Each year since 2009 my wife and I have made a day-long date of visiting Keystone Art Cinema, the only dedicated art-film theater in Indianapolis, to view the big-screen release of the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film. Results vary each time and aren’t always for all audiences, but we appreciate this opportunity to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether we agree with their collective opinions or not. A few of the past marathons have varied wildly in quality, but this year’s proved a superb bunch. To be honest, this is the first time in memory that I’ve preferred the live-action contenders to their animated colleagues.
Presented below are my rankings of this year’s five Live-Action Short Film nominees, from the most effective to the slightly flawed. None of these appear to be streaming online for free as the animated nominees are, but it’s my understanding they’re available on iTunes or on Video On Demand if your carrier offers the channel called Shorts HD (ours doesn’t). Links are provided to the most official-looking sites I could locate. Enjoy where possible!
Curfew: Writer/director/editor/star Shawn Christensen plays a deadbeat at the end of his rope, granted a fateful reprieve in the form of a phone call from his estranged sister, begging him for one night of babysitting the niece he hasn’t seen since infancy. The premise easily could’ve been expanded into a ninety-minute dumb-adult/smart-kid mismatch comedy starring Jason Bateman and a doomed child star. The tentative reunion, expectant life lessons, and mandatory cutesy musical number belie the sharp turns taken in the later scenes, when we learn more about the rift between siblings, and about how Mom spent her evening out. A charming, disturbing, sometimes intense drama about family, forgiveness, and our sad propensity for overlooking our importance to others who love and need us.
* * * * *
Asad: A Somali boy lives in squalor with his family, stands by his unhealthy friends, and might have what it takes to grow up a pirate. And then some real pirates come to town, bringing a bevy of ugly truths with them. Except for one corpse, this startling piece from commercial director Bryan Buckley was cast entirely with Somali refugees, all listed in the credits by name and by the month and year in which they fled their homeland. Nothing about their performances suggests amateur hour, particularly its star Harun Muhammed, whose show of bravery would put many a first-worlder to shame.
* * * * *
Death of a Shadow: A slightly steampunk horror-fantasy about a 20th-century soldier who escapes death by working for a demonic creep as a photographer with a most unusual camera that captures the shadows of victims at the moment of their death. Flemish director Tom Van Avermaet creates an unnerving, stylized world outside time that’s intricately crafted and stiffly mannered, not unlike the quieter moments of a Wachowskis film, but with less posing and more cosmic irony. I thought the editing of the early scenes was a little muddled, but my wife liked the Twilight Zone vibe of it all.
* * * * *
Buzkashi Boys: Our hero Rafi is the meek son of a poor blacksmith. His best friend Ahmad is an adventurous hobo his age. Together they wander the streets of Kabul whenever Rafi’s on break, sauntering among the wreckage and dreaming of growing up to compete in the sport of buzkashi, which is like polo except the ball is replaced with a decapitated goat. I honestly had to verify on WikiPedia that this pastime is real, and is in fact the National Sport of Afghanistan, with capital letters and all. It may take a while to purge those images from my head, but I was fascinated by the naturalistic relationship between the poor boy and the poorer boy as they enjoyed life’s highlights wherever they could find them. I counted off points because of a pivotal scene involving a horse that ended exactly as I predicted it would some minutes in advance. However, I restored a few points for the ending, which veered in a refreshingly opposite direction from where Hollywood tells us such stories are supposed to end.
* * * * *
Henry: An elderly man finds himself abducted by complete strangers, spirited away to an unknown room, and subject to a waking nightmare because no one will tell him what’s happening. Since the trailer includes flashbacks of his wartime youth and some present-day scenes with an elderly, wife-like lady, it may not be too much of a spoiler to mention that the subject matter faintly echoes Amour in one respect. The last half is a tear-jerking tragedy that struck a nerve in several other patrons in our theater, but it required the first half’s setup, which was built on one of my major movie pet peeves: multiple scenes of a confused character demanding to know what’s going on, and all other characters contriving ways to avoid responding to a simple question with a direct answer because doing so would end the movie in five tidy minutes. In this case, one could argue there was a valid reason Henry was kept guessing, but once one of my pet peeves has been triggered, it takes me a while to simmer down and review any arguments about “valid”.