We break down the nominees for live action short.
Directed by: Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura
Kicking off the category's annual trend of Third World poverty porn, the Somalia-set Asad (which features a cast made up entirely of actual Somali refugees just to make you feel extra guilty) follows the titular young boy as he chooses between two depressing career options: piracy or fishing. Making the decision harder is the fact that a group of armed men have recently turned up in his dirt poor village and are appropriating all of their (very limited) resources for themselves. So piracy would bring in much-needed funds, but fishing will keep him and his family fed... provided the bad guys don't take his catch first. Look, I'm not about to hate on the harsh circumstances facing poor Somali children or the noble intentions of the filmmakers for wanting to bring some exposure to their plight. But Asad represents the kind of nobly intentioned message movie that often ends up stimulating the viewer's annoyance rather than their conscience. To its credit, at least it doesn't wallow in suffering like so many of these films tend to do. It just tries to tell its simple coming-of-age story as simply as possible. But that's part of the problem: it's just too simple.
Final Grade: B-
Directed by: Sam French and Ariel Nasr
Take everything I just said about Asad and apply it to Buzkashi Boys, which trades Somalia for Afghanistan and replaces one poverty-stricken Somali child with two poverty-stricken Afghani boys, one a street urchin and the other the son of a blacksmith. (The title, by the way, refers to the local polo-like pastime Buzkashi, in which riders on horseback lug a goat carcass around a pole to score a point. Both of the kids dream of becoming professional Buzkashi players, which just illustrates the lack of opportunities in Afghanistan.) In addition to doubling Asad's poor child quotient, this one also doubles its running time, clocking in at 30 minutes as opposed to roughly 15. It's the padded runtime that knocks the movie down a grade, along with its overbearing attempts at piling extra doses tragedy on top of its already downbeat narrative. (That the film than tries to have it both ways by ending on a semi-hopeful note just makes it even more uncertain of its own convictions.) Once again, I admire the filmmakers' intentions; I just don't particularly care for the finished product.
Final Grade: C
Directed by: Shawn Christensen
The lone English-language entry in this year's crop of nominees opens with the main character, a deeply depressed dude named Richie, lying in his bathtub and bleeding out through the slices he's made in his wrists. Then the phone rings: it's his uptight sister, asking him to babysit her 9-year-old daughter Sophie. Given that he and his sis are barely on speaking terms, he's not her first choice of guardian, but absolutely nobody else is available. So Richie climbs out of the bath, straps on some bandages and goes off to play babysitter. From that darkly comic beginning, Curfew sadly ventures into more predictable (and sappy) territory, as Richie manages to repair his relationships with both his niece and sister without somehow passing out from extreme blood loss. A surrealistic musical interlude in a bowling alley briefly zaps the proceedings back to life, but unlike the main character, the movie ultimately can't stop itself from flatlining.
Final Grade: C+
Death of a Shadow
Directed by: Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele
If a film from Guillermo Del Toro married a movie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the resulting shorty would probably look something like Death of a Shadow, a richly stylized and evocatively spooky rush into genre territory that makes it stand apart from the rest of the year's ultra-realistic nominees. Rising Euro-star Matthias Schoenaerts (who delivered breakout performances in last year's Bullhead and Rust and Bone) assumes leading man duties as a World War I soldier who was killed in action, but entered into a Faustian bargain with an art-appreciating devil figure. Every day for the next 10,000 days, he must photograph the shadow of one dead person and bring it back to the devil's lair, where it will remain forever as a portrait on his wall. After 10,000 pictures, he will be granted a second chance at life. When we pick up with him, he's on the cusp of achieving this magic number and once again joining the ranks of the flesh and blood, which will allow him to track down the woman he fell for right before he died. Except, surprise! He suddenly discovers that she was actually in love with someone else. I won't give away what happens next, but directors Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele find a way to wrap the story up in a way that's both preposterous and satisfying. They also make the film a visual delight, bathing the screen in dark, rich colors and blending both Gothic horror and steampunk into one gorgeous package. More like this one next year, please...
Final Grade: A-
Directed by: Yan England
Canada's answer to Amour, this French-language agespolitation short puts introduces us to an elderly pianist whose mind isn't as sharp as it used to be. As the film begins, he's preparing to play with his beloved wife in a concert, but when he goes to find her she seems to have disappeared. And it's not just her -- soon his whole life seems to be slipping away, with darkness and loneliness taking its place. You can probably see where all this is going, and director Yan England milks the sadness and sentiment for all its worth, unlike the more austere Amour. I can't deny that Henry got to me (you'd have to be one cold bastard not to spend all 21 minutes on the verge of tears) but I didn't appreciate England's aggressive handling of the material. It just goes to show you: dying is easy -- making a film about dying is hard.
Final Grade: B
Deserves to Win: I'm probably showing my genre bias here, but Death of a Shadow is the clear victor for me. It's the most visually stimulating of the bunch, tells the most intriguing story and is the least bound by real-world problems.
Will Win: Henry could get some of the Amour spillover, but poverty porn tends to dominate this category, so look for Asad or, more likely, Buzkashi Boys to emerge victorious.
The 2013 Oscar Nominated Short Films will open in limited theatrical release on February 1, followed by a VOD release on February 19. Visit the official site for more information.
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