Short films are an easily misunderstood art form. At the Oscars, celebrity introductions of the short film nominees and winners often justify the importance of the category by citing shorts as a platform for future feature-filmmaking. But the elements that make up a great short are hardly the same as those that make for a great feature. Here at FSR, we’ve made something of a habit of looking at short films on their own merits, as works of cinema with their own unique possibilities.
The short film category at the Oscars is typically a rushed-through affair so that the broadcast can proceed to more ratings-friendly moments. But the Academy Award-nominated short films make for some of the strongest categories of the event: all the nominees are, most often, very good.
Here’s my take on the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film.
Synopsis: A young boy struggles to survive in war-torn Somalia.
While a bit flat through the beginning, it’s difficult to deny the charm of this movie even as it plays off the deadly daily life of its characters. Asad is meant to be a fisherman, but he’s still young and terrible at it, and the other boys in his village use their boats (and a formidable amount of automatic weapons) to steal from dangerous waters. There’s a bit of humor and despair to be found in equal measure as the film utilizes images and scenarios from real life to paint a picture of what our young hero sees throughout his day.
As for his ultimate fate to bring home the biggest catch the village has seen (as decreed by an old-timer with a net), it’s the funniest bit in the entire film, highly bizarre, completely surprising. Someone who knows Somalia better can probably explain whether it’s meant as satire or not, but as pure story, it’s a powerful punchline for an otherwise breezy tale with a handful of uninteresting dialogue. Overall, it’s a sweet experience, and Asad is a hero worth rooting for, but it’s little more than a fun diversion. – Scott Beggs
Synopsis: Two Afghani boys – one a street peddler, the other the son of a blacksmith – dream of one day growing up to play Buzkashi, an intense version of polo involving the corpse of a goat.
Director Sam French’s Buzkashi Boys is an intimate, detailed look at the daily lives of the working poor in Kabul. This international co-production is stunningly realized through its use of real locations; a decrepit palace, a car junk yard, and busy city streets are turned into sites of high personal drama and ambition between these boys, composed beautifully through Duraid Munajim’s accomplished cinematography.
However, the film occasionally suffers from attempting to fit a feature-length film’s worth of story into a half-hour short. Important moments feel too rushed or calculated. However, in the last five minutes, when Buzkashi Boys takes its time, the film becomes quite resonant.
Synopsis: A suicidal former drug addict is suddenly expected to take care of his intelligent, bossy millennial niece for an evening.
Curfew is one of those short films where the characters are so well drawn, the acting is so convincing, and the environment is so fully realized that these characters seem to exist well outside of the parameters of the brief film they’re in. Writer/director Shawn Christensen makes the most of the NYC setting, framing a city that is vibrant and alive in all corners even though the film’s focus is only on three complex characters.
While Curfew certainly has a few clichés, its successful mix of subject matter as dark as suicide and as light as a Talking Heads dance party at a bowling alley make for an enthralling and impressive journey.
Death of a Shadow
Synopsis: After a soldier dies during WWI, a mysterious otherwordly collector gives him an unusual offer: collect 10,000 shadows of dead people, and he can get his life back. The soldier longs to return to a lost love, but romantic entanglement he thought he was in during his death turns out to be more complicated than he originally perceived it to be.
As indicated by the synopsis above, Tom Van Avermaet’s Death of a Shadow is considerably more complicated than many of the other films in this category. For nearly half of its twenty-minute runtime, the audience is in the dark as to exactly what is happening. And it’s the film’s patient development of its own enigma that makes it so intriguing. Bullhead and Rust and Bone star Matthias Schoeanaerts here plays the undead soldier, who creates deep pathos as he moves through conflicted feelings of jealously and longing in his desperate attempt to reunite himself with the woman he loves.
The film is beautifully shot, and its production value is rather incredible, particularly in the detailed mechanics that make up its otherwordly logic. Death of a Shadow is a compelling, visionary mystery.
Synopsis: The life of a French-Canadian concert pianist is turned upside down when his wife suddenly disappears.
Yan England‘s film is the kind of drama that grabs you by the heart and squeezes slowly until crushing it completely. Built on the high concept intrigue of a disappearing wife and a mysterious group that detains our hero in a small bedroom, it plays out a bit like an elderly version of Shutter Island where reality is fluid and overpowering. The bend in memory (and whatever chemical they’ve given to sedate Henry) allows us to float through moments in his life that give us a clearer picture of the sweet old man’s loves and passions. And yet the cloudiness remains.
With the time truncated, the relevance of each memory is either heightened or, unfortunately, confused, but the grand effect of the journey might as well be a commercial for Kleenex — tapping expertly into the tragedy of getting old and knowing that your mind is not quite your own any longer. – Scott Beggs
The Academy-Award Nominated Animated Short Films are in limited release now.