All words: Alan Pyke
Taken together, this year’s slate of Oscar-nominated live action shorts form a sort of minor chord. They are five distinct, beautiful, haunting pieces that hammer at you, each somehow harder than the last. The Academy has given itself a difficult task; these films are tough to separate on technical grounds, as each features gorgeous cinematography and controlled, deliberate storytelling.
Asad, directed by Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura
A Somalian boy is pulled between his gun-toting pirate friends on one side and an avuncular, elderly fisherman on the other in this brief, lovely story. Asad, whose cast is compromised entirely of Somalian refugees, blends the brutal realities of childhood in the horn of Africa with the narrative elements of a fable. Asad’s fisherman friend insists that when the boy finally does catch something, he’ll bring the greatest haul their village has ever seen back with him. The pacing here is superb, snapping steadily along through a series of connected but unpredictable beats, and director Bryan Buckley arranges a dusty village, a graffitied shore, and an ocean into a carefully-composed palette. The film never fully loses itself in the parable it evokes of a noble child luring the world’s powers to his country’s aid, but the symbolism of its conclusion is difficult to miss.
Buzkashi Boys, directed by Sam French and Ariel Nasr
What do sons owe to their fathers? And how is that question different in Kabul, Afghanistan? Rafi, a blacksmith’s son, wants to hitchhike on his fatherless friend Ahmed’s dream of becoming a champion Buzkashi rider, but feels so strongly destined for his father’s trade that he can’t even fantasize about growing up to play the game (it’s a brutal-looking sport played on horseback, with a live goat used for a ball). The slowest and bleakest of the five, Buzkashi Boys works on the strength of its cinematography and Jim Dooley’s elegiac, cello-heavy original score. Duraid Munajim’s lens captures Afghanistan in a variety of moods, from low-slung skylines framed by sunsets to mountain snows to a graveyard of bus chassis, but falls in love with young Fawad Mohammadi’s forlorn face in the part of Rafi. It’s a deeply humane film that successfully avoids orientalizing its subjects, but it is also a dark sketch of a society where filial impiety threatens the basic order of things, and isn’t something to overcome so much as its something to bear with.
Curfew, directed by Shawn Christensen
The slickest film of the five is also the most uplifting, as an end-of-his-rope junkie gets called in for emergency babysitting duty with the niece he hasn’t seen since she was a baby. Aside from being the only English-language selection, Curfew features the most traditional narrative arc and widest range of emotional beats. But if the shape of the story is familiar, the details of it are not. And the execution, from the visual design to the performances, elevates the piece. The camera slides over sticky-looking tile and pans through some bad parts of a Manhattan night with an almost self-aware coolness that glues the story’s emotional swerves together. Written and directed by its star, Shawn Christensen, Curfew slurs disconcerting moments together with sweet ones and dangerously realistic images of broken lives together with surreal bowling alley sequences. The resulting package is thrilling, and young Fatima Ptacek’s performance as the niece should earn her plenty more work.
Death of a Shadow, directed by Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele
Death of a Shadow places a lush romantic fantasy inside a clever Faustian conceit. Mr. Rijcx is working off his end of the deal by taking special photographs of 10,000 deaths, so that his ominous employer can enhance his collection of framed shadows that contain the experience of the subjects death. Once the situation is established, about one third of the way through the short’s runtime, there isn’t much interesting meat left of these bones. What remains is a fairly stock story of love and selfishness and sacrifice, which plays out in lovely shots by Stijn Van der Veken. It’s quite well executed, but ultimately a trifle, and nearly overstays its welcome. Still, it’s easy to marvel at how the filmmakers brought their concept from thought to screen.
Henry, directed by Yan England
While Henry is the most jarring and jagged of the five, the erratic pacing and disorienting swings in visual feel are all quite deliberate and effective. The titular character is introduced hands first, his wrinkled paws tickling methodically at piano keys, pausing once to scratch at the composition in front of him. While out to breakfast, his wife disappears, and he races to piece together what’s happened. Gerard Poirier’s performance as Henry is stunning, raw, and occasionally hard to watch without squinting. Several of his facial wrinkles became eligible for their own Screen Actors Guild cards in the making of this film. And while Henry is as emotionally heavy as any in contention for the Oscar, writer/director Yan England extracts a satisfyingly warm conclusion by pouring all the strain and weight of the story into a deeply noble final scene.
AND THE WINNER IS…
Curfew was probably my favorite of the bunch, but I think Buzkashi Boys is the best film in the group. Each of them does a wonderful job of creating a coherent world and then unraveling a stirring story within it. Each set of filmmakers exhibits a masterful control over their material. But Curfew sets itself an easier task, with its conventional narrative shape and its scope of concern limited to one broken family. Buzkashi Boys is a more impressive feat, expressing a variety of Big Ideas through a similarly narrow set of characters, yet never feeling heavy-handed. Where Curfew achieves its effect in part by gradually relaxing its tight initial grip on your gut, Buzkashi Boys starts gentle and squeezes your heart more and more fiercely. It’s a very close race, but Sam French’s crushing, contemplative Afghan film deserves to win.