensen is a triple-threat here and you can expect to hear a lot from this big talent in the coming years.
One of the nice embellishments of the shorts presentations this year is that they're hosted by past Oscar winners in the shorts categories. “God of Love” writer/director/star Luke Matheny hosts the live action ones, telling pithy anecdotes about life after winning his award. And animators William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, who directed last year’s cartoon winner “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” (http://exm.nr/LMGnlm), regale us with their tales of pitching features to studios and how it’s much easier to get them to okay a short film.
The shorts are playing throughout the nation now so check your local listings. Or you can watch them on VOD and iTunes starting February 19th. And be sure to watch the Academy Awards when they’re handed out on Sunday, February 24th. I think you’ll see Shawn Christensen onstage, but you never know with Oscar.