by Marshall Flores
I will preface this post by saying that it’s always difficult for me to choose a winner from any of the Oscar-nominated shorts in a given year. Too often are the nominees in a shorts category better than their “big brothers” in the respective feature category – in fact, I prefer this year’s crop of animated shorts over any of the animated feature nominees. Year in and year out, each shorts lineup represents an incredible, diverse array of artistry and talent.
But in any case, here’s a look at the 5 shorts nominated this year in the live action category:
Asad (dir. Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura) is one of two coming-of-age stories featured in this year’s lineup. Asad is a young Somali boy who idolizes the pirates of his coastal town. Of course, he eventually realizes that the pirate’s life isn’t as romantic as it seems, and begins to recognize the harsh, violent realities of life in the region. Comprised of increasingly bizarre events that are simultaneously nerve-racking and darkly humorous, “Asad” is propelled with terrific energy resulting from the charisma of its lead and the authenticity of its cast (all Somali refugees), culminating in a wacky curveball of an ending that I doubt anyone will see coming.
Buzkashi Boys (dir. Sam French and Ariel Nasr), like “Asad,” is a coming-of-age story in a war-ravaged country – this time, Afghanistan. Rafi and Ahmad are two young boys who both dream of participating in Buzkashi – a violent variation of horse polo. The longest of the five nominees, “Buzkashi” eschews the humor and unpredictability of “Asad,” favoring a more somber, conventional storytelling style that delivers plenty of emotional punch, while also providing a much-needed look into Afghanistan’s culture – a culture that remains pretty unknown to Americans despite our continuing military presence in that country.
Curfew opens with a despondent young man named Richie (Shawn Christensen, who also directs) sitting in a bathtub, about to cross a deathly Rubicon when he receives a phone call from his estranged sister. Soon, Richie finds himself on a night on the town, responsible for his precocious niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek, whose charming performance evokes Miranda Cosgrove in “School of Rock”). “Curfew” treads familiar territory, but there’s exceptional chemistry between Christensen and Ptacek, and the story is touching without being maudlin. And only the hardest of hearts will not be swayed by the cute, impromptu mob dance sequence initiated by Sophia at a bowling alley
Matthias Schoenaerts, who turned in a memorable performance as the hunky, mercurial love interest of Marion Cotillard’s character in “Rust and Bone,” is almost unrecognizable in Death of a Shadow (dir. Dood van een Schaduw). Schoenaerts is Nathan, a deceased World War I soldier reincarnated and given new purpose: to capture the shadows of people (via a special camera) just before their deaths, which are then put on display in a gallery. “Shadow” is a little too complex and cramped for its brief run time, and a superficial approach in touching on themes of love and loss belies the power of its novel setting. However, the morbid and fantastical premise, coupled with some memorable photography, makes for a decent watch, akin to a middle-of-the-road “Twilight Zone” episode.
Finally, Henry (dir. Yan England) centers on an elderly love story between a renowned concert pianist and his wife (sound a little familiar?). “Henry” is two parts “Amour” (with a similarly muted color palette) and one part “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – though that isn’t meant to be a reductionist criticism. I won’t go into much detail: the less you know going in, the more effective the film is. That being said, “Henry” ends up being a poignant reflection on the contradictory nature of love – simultaneously fleeting and permanent, joyous and heart breaking.
As noted in the preface, it’s difficult to single out a favorite, much less be able to predict the eventual Oscar winner in any of the shorts categories. Honestly, I think all of them have a legit chance of winning, even if I feel “Death of a Shadow” will be too inaccessible and weird for the typical AMPAS voter. If I had to choose today, I think “Henry” and “Buzkashi Boys” would be the most likely to win with these voters. But I certainly will be mulling this category over between now and Oscar night.
More information about the shorts can be found here.