LITTLE ROCK For those who find the annual self-glorification rituals of the Academy Awards to be sickeningly vain and the Academy’s feature nominations too homogenized and safe, there lies a glimmer of redemption in the shorts nominees.
Unlike their full-length brethren, the shorts categories can be wildly far-reaching and divergent. Freed of the conventions and restraints of the big-money studios (and the obligatory power maneuverings of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk), the collection of nominated short films runs the gamut of possibilities from comedy and drama to the avant garde, and culls from films from all over the world, adding a dollop of international recognition among the otherwise relentlessly jingoistic ceremony.
This year’s batch is heavy on the drama - of the five films only one could be considered much of a comedy, and even it begins with a man’s suicide attempt in a bathtub - but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re downers, just that they earn their small moments of grace. The other element common to all but the most conceptual: Children play a pretty heavy factor.
First, then, we begin with the outlier, Belgian director Tom Van Avermaet’s imaginative Death of a Shadow, which involves a giant purgatory in the form of a massive art gallery, only instead of lining the walls with paintings and sculpture, there are only large canvasses with people’s shadows at the very second of their deaths.
These are being collected by Nathan Rijckx (Matthias Schoenaerts), a former World War I soldier killed in combat, with a contraption that resembles a steam-punk version of one of those large, billows-laden cameras you see in newsreels from the ’30s. The deal is, once Rijckx collects 1,000 captured souls, his own shadow will be released into a time and place of his choosing, an opportunity he plans on utilizing to go back to the beautiful, kind nurse (Laura Verlinden) who helped him in the moments before he was fatally shot.
While Van Avermaet’s vision is duly impressive - the set design is often spectacular - the actual rules of the scenario are vague and kind of nonsensical (in this situation, people seem to often come back to life from the dead with no further explanation). Schoenaerts, who with his clean face and horn rims resembles an information technology director far more than a veteran soldier, can’t really carry the picture.
Switching to the complications of parents and children, in Sam French’s Buzkashi Boys, a moving drama set in Kabul, two young boys continue their friendship despite the poverty of their circumstance.
Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi), the son of a blacksmith, and Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz), a homeless orphan, hang together against the wishes of Rafi’s father (Wali Talash), a stern and taciturn man. They sneak off on adventures and take in the excitement of a Buzkashi match (an Afghanistan version of polo involving many horses and a dead goat in place of a ball). Rafi, dutiful and scared of his father, sticks with the idea that his fate as a poverty-line blacksmith is sealed; Ahmad, parentless and free to pursue his own fantasies and dreams, imagines himself one of the proud Buzkashi riders when he becomes old enough.
The film is well cast and makes excellent use of its location, creating a compelling backdrop of the impoverished city for the boys to navigate through. If the ending comes as no great surprise, at least it steers far clear of the kind of Hollywood fantasia where everyone’s dreams come true if you stay true to yourself.
The titular little boy in Bryan Buckley’s Asad faces equally daunting circumstances: In war-torn Somalia, Asad (Harun Mohammed) tries to steer clear of marauding soldiers while helping his friend, the elderly fisherman Erasto (Ibrahim Moallim Hussein), with his boat and break the curse that keeps him from making any kind of significant catch. Asad is kind-hearted and generous, but is desperate to get his life started (“My life is filled with soons,” he complains to his older brother, a would-be pirate).
Buckley’s film, harsh as it can be, is filled with an enticing community spirit (everyone calls out to Asad as he makes his way through the village to ask if he was the one who caught the fish he’s carrying over his shoulders) and ends with a simple beat of uplift, raising the spirits of the townspeople with a warmly welcome plot twist.
The young child in writer/ director Shawn Christensen’s domestic Curfew is a well packaged little Manhattanite named Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), forced to spend the afternoon with her estranged uncle (Christensen), a man who, prior to her mom’s pleading telephone call, was in the process of slashing his wrists in the bathtub of his apartment.
Predictably, the two start off on somewhat rocky terms (Sophia gives him a list of places he’s allowed to take her) but over the course of an afternoon of bowling, french fries and much truth-telling, they become properly affixed to each other. The film is a slight bit of New York puffery, but Ptacek herself, who comes across as so articulate, confident and self-possessed, is almost as scary as a young Dakota Fanning.
There is a daughter of an altogether different variety in Yan England’s French Canadian weeper Henry. Here the daughter is an older woman (Marie Tifo) trying to take care of her elderly father (Gerard Poirier), a former concert pianist whose mind is slipping away.
The film is from the perspective of the old man, which involves much confusion, time jumps, and scatter shot memories of his beautiful and fulfilling romance with his late wife, Maria (Louise Laprade). It plays at times like a thriller, a love story and a tragic drama, each with equally effective aplomb. Approaching similar material to that of Michael Haneke’s brilliant (and also Best Picture nominated) Amour, it puts us inside the mind of a man painfully aware of losing his most precious memories, a stabbing heartbreak of a film that won’t soon leave you, and the pick here for the best of the bunch.
The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Live Action 88 Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Fawad Mohammadi, Jawanmard Paiz, Harun Mohammed, Ibrahim Moallim Hussein, Fatima Ptacek, Marie Tifo, Gerard Poirier Directors: Various directors Rating: Not rated Running time: 79 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 40 on 02/01/2013
Print Headline: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Live Action