Yesterday – Saturday, February 2, 2013 – I watched both programs of Oscar-nominated short films that are currently playing at the Charles Theatre. These programs are for the live action and animation awards. The documentary program seems to be playing only at the West End Cinemas in Washington, DC (probably because it is 210 minutes long and presented with a 15-minute intermission – that’s a lot of time for a theatre to give up!). My radio colleague Linda DeLibero joined me for the first (live action) screening, and then, on impulse, I returned to the Charles a little later to watch the animated films on my own. Here are my impressions. [Note: not all online posters are created equal, and I have not been able to find high resolution versions of all of them, which explains the small size of some of what you’ll see, below).
Live Action Shorts
The animated short film nominees were presented by Luke Matheny, director of God of Love, which won the 2011 Oscar for Best Live Action Short. Now, I loved God of Love, and I loved Luke Matheny in it. I also loved Luke Matheny’s acceptance speech at the Oscars, in which he was charmingly and unaffectedly flustered, yet also so energetic that he could barely get his words out. However, the producers of the short segments that are spread throughout the presentation of the 5 nominees have done neither Mr. Matheny nor us any favors by leaving so much of his unedited talking head interviews up on the screen. The nebbishy hemming and hawing – now not so unaffected – begins to grate on our nerves (or on mine, anyway); beware of too much of a good thing. But that’s OK, I guess, as there are nevertheless a few good moments within. But on to the films, themselves . . .
Death of a Shadow (Tom Van Avermaet, 2012) – 20 minutes
You can view the trailer for Death of a Shadow at this link.
This was my favorite of the live action shorts. It is the film after which you can most imagine the director moving on to make a feature film. It is polished, with beautiful cinematography and stunning production design (complete with Rube Goldberg-like devices), and has, by far, the most original concept. Death of a Shadow tells the story of a man – part of a “shadowy” organization that documents individual deaths – who makes the decision to leave his employer after his ten-thousandth filing. The main character is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, star of Rust and Bone, and his is only one of many fine performances. While many of the other films in this collection were worthy selections, on purely cinematic grounds, this one most deserves to win.
Henry (Yan England, 2011) – 21 minutes
You can view the trailer for Henry at this link.
This was my least favorite. Once you figure out/guess what’s going on, there’s not much to the film. It tells the tale of an elderly man who discovers that the world around him is not as it seems . . . to him. Can you guess why? I thought so.
The older lead actor is perfectly adequate to the task (although his Québécois accent is different from that of the man playing his younger self – very annoying!), and many of the other elements of the production are professional enough. I was extremely put off, however, by the crazy handheld camera work that: a) starts too early, giving the game away too soon; and b) is just too all over the place, becoming the story, rather than assisting the story. This is the only film of the bunch that will truly upset me if it wins.
Curfew (Shawn Christensen, 2012) – 19 minutes
You can view the trailer for Curfew at this link.
I love how this film begins. It strikes just the right note of despair and humor, promising a truly funny dark comedy. Unfortunately, it somewhat loses its way in the middle, but then re-groups and has a surprisingly affecting ending. It’s a very interesting effort, written and directed by the man who also plays the lead role, and features a fine performance from him and from the little girl who plays his niece.
Curfew tells the story of a man who has hit bottom and who, at his lowest moment, is asked to watch his niece for a few hours. Estranged from his sister, and surprised by the request, he nevertheless shows up, and the experience that follows sets him on a new path. This is not a story of absolute redemption – which would be unbelievable in a film so short – but it is a film where the main character nevertheless goes through a profound change in his thinking, and watching him in the middle of that change is very cathartic. It’s messy, though, which might fit its subject, but which also makes it feel like the script could have used one more draft. I am definitely interested in seeing more work from this guy, however.
Buzkashi Boys (Sam French, 2012) – 28 minutes
You can view the trailer for Buzkashi Boys at this link.
The most impressive part of this film is the use of non-actors, especially the boys at the center of the story. The film is about 8-10 minutes too long, and the digital cinematography has a few too many blown-out white pixels, but the main characters are extremely compelling, and the views of Kabul and the mountains that surround it are really quite stunning. As a work of ethnographic filmmaking, it is very strong. In that, it has a lot in common with the next and final film in the program, Asad.
Buzkashi Boys tells the story of two children – best friends – one of whom is an orphaned street urchin and the other of whom is the son of a blacksmith. Together, they sneak off for various adventures, including one where they watch a game of Buzkashi, which is like polo, but played with a dead goat instead of a ball. The game comes to symbolize their dreams of glory and freedom from the drudge of their everyday lives. It has very moving scenes between the boys, and though it overstays its welcome, it is a film worth watching.
Asad (Bryan Buckley, 2012) – 18 minutes
You can view the trailer for Asad at this link.
Another work that is quasi-documentary in nature, in its use of non-actors – in this case, actual Somali refugees – Asad tells the tale of the title character’s attempt to both prove himself as a man and feed his family. In spite of some horrors we see on screen, and the terrible nature of the Somali backdrop of the story, the film is actually quite sweet in spirit. It features a terrific performance by the lead boy, and some fine cinematography. I was very impressed by much of what I saw. I wish there were a little more of a well crafted story, however. The ending feels rushed and a little too cute. Still, it’s very watchable and will probably be the film to win (this or Buzkashi Boys), since it has an inspiring back story in the lives of its principal cast.
The animated short film nominees were presented by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, co-directors of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which won the 2012 Oscar for Best Animated Short (and which I haven’t seen). After watching the misuse of Luke Matheny in the live action program, it was a delight to see these two guys together. They were fun, relaxed, and had a lot of wonderful anecdotes to share and advice to give. And now, on to the films.
Overall, these are all much lighter in tone and less serious in subject matter than the live action films. That doesn’t mean that they are of lesser quality, however. They all showed great craft, and I found one of them – Adam and Dog – to be extremely moving and profound (then again, I love dogs). The best part of all of the films? They have no dialogue! They all tell their stories through visuals, alone.
Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare” (David Silverman, 2012) – 5 minutes
I couldn’t find this film online (although the other 4, below, are all available), but there is this ridiculous short trailer that was made in the spirit of the thing.
This is delightful, and any fan of The Simpsons will enjoy it. If you watched Ice Age: Continental Drift in theaters over the summer (as I did), then you saw this already, as the short before the feature. It was the best part of that experience, as A.O. Scott expressed in his review of the feature. It tells the story of Maggie Simpson, left at a daycare named after Ayn Rand, who must find a way to save a little bit of beauty in a world that rewards only brute strength. It’s a perfect short film, and I would be happy if it won. Except that I adored the next film.
Adam and Dog (Minkyu Lee, 2011) – 15 minutes
This film is available on YouTube.
Right from the start, Adam and Dog won me over. The beautiful images feel like a cross between Japanese anime and Walt Disney – only fresh and new – and the use of ambient sound sets the right gentle tone for this new world being born. It bathes the viewer in a sense of peace and wonder, along with the unobtrusive music that eventually joins the images. If you like dogs, you will find the film irresistible. The story is simple. First man meets first dog. They bond. First woman arrives. You can guess the rest. The film is sweet. It is moving. It was made for $25,000 of the filmmaker’s own money. I say, let’s reward the little guy, even though both The Simpsons film and Paperman are also quite fine. I hope this film wins.
Fresh Guacamole (PES, 2012) – 2 minutes
This film is available on YouTube.
This is very clever, but it’s just an exercise. I applaud the technique, and found it entertaining. It is not a movie, however.
Head Over Heels (Timothy Reckart, 2012) – 11 minutes
This film is available on YouTube.
It’s always nice (for me) to see stop-motion animation. I just wish I liked the look of this film a little more. It has such a muddy palette. I did like the story, however, which is about the estrangement that can creep into any longterm relationship. The visual metaphor that the director chose to express this kind of separation is brilliant. I won’t spoil it, except to say that if you look at the poster, you ought to be able to guess what that visual idea may be. I found the ending quite lovely. And even though I disliked some of the aesthetics of the piece, I’d rather see this win (if Adam and Dog doesn’t) than the next film, which probably will win.
Paperman (John Kahrs, 2012) – 7 minutes
This film is available on YouTube.
This is a wonderfully inventive short. I saw it before Wreck-It Ralph, and liked it even more than the feature (which I actually did like). It manages, in just a few minutes of set-up, to make us care deeply for the main character, and root for him as he tries to catch the attention of a woman he barely knows. I only wish that the filmmakers had not resorted to the supernatural element at the end, since the story would have been stronger without it. The only reason I would rather this film not win (other than that I prefer Adam and Dog), is because it is put out by a major studio that hardly needs the accolades. Let’s help out the little guys!
Additional films . . .
There were three other animated shorts presented as part of this program, since the 5 official nominees only amounted to 40 minutes of screen time (with an additional 5 minutes taken up by the interviews with the hosts). These films were designated as “highly commended,” and they were:
Abiogenesis (Richard Mans, 2011) – 5 minutes
Visually inventive. Not much story. More of an exercise.
Dripped (Leo Verrier, 2011) – 9 minutes
Cute story. Unattractive animation.
The Gruffalo’s Child (Uwe Heidschötter and Johannes Weiland, 2011) – 27 minutes