Sunday, March 3, 2013

The 2013 Oscar-Nominated Short Films

And now for something else completely different

Last year, around the heart of the doldrums season, I found myself faced with an impossibly poor selection of films to go and see, a time when my best options were movies like Battleship or Tyler Perry's Good Deeds. Rather than subject myself to a moviegoing experience that was guaranteed to be awful, I elected instead to go and see a collection of all of the Oscar-nominated short films, every one of which were guaranteed (I assumed) to be better than whatever crap I would otherwise be subjected to. The result was, on the whole, excellent, with several of the short films (particularly the one from Norway about the old man who massacres seagulls with a machine gun) still vivid in my mind. As such, this year, with the Doldrums in full swing and my other options consisting of films like A Good Day to Die Hard and Escape from Planet Earth, I have decided to double down, and view not only all of the Oscar-nominated shorts, but the animated shorts as well. And as the Oscars have technically not happened yet, I will therefore be giving you my personal selections for short film of the year in both categories.

Therefore, without further ado, I give you:

The 2012 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Short Film

Death of a Shadow: I'm honestly surprised to see a movie like this nominated at all. The Academy's antipathy towards anything that even hints at science fiction is well known, yet here we have a Belgian film that involves time travel, Purgatory, and steampunk soul-cameras. Death of a Shadow is about a dead Belgian soldier from WWI who must capture ten thousand souls at the moment of death for an 'art gallery' in order to return to life, all while reminiscing about a woman he met shortly before his own demise. The subject matter reads like a Steven King short story (take of that what you will), but the movie has a wonderfully creepy vibe all the way through it, without ever once segueing into actual horror. For sheer cinematographic style alone, this one gets major points.

Henry: Manipulative tripe. This french-Canadian soft-focus tearjerker about an old man who is losing his memory to what we assume is Alzheimers is a classic example of sentiment over substance. Within thirty seconds of the movie's commencement, I knew precisely what was going to happen and what revelations we were to be subjected to. Yes, the subject matter is incredibly sad, and yes, it drew tears from the audience, but the mere ability to reference sad things is not skill, and I've seen this particular subject handled with much greater pathos and care, for example in last year's superb Robot & Frank. Alzheimer's is a horrible, tragic thing, but it does not follow that the only action required to make a great movie is to gesture in the direction of Alzheimer's. Tragedy without context is just melodrama, material that beats the audience over the head without challenging or enhancing their understanding of the world. Shameful.

Buzkashi Boys: A bleak and starkly-photographed movie from Afghanistan, Buzkashi Boys is about a pair of young boys, one a blacksmith's son, one a homeless beggar, who are friends, and dream of escaping the misery of their lives by means of the ludicrously awesome sport of Buzkashi (or as I call it, 'Goat Polo'). Like Henry, this film is a major downer, but unlike Henry, it does not seek to manipulate its audience, instead simply showing them what Kabul has been reduced to after so many years of war, and the lives that its children must lead. A somber, quiet piece of haunting imagery, this movie was intended to kick-start Afghan cinema following years of suppression under Soviet and Taliban rule. Good luck.

Asad: Continuing our theme of 'children in Hell', we have Asad, a movie from Somalia, about a fisher-boy who wishes to become a pirate. Yet to my surprise, Asad was not another bleak descent into the pits of despair but a movie that showcases just how 'normal' life can be in even the most strained of circumstances. Being left behind by his pirate friends, threats by mujahadeen bandits from Mogadishu, near-starvation, these things are normal to Asad, who does not dwell upon the miseries of his life but simply lives. Unlike Buzkashi Boys, the film is shot in glorious, vibrant color, giving life to the setting and surrounding, and while some elements of the story make no sense (how did a pleasure yacht that size get to the coast of Somalia, and exactly what happened on it?), the movie doesn't dwell on such issues. The film ends very abruptly, even for a short film, but coming as it does from a failed state whose very name seems to be a byword for tragedy and evil, it was quite a revelation.

And the award for Best Live-Action Short Film goes to...

Curfew: The live action shorts this year were a collection of downers, alternating in subject matter between Alzheimer's, child-death, loss, murder, and hopelessness. At first glance, Curfew is no exception, a film about a man attempting to kill himself who is suddenly interrupted by his sister's demand that he look after the niece he is forbidden from seeing. And yet Curfew is a strange beast, poignant and tense and weird and even funny at times, despite its subject matter, expressing in the end (assuming it wishes to express anything) what the power of a single 'roadblock' can mean to one hellbent on killing himself. Though the other films (with one exception) were good movies, this one told the most complete story of them all, and a story I could easily have seen more of.

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