Friday, February 8, 2013

Oscar Reviews: Best Short Film (Live Action)

I’ve learned a few things from watching all of the 2013 Oscar nominated shorts. Most importantly, there are some damn fine short movies competing for Academy Awards this year. (Which makes me wonder how many hundreds of excellent shorts I’ve missed in the past. But oh well.) Unfortunately, the flip side to great is bad, and there are a few of those nominated too.

I hope you enjoy the Live Action reviews, and feel free to catch up on my Documentary and Animated Shorts breakdowns as well!

Asad, dir. by Bryan Buckley
Asad, a young boy living in Somalia, wants to do right by his family. He stays away from dealing arms (which most of the kids his age are involved in) and instead elects to feed his family by tagging along with a local aging fisherman. But after the fisherman is attacked (off screen) by soldiers, Asad is forced to fish for himself.

Now, I did two things there that misrepresent this film. One, I made it sound overly dramatic, which it is not. Two, I made it sound more intriguing than it is. Asad is a sort-of-serious, wannabe farcical film about, uhh… the Somalian class system? Famine? Social indifference? I’m honestly not sure. I give props to American director Bryan Buckley choosing to make his film as authentic as possible (via location, cast, etc.), but when the credits cued, I was left feeling like I had just seen the first act of a feature film. If there’s more, it certainly isn’t here. C+

Buzkashi Boys, dir. by Sam French
In Afghanistan, an orphaned child-turned-street hustler convinces his best friend, who’s the son of a strict blacksmith, to ditch work and spend the day being kids. First, they go watch a Buzkashi match (which is, essentially, an elaborate game of capture the flag, expect the players are on horses and the flag is a live goat), and become entranced with the sport. From there, they go to a bombed-out building, toss rocks into cans, climb to the roof, walk around… you get it. Or maybe you don’t. Point is, there isn’t much to get here, and I’m not entirely convinced that isn’t director Sam French’s intention. Regardless of the its motivations, Buzkashi Boys is a misguided film, mistakenly propelled by some of the most heavy handed, leading music I’ve heard in years.  D

Curfew, dir. by Shawn Christensen
A bathtub full of blood, a razor blade resting nearby, and aimless man waiting for life to leave him. A phone rings. The man picks it up and listens to his estranged sister beg him to watch her daughter, Sophia, for the evening. He says okay, cleans himself up and leaves to pick up the niece he’s never met (or at least not seen in quite some time).

That’s a solid intro that lives up to the rest of the film that follows, minus one major qualm. Most everything about Curfew works. Fatima Ptacek, who plays 9-year-old Sophia, is perfectly precocious and simply remarkable. She deserves to have a big big career. The sister, played by Army Wives vet Kim Allen, carries an appropiate balance of hospitality and forgiveness. But it’s Ritchie, the lead character, who I didn’t buy for a second. Considering Ritchie is played by director Shawn Christensen, it’s a shame Christensen didn’t have the fortitude as a director to realize he was being seriously out-acted by a 9-year-old. If Ritchie was recast, Curfew could’ve been magical. B-

Death of a Shadow, dir. by Tom Van Avermaet
By long and far the best film of these nominees, I can’t even begin to explain the beauty and intricacy of Tom Van Avermaet’s Death of a Shadow. First off, it stars Matthias Schoenaerts, who I’ve seen play two different, but equally broken bruisers in Bullhead and Rust and Bone. But here, Schoenaerts discards his physical intensity and replaces it with emotional sensitivity and regret. In the film, Schoenaerts plays a man who hunts down shadows and photographs them at the moment of their death. When he looks through his camera lens (his very old camera lens) he sees the real people. And right as they are to die, he snaps a picture, and his boss catalogues the lost souls in a vast tomb of some sort. Or… something.

Again, this isn’t an easy one to explain, but for all the best reasons. At just 20 minutes long, Death of a Shadow has the composition of Wes Anderson, the complexity of David Lynch, and the intrigue of, dare I say, Ingmar Bergman. It’s a fascinating examination of life, death, love, and sacrifice. And considering it gets everything right, what the hell could be better than that? A

Henry, dir. by Yan England
Henry opens with its titular character gently playing the piano in a large home. The frame is drenched in sepia, the tonal mood is solemn, and our aged subject carries with him a sense of nostalgia throughout. He goes to lunch with a friend, and when he returns home, intruders pin him down, shoot him full of sedatives, and Henry wakes strapped to a hospital bed, helpless and screaming. When he’s somehow let free, he leaves the room and walks into his past. Literally. He stands and watches as his younger self meet his wife for the first time. And from there, Henry fuses together the struggle of old age with the slow deterioration of youth. The short is calm, poetic, and a near perfect way to spend 21 minutes. B+

Should Win: Death of a Shadow
Will Win: Who the hell knows. I’ve done a ton of research trying to answer this. Trusted sources say Curfew, others say Asad. Most all agree it should be Death of a Shadow. Roll the dice.

Other 2013 Oscar Posts


  1. Wow, I actually put money on Death of a Shadow at $7 odds based on what I've read online, so this makes me happy.

    I really want to see the short too (where did you catch all these, I haven't done any research yet :D)

    As you mentioned, makes me really think about how many great short's I've missed by not watching these.

    1. A few theaters in the states are currently playing all of the Oscar nominated shorts. I'm really lucky that I live so close to one of the theaters. So I just crushed them all out last week.

      Death of a Shadow is the definite highlight here. That'd be great if it won!

  2. Death of a Shadow looks great. Sight unseen, I hope it wins.

    Haha. "Roll the dice." The shorts are definitely the hardest categories to predict.

    1. Aren't they? I think they'd be damn near impossible to handicap, but it's fun to have seen them all.

  3. Asad and Buzkashi Boys sound right up my alley -- it's a shame to hear they aren't better. I'll be sure to look for Death of Shadow.

    1. Asad looked so gorgeous, but I just needed something a little more. Either way, I'd prefer that to win over Buzkashi Boys, but we shall see.

  4. Watched them all today and I can't really disagree about the praise you give to Death of a Shadow. It's by far the most technically proficient of the lot but, I have to admit, my heart is more with Asad. I really liked the details of the day-to-day life in Somalia and the end really worked for me - although I wished they wouldn't have hammered it home with that credits dedication. Just like I wish Henry wouldn't have hammered home its theme with that quote at the end. What gives with that?

    And yeah, I disliked Buzkashi Boys the most too.

    1. Hey man, fair enough about Asad. I was really into it, but then it just kind of dropped off and cut to black. But still, it looked great, and the lead kid was good as well.

      Oh god, I forgot about that Henry quote. Yeah, bit too much.

  5. Reviewing Oscar nominated films is not an easy job, because you need to have technical expertise to understand various aspects of film making. Thanks for taking so much of time to provide your views.

    1. Wow, thanks for that. Really appreciate you stopping by and commenting.