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20 Days 'til Oscar: The Live Action Shorts

Amir here. Yesterday we had a look at the animated short films nominated for an Oscar this year. Today we’re moving on to the live action shorts. In a nice bit of symmetry with the animation category, this one also features two great films and three not-so-great ones. Collectively, however, these nominees are a much stronger bunch than last year’s.

First up is Death of a Shadow, a Belgian-French co-production starring Franco-cinema’s it-boy Matthias Schoenaarts. It’s a fantasy film about a soldier whose job it is to capture the moment of death on a camera that registers shadows. The images are stored in a collection by the (very creepy) patron of his photography. Eventually, his love for a woman called Sarah pushes him to make her lover the final victim of his photography. It sounds concept-y, and quite frankly, it is. The visual effects leave a bit to be desired, but the much bigger problem is the complete lack of emotional resonance. The biggest achievement of Death of a Shadow is the impossible feat of making Schoenaarts look unattractive.

Four more shorts after the jump including the probable Oscar winner

Proceedings didn’t improve at all with the second screening, Henry, a Canadian drama about an old man with Alzheimer’s disease. This film’s themes of coming to terms with mortality and the horrors of illness in the final stages of life make it an interesting double bill with Michael Haneke’s Amour, though it’s affected sentimentality and overscored histrionics fall well below the standards set by the Austrian maestro. The central performance by Gerard Poirier is a strong one, but it’s undermined by overdirection and film school aesthetics.

Then there was Curfew, the sole American film in the bunch and easily the most inventive. As with last year’s Tuba Atlantic, its originality might cost it the award, but it certainly put writer/director/star Shawn Christensen on my ‘to watch’ list, despite knowing that he’s capable of writing mediocrity like Abduction. Curfew is about Richie, a young man who gets a phone call from his estranged sister, asking him to look after his niece for a few hours. One would assume that a man on the verge of suicide in a tub wouldn’t take his rotary phone to the bathroom with him, much less actually pick it up when it rings, with the hand that’s been freshly cut! But that’s just the opening of this brilliant short film; and the wild ride continues from there.

An incisive look at depression and family relations, Curfew is at once hilarious and thematically rich. It also features a confident, promising performance from child actor Fatima Ptacek. Fans of Nathaniel’s ‘Best Musical Sequence in a Non-Musical Film’ Film Bitch Award should particularly seek this film out: it has a sure-fire nominee in a bowling alley sequence that bursts with energy on the screen.

The next film is Buzkashi Boys, an Afghan film about two young boys from Kabul who dream of becoming a star in the local sport of Buzkashi. (Buzkashi, literally means “dragging the goat” in Farsi and is a sport in which the carcass of a goat is carried around by players riding horseback polo-style. Bullfighting may not be for the faint-hearted but the brutality of this one really puts the Spanish pastime to shame.) Beautifully photographed by Duraid Munajim - a camera operator on Kathryn Bigelow’s latest two films - Buzkashi Boys gives a new perspective on the everyday lives of Afghan civilians but like Henry, though not quite to the same extent, it tugs at our heartstrings with a heightened score and synthetic sentimentality. Still, a story about children gift-wrapped in such lush lensing is always a threat in this category.

Last but definitely not least was Asad. Shot with a cast entirely made up of Somali refugees in South Africa, this comedy tells the story of a young boy – the titular Asad – whose life in a fishing community is intertwined with civil war, Somali pirates and his own incompetence at fishing. But his quest for his special first catch leads to a hilarious finale. Asad’s sharp dialogue and warm humour make it the easiest nominee to embrace, and I have a feeling voters will feel the same. It will be a well-deserved win for a film that makes light of a bitter situation without losing touch with the grave reality of life in a war torn society.

PredictionI’m scratching my head a little bit. If last year’s winner, The Shore, is anything to go by, fabricated emotions can make Academy member vote through their tears, in which case Henry can cruise to the stage. I tend to think voters will go for the emotionally rewarding film that also has an aura of importance and is actually enjoyable. In that case, Asad will rule the day. But then, what about the Academy’s love for children? Buzkashi Boys features adorable boys trying to make it in the men’s world and that’s an easy narrative to fall for.

Will Win: Asad
Could Win: Buzkashi Boys
Should Win: Curfew

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Reader Comments (10)

This is the third year I've seen the shorts programs, and this was easily the best group of Live Action nominees of the three in my opinion. I thought all of them were at least pretty good. Whereas I thought the animated shorts surpassed the live action for the last two years, I thought the live action was out ahead this year.

My favorite was Curfew, too. The bowling alley scene is so great. It borders on getting too precious, I think. But it stays on the right side of the line, and it is the only short that I got emotional over. And Tuba Atlantica was my favorite short last year, so I'm glad to hear you saying a nice thing about it. I liked Death of a Shadow more than you. I thought it was really inventive, and I had no idea that was Matthias Schoenaerts.

I think my problem with Bukhazi Boys and Henry is that I saw where both of those were going very early on. Bukhazi Boys is especially gorgeous to look at, but the last third of it was disappointing. At a certain point, it is pretty clear where everything is headed.

I'd bet on Asad to win, too. I'd like to think Curfew could pull a God of Love, but I think that one benefited from a field of Live Action nominees that year that felt very same-y. Speaking of God of Love, loved Luke Matheny as the host of the program.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWill H

Nice write-up. I have to say that I disagree with you on a number of details-- I actually found this year's line-up abysmal, thought Schoenaerts looked yummy, and felt that the main actor of Henry was way too over the top-- but in the end, we feel similarly.

Death of a Shadow- I also felt emotionally distant from the story.
Henry- "Histrionic" is an apt descriptor. Haaaated it.
Curfew- Agree that it was fun/resonant if a little contrived.
Buzkhashi Boys- Respect the craft, but found it a little boring.
Asad- Liked the humor and how it balanced that with the serious backdrop.

In the end, Asad gets my vote (Curfew in 2nd), and I think that it has a good chance of winning, but I worry about Buzkhashi Boys.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Ugh I am just DYING to see your Film Bitch Awards acting nominees. I swear I've checked every day for over a week in hopes of seeing them :( lol I'm not complaining though :p

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrandon

Yay, live action shorts! Glad this blog is covering these little-mentioned gems. I've watched them every year since they've been made accessible to the public, and it's a special treat I allow myself each Oscar season. If more people would take the time to watch these categories, the more engaging the discussions could be here. And you could make even surer bets to win your office Oscar pools! Everybody wins!

Anyways, I totally disagree with your winners predictions. "Asad" is okay, but it doesn't nearly reach "winner" status to me. I'd say this race is a three-way dead heat between "Henry," "Buzkashi Boys," and "Curfew," and I'll tell you why.

"Henry" plays into that "of the moment" old age sentiment vibe of "Amour" right now, which with the rules change of the entire voting body choosing the shorts winners this year could help it out immensely (and could also benefit "Head Over Heels" in animated short). I thought it was one of the better of the five nominees, though the time shifts into Henry's dementia scenes were a bit awkward at times. "Buzkashi Boys" plays right into that white liberal guilt sweet spot of young Afghani boys coming of age through bleak, poverty-stricken times. It's visually stunning to watch, and for two novice child actors, I think they both nailed it It was the most eye-opening of the five nominees by a mile. "Curfew" could win just like "The New Tenants" did a few years ago. It's the "edgy" American nominee that instantly stands out in the field. I wouldn't be surprised at all if it ends up winning. And the dance sequence at the bowling alley is one of my favorite scenes of the YEAR!

The main problem I had with "Asad" was its flippant tone that I didn't think it quite deserved given the circumstances of the narrative. It also ended too abruptly. The child actor there was very good though. If "Na Wewe" couldn't win from a few years ago as a far better short covering some similar themes on African strife, then this one shouldn't either.

The only one I absolutely hated was "Death of a Shadow" (now watch it win). I barely understood the plot, and it felt oddly constructed throughout to me. Sad too, b/c I absolutely adored Matthias Schoenaerts in "Rust & Bone" this year (should have been nominated in lead actor along with Marion Cotillard in lead actress for their remarkable duo), and I heard that he was fantastic in "Bullhead." But here I found him to be strangely inert. None of the "death shadow" storylines worked for me like I hoped they would.

So ranking the five nominees, I think this is an easy win for "Curfew," with "Buzkashi Boys" as a close runner-up. I'd be okay with a win for "Henry," but my top two deserve the Oscar more.

1. "Curfew"
2. "Buzkashi Boys"
3. "Henry"
4. "Asad"
5. "Death of a Shadow" (Dood van een Schaduw)

Thanks for covering these films in detail on your blog, Nathaniel.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLiam

I'm so glad that you liked Curfew. That bowling alley scene was awesome. I hope that it's lack of technical perfection (it clearly had the lesser of the budgets) won't hurt it. God of Love wasn't technically perfect. But it had so much heart that it won. I hope Curfew can achieve the same. I liked Death of a Shadow, but it might be too dark for voters?

Am I crazy or does it seem like every year there are at least two nominated shorts that deal with children in peril in some foreign land? Asad and Buzkashi Boys were essentially the same thing - adorable little kids living in horrible conditions in war torn third-world countries (Somalia, Afghanistan). Show them in peril (rebels, life doomed to be a blacksmith in a mud hut), show them transcending their conditions by just being kids (going to the buzkashi game, walking through the village carrying fish with your friends just talking to the locals), show them transcending it all or coming to peace with it all ... you have a nomination-worthy short!

Buzkashi Boys might win since it's the first "film" to be shot in Afghanistan in a long long time. It has a bigger hook - and the cinematography was nice. But the scene at the game where the snow falls on Rafi's eyelashes ... a bit heavy handed, if you ask me.

Either way, let's all pool our money and go to some third world war-torn country and shoot a short about adorable little kids being adorable in squalor. East Timor, here we come!!

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Charlie, what I liked about Asad was that while it takes place in squalor, it wasn't *about* that. The humor throughout helped it to avoid the "poverty porn" trap, to me.

The humor throughout was also why I liked it and don't like Na Wewe, Liam. In the latter, there was a huge tonal shift in the last minute of the film. It felt like it made light of the situation and that didn't sit well with me back in 2011.

Anyway, it sounds like Curfew is the consensus favorite. I wish it luck too.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Evan - Agreed with you on Asad. It is not your typical "poverty porn" (good phrase, I'm stealing it!) short. I was fine with all of the shorts, honestly, except Henry. So, if any of the other four win, I'm good to go on Oscar night.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Asad, by a country mile. It was spirited, interesting, confident and handled the tricky tone very well. Plus, it was the only one with a hint of comedy so that definitely counts in this grim lineup and I think voters will respond to that. Everything else was either awful or painful to sit through. Yes, even Curfew, which I felt was contrived and poorly written.

Of the handful of years sitting through the nominated live-action shorts, this was one of the worst lineups I've ever seen. Good god, SURELY there HAD to be better and more adventurous choices than those other four we ended up with. I mean, Henry was a MESS and seemed to do everything wrong that Amour got right about handling such subject matter with dignity and respect. Death of a Shadow was pure film school work: high concept, no resonance . Buzkashi Boys was sad and bleak and nothing special or new whatsoever. Curfew had that annoying and overused independent film trope of idolizing broken men and giving them a redemption they didn't really earn. Plus, that little girl was far too precocious and cutesy in a manipulative way to the narrative.

Blech. Thank the cinema gods the nominated animated shorts had much more individuality and creativity.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Saw these last weekend. All five were examples of solid filmmaking, and I will have no problem with any of them winning.

I believe "Asad" has the inside track here. The credits rolling out the cast with each of their names followed by how long ago they became Somali refugees comes dangerously close to pandering, but it is otherwise in the Academy wheelhouse of giving the members something to vote on where their vote also makes a "statement".

I go back and forth on whether I think "Curfew" or "Death of a Shadow" should win. Right now I think "Curfew", because I feel that "Shadow" covers ground that Rod Serling did with "Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery" decades ago, whereas "Curfew" at least feels fresh and innovative.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

Sorry, still don't like "Asad" as the winner. Its flippant tone wasn't earned, and though I didn't explain why I liked "Na Wewe" better, I guess the best way to describe it is that it packed more of an emotional wallop, and that was earned to me at least. I'm all for the love for "Curfew" and a possible win!

February 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLiam

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