This afternoon, I availed myself of the opportunity to see all five live-action short nominees for the Academy Awards. The quintet can be seen in theaters beginning Feb. 1 — details on locations can be found here — and on iTunes beginning Feb. 19.
It might not be an odds-on favorite, but "Asad," featuring the unlikely combination of Somali refugee actors and veteran Super Bowl ad director Bryan Buckley, presents the strongest case for an Oscar. It has clarity of storytelling from the start, a terrific lead character and a kinetic energy, all leading to an ending that is dark and goofy all at once. And it's an amazing accomplishment to boot. "The two lead actors, 13-year-old Harun Mohammed and his 10-year-old brother, Ali, were unable to read or write when they were picked for their roles, yet they memorized 19 pages of dialogue," Jerry Rice wrote for Variety.
If you wondered what the love child of "Amour" and "Looper" might look like, it could be "Henry," from director Yan England. I recommend you venture into the short, as I did, with as little knowledge of its subject matter as possible — the realization of the story enhances the effect of the project. It's not a shocking ending, but it's quite effective.
"Death of a Shadow"
You might not even recognize "Rust and Bone" star Matthias Schoenaerts in Tom Van Avermaet's "Death of a Shadow," the most off-the-wall of the five nominees — and to what purpose, I'm not exactly clear. It makes a great deal of effort to touch rather superficially on what amounts to very conventional themes of love and loss, never really justifying the uniqueness of its setting. It's a bit like a very dark, and disappointing, "Twilight Zone" episode.
Directed, written by and starring Shawn Christensen, "Curfew" has its moments both sincere and contrived. There's a touching story here — and not necessarily the story you think it's going to be, which I liked. But more than once, I found myself not buying into particular plot points. The film's child co-star, Fatima Ptacek, could be a find — she has traces of "School of Rock"/"iCarly" actress Miranda Cosgrove.
Bringing us nearly full circle is "Buzkashi Boys," which echoes "Asad" in featuring a key coming-of-age moment set in war-ravaged territory — in this case, Afghanistan. Worthy in its own right, "Buzkashi" has the serious subject matter but doesn't have the snap, the humor or the unpredictability of "Asad." Nevertheless, the longest of the five nominees belongs in a valuable genre of foreign film that gives us cultural insight that news reports never find.