Grade: C | Directed By: Yan England
It wouldn’t have been amiss for a Rod Sterling narration to open Yan England’s film with his characteristic “Meet Henry, a man life treats without deference…” This is because the narrative to the 21-minute short is structured very much like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” It begins with a brief introduction to the title character (Gerard Poirier), a retired pianist who lives at home with his wife (Louise Laprade), and then the world as Henry and the audience know it begins to unravel. While at a cafe for a snack, Henry is captured by men in black clothes and taken to a mysterious white room, where a woman (Marie Tifo) watches him closely. After a series of flashbacks, the audience begins to discover that it is Henry, not his environment, that is slipping away.
Like “The Twilight Zone,” Henry is far more interested in plot machinations than character development and doesn’t bother giving us too much insight into the private lives of our main character or his family. Apt comparisons will be made between this short film and Michael Haneke’s Best Picture nominated Amour, but Haneke is more interested in the people involved in the end-of-life struggle while England only seems interested in the struggle itself. The result is a film that only provides temporary intrigue with very little catharsis and few questions left unanswered.
Grade: C+ | Directed By: Bryan Buckley
I can never help but feel cynical about a movie directed by a white guy that seems only to exist to raise awareness for a devastated African nation. Not because these movies shouldn’t exist or aren’t made with good intentions, but because they tend to abandon creativity and get bogged down depicting a hopeless world that is steeped in misery. A small amount of credit goes to Bryan Buckley and the forces behind the film Asad for adding enough humor to keep their film from becoming another exercise in miserablism. The title character (Harun Mohamed) is a young boy trying to find his way in war-torn Somalia. After being denied the opportunity to join his older peers on their latest pirating mission, Asad is taught to fish by a local elder (Ibrahim Moallin Hussein).
The most interesting aspect of Asad is that while it presents a bleak world for its characters, their reactions to dire situations is anything but tragic. A younger boy makes a joke when a gun is pointed at his head, the old fisherman laughs off a wound after being attacked, and the film’s ending features the most optimistic response to child murder I have ever seen. I assume that Buckley was trying to send the message that this misery is so commonplace to these people (all actors are actual Somali refugees) that they have become desensitized. However, these moments were just a bit too bizarre to give the film any sense of cohesion in terms of narrative and message.
Death of a Shadow
Grade: B+ | Directed By: Tom Van Avermaet
In my reviews of the Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films, I mentioned how they were almost all completely free of dialogue. The same cannot be said of the Live Action Shorts, most of which rely on dialogue for the progress of the plot. It is no coincidence then that the film with the least amount of speaking is also the film with the most visual imagination. Tom Van Avermaet’s Death of a Shadow takes an original concept and enhances it with wildly imaginative set pieces and wonderfully poignant cinematography, making it my pick for the best of this year’s nominees.
Nathan Rijckx (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a soldier killed during World War I who makes a deal with an eccentric collector (Peter van den Eede) to travel through time capturing the shadows of people at their moment of death in exchange for his life back. Rijckx wants to return to the woman he fell in love with from a distance until he discovers that she loves another and ultimately must decide whose happiness is most important. Like Henry, Death of a Shadow is all concept, but unlike that story of approaching death, Shadow puts its characters in control of their fate instead of at its mercy. Even though its themes are not always clear it feels like the only nominated short film this year with something new to say and a different method of delivery.
Grade: B- | Directed By: Shawn Christensen
The only English language film on this year’s list of nominees, Shawn Christensen’s Curfew has the look and feel of many an indie feature with a saturated color palette that set its pale characters apart from their environment. Richie (Christensen) sits in a bathtub with slit wrists when his sister (Kim Allen) calls in a panic asking if he can watch his niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek). Richie agrees and spends an evening with the observant young girl who teaches him how to be a better person.
Curfew has too many indie movie tropes (a depressed protagonist, a child who is way smarter than his/her age, center framed characters), but like Asad the film is saved by its dark sense of humor. The dialogue is very well-written and portrays believable conversations between a young girl and her estranged uncle. Young actress Fatima Ptacek
brings a sense of curiosity and hesitation to her performance, taking a role that could have been obnoxious and making it realistic. The ending has a few moments where conversations get a little on-the-nose, but the solid characterizations leading up to it mostly forgive any of the schmaltz. After all, it probably wouldn’t have been nominated for an Oscar without it.
Grade: D | Directed By: Sam French
While Asad was able to escape its depressing premise with occasional moments of lightness, Sam French and the creative team behind Buzkashi Boys are interested in little else than making the audience feel bad. Two young boys in Afghanistan dream of becoming Buzkashi riders, a sport that involves horseback riders dragging a dead goat, but are held back by the unfortunate circumstances of life. Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi) is the son of a blacksmith expected to carry on the family trade and Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz) is a penniless orphan with nothing to his name, but well-timed pearls of wisdom that guide other characters’ paths.
There is no sense of humor here as the filmmakers work to ensure that the audience sees every bit of misery these characters experience. The boys always have dirt on their faces, people on the street are all against them, and they talk about their dreams so often that the only likely scenario is that they will never come true. As mentioned above, the motivation to draw attention to a suffering nation is a noble one, but in this case that ultimate goal interferes with Buzkashi Boys ever feeling like an actual movie.
Did you see any of the Oscar nominated short films? Which ones were your favorite?