As you prepare your picks for your favorite Academy Award pool, remember that these contests are won in the little categories. Almost everyone can guess who will win the big awards, but who will win Best Live Action Short and Best Animated Short? Here are some brief thoughts on the year's brief live action movies chosen for recognition by the Academy -- in my order of preference. You can see them yourself, starting today, at Landmark's E Street Cinema. (Also see my thoughts on the nominees for animated short.)
Curfew, Shawn Christensen (20 minutes)
This polished miniature movie, written and directed by Shawn Christensen, has everything a short should be: a taut storyline about a very small number of characters; a vivid feel of place and character, with nothing extraneous; and a sense of whimsy that is all its own. Its listless hero, Richie (also played by Christensen, and quite well), is a disgruntled, short-tempered antihero right out of a 1990s Hal Hartley film, seemingly unable to abide the mess he has made of his life. Out of the blue, he gets a call from his estranged sister, who has no one else to turn to for help with watching her daughter. Part moody slacker film, part kid sweetens sour adult film, part 70s bowling alley tribute film, it is too good for me to spoil any of its details. The charming kid, Fatima Ptacek, has a well-directed star turn that should make heads swivel.
Asad, Bryan Buckley (15 minutes)
This short was written and directed by Bryan Buckley, best known for the many commercials he has made for the Superbowl. It is a politically inspired film (perhaps giving it an edge with Academy voters), with a cast made up entirely of refugees from the conflict in Somalia, but it plays out like a myth. A boy, caught between hunger, the temptation of work with the local pirates, and the wisdom of an elderly fisherman, seeks to end his streak of bad luck. It is hard to say, in a country wracked by insurrection and bloodshed, when that spell is broken.
Henry, Yan England (21 minutes)
This is the second short from actor Yan England, which opens with a pair of ancient hands playing the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana at a Steinway keyboard. The story, inspired (we later learn) by a quote from Maurice England, has to do with the torment of old age, becoming aware of the loss of one's memories. It has been an awards season that draws awareness of the need for better pension programs for aging musicians. After Amour and Quartet, here we follow a pianist, Henry, who navigates through his memories, trying to make sense of what is happening to him. The music, both the Mascagni piece and a section of Schumann's piano quartet, has more power than the sometimes lachrymose story, but it is an endearing film.
Buzkashi Boys, Sam French (30 minutes)
Buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan, involves players on horseback fighting to carry the headless carcass of a goat around a marker and then hurl it into a circle. It is the stuff dreams are made on for two Afghan boys in this tough-minded short from Sam French, co-written with Martin Desmond Roe. The film packs a lot of visual beauty, remarkable considering how gritty and grimy the locales are, but it seems a little overstuffed for a short, as if some more development money was the only thing keeping it from being a feature.
Death of a Shadow, Tom Van Avermaet (20 minutes)
This short, written and directed by Belgian filmmaker Tom Van Avermaet, also feels like it had almost enough ideas and style -- but perhaps not quite -- to be a feature. It is a metaphysical tale, about a soldier killed during World War I. His soul is trapped in a secret hallway of the afterlife, where he takes photographs of the shadows of dying people. In return for collecting 10,000 shadow portraits, his employer, a vaguely Mephistophelean figure, allows him another chance at life. Stylish and mostly entertaining, the film is a little heavy-handed.