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2013 Oscar Nominated Short Films - Live Action

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Jeff Breuer
2013 Oscar Nominated Short Films - Live Action
on Feb 11, 2013 at 1:43:19 am

Let me start off by saying I am really impressed with the short film lineup this year. I watched the Live Action and the Documentary Shorts (I’ll do a post on that later) and they have both been great shows. The Live Action nominees give us a wide range of films that are all well done, making it difficult to pick a winner. I will do my best to give you a synopsis along with some direction to do your own investigation so you can come to your own conclusion if you do not have the opportunity to these films. If you do have the opportunity though, I highly recommend it.

There will be spoilers here, but I will mark them to be safe.

Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)
A soldier attempts to ransom his soul from Death and return to the girl he loves.

STORY: Think of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Jean Pierre Junet’s earlier dark work or even some Fritz Lang, now put those ideas into a twenty minute-or-so Dutch story that takes place around WWI. Death of a Shadow follows a fallen soldier who captures photos of the shadows of dying men. Though the soldier is dead, a powerful, dubious Art Collector has agreed to restore his life if he will bring back 1000 shadows, which he then hangs in his art gallery. The soldier heads out to capture his 999th photo and finds that his beloved has fallen for another soldier. In his anger, the soldier uses a powerful machine of the dubious Art Collector to conjure up the death of the other soldier for him to photograph as his last photo.

The soldier photographs the death of the new boyfriend in a firing squad. The soldier is released back into life but he returns to find his girl is inconsolably distraught over the death of her boyfriend. In remorse, the soldier returns to the Art Collector and exchanges his life for the boyfriend’s. A moment later the soldier is in the firing squad, the boyfriend returns to the girl, and then the soldier becomes another shadow in the great art collection.

The art direction in this film was terrific. As I mentioned, it had that very dark, stylized, high contract and noir-ish feel of Burton and the cinematography matched. I loved a lot of the unique elements in the story, the destiny machine, the camera that captured shadows, the shadow art gallery – great ideas. The movie really felt like it wanted to be something bigger. Being a short film felt constraining and it left you wanting to know more about these cool elements, but neither the characters nor their arcs were particularly appealing to me. The stuff was really cool, but the emotions, subtext and those sorts of under currents were lacking. I didn’t really see anything here for Oscar bait, so of all of the films I would find this one the least likely to win.

Henry, an elderly concert pianist, undergoes a series of confusing experiences as he searches for his wife.

STORY: Henry, a short film in French that comes to us from Canada, follows an elderly man (Henry) as a serious of bizarre events occur where he finds himself bouncing between moments in his past to his current state of arrest in by a strange younger woman who will not allow him to see his wife. Technically the rest I have to say is a spoiler, but it is so obvious that I don’t think I am ruining anything for anybody. Henry is suffering from dementia, his daughter has taken him to a home and we are following his mind as it bounces around his life from light to dark, happy to sad and so forth.

SPOILER: The movie goes for the sting at the end as Henry snaps out of his haze and acknowledges his daughter. He tearfully fires off, “Did I live a good life?” Then zing! The man is back out, not recognizing his daughter who dutifully continues to care for the man who does not recognize her.

Global Montreal ( has a great article discussing the film with the writer/director Yan England.

The two best parts of this film were the terrific acting and the sense of jolt as we are yanked from his memory to real life. As he discusses in the article, England also did a decent job of using music as a sort of character in the film. However, the tension in the story is spoiled by the obvious ending. Though there is still a touching scene between Henry and his wife late in the story, you can see the story clearly hiding details for us that we have already figured out, which feels odd. It also ruins a lot of the suspense. The Oscar bait here will be the touching story that appeals to an older crowd (which the Oscar voters are) and with Amour having some time in the limelight this year, it may shed good graces upon Henry.

A young man on the verge of committing suicide receives a call from his sister asking him to babysit his niece.

STORY: If John Hughes was just coming onto the scene and he had a little bit of a darker edge, this would be his movie. The movie is dark, bitter and painful, but is also somehow uplifting, funny and a joyride. The movie opens on a guy (Richie) in his bathtub filled with water and his own blood. The razorblade in his hand makes no mistake about what is going on. An old rotary phone by the tub rings and oddly, he answers. His estranged sister (Maggie) goes on a long rant begging her brother to babysit her small (8-10 year old) daughter (Maggie). Writer/Director/Actor Shawn Christensen opens the film with a painful shock, but by the end of this scene we were awkwardly laughing at the uneasiness. Balancing these emotions successfully with dignity is no small task, but this task is well done throughout the film. Richie picks up his niece with very specific instructions for the night (She does not want him wondering off with her because of his sketchy, drug abusing past). We follow them on their adventure as they bond and challenge other’s preconceptions. When he returns his niece at the end of the evening, he finds that his sister Maggie has been experiencing her own deep difficulties. The brother connects with Maggie and strengthens her in her time of need.

The guy returns to bathroom and reflects, but much to everyone’s dismay, he hops back into the tub and grabs his razor blade. The phone begins to ring, he reaches down, but to our shock, he does not answer it. He unplugs it. He puts the razor blade up to his arm, reflects, changes his mind and plugs the phone back in. It is his sister asking if he would be interested in babysitting once a week and spending more time as a family. He happily agrees.

IMPRESSION: Great story, well told. The acting was pretty good, but the little girl (Fatima Ptacek, she does the voice of Dora the Explorer) hit it out of the park. Director Shawn Christensen does a spectacular job of balancing a very dark and uncomfortable subject matter humor, while keeping a story that is believable and feels authentic. Though a few points may have felt a little flat or could have moved at a better pace, the ability to wrangle the underlying emotions while keeping the story engaging and making us root for the character is truly remarkable. For Oscar bait, you have all of these terrific moving parts that work behind the scenes, which voters love, but working against it is perhaps a story aimed at a younger generation. That may be redeemed though by the amazing little girl (which Oscar voters love).

Buzkashi Boys
Two boys in Afghanistan, a blacksmith's son and an orphan living on the streets, dream of winning a popular and fierce polo match.

Two boys in Afghanistan struggle with their destiny. One boy (Rafi) lives in the slums with his father who is teaching him to be a blacksmith, the family business for generations. His best friend (Ahmad) is an orphaned boy, a swindler and a renegade whom his father disapproves of. The Ahmed takes Rafi to see a Buzkashi tournament (remember this game from Rambo III,

). Ahmed swears to be a Buzkashi rider some day. Rafi, being more realistic, essentially argues that their path in life is not for dreams but they must follow the structure of things.

Basically Ahmed dies by stealing a horse in his quest to become a rider. Rafi briefly runs away from home to grieve for his friend but ultimately returns because his father has taught him that there is a sort of nobility and family pride in what they do. Rafi now wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, not out of obligation, but out of a sense of pride.

IMPRESSION: The film is shot well and the color and subtle effects work well. The kids in the story are locals with no acting experience, but you won’t be able to tell by watching it. Vanity Fair ( has a good interview with director Sam French, an American living in Afghanistan, on the difficulties and triumphs of the production. This movie has a big boost for the Oscars because of Fawad Mohammadi, the boy who played Rafi. He was literally plucked off the streets to play the part and will be at the Oscars. I remember when the nominations were announced NBC news in particular gave them a lot of exposure. It could also benefit or be hurt by the theme of the story. The metaphor of the story really seems to me to be about America coming to Afghanistan with all of our crazy ideas of independence and living out our dreams, but then going away and Afghanis settling back into their roots. I can see how that could be perceived as ingratitude, but it could also suggest the Afghanis are fine now thank you, we don’t need America anymore, and in that regard any “Bring the troops home” message will go far with voters. Or maybe I’m just reading too far into it.

A boy from a poor Somali village must decide between piracy and life as a fisherman.

STORY: Asad is a boy growing up in Somalia. Although he is young he is at an age where he is trying to provide for his family. The story opens with him interacting with older friends on the coast who are pirates. The boy is attracted to the group and you can tell he can see himself joining them someday. Then he bumps into an old fisherman friend who gives him a large fish he had just caught. The boy carries the fish towards home and is accompanied by his small friend with a crippled leg. Along the way people shout and ask if he caught this large fish, but the boy always responds, “no.” His friend encourages him to take credit for it, but the boy has a sense of pride and wants his accomplishments to be honest and speak for themselves. The two then bump into a group older pirates with guns. They mess around with the crippled kid and are annoyed with him so they aim to shoot him, but Asad offers them the fish as a peace offering if they will leave his friend alone. The boy returns home empty handed but his family needs food so the boy returns to the coast to find the old fisherman badly scarred. The pirates had attacked him and stolen his fish. The inexperienced boy heads out in the old man’s boat in hopes of catching some food.

SPOILER: The boy has no luck with fish but stumbles upon a fancy yacht. On board he finds the dead bodies of the rich owners and those of his pirate friends. The only thing living he finds is this large, fat white cat, well groomed. The boy carries the large cat home and people passing by ask him if he caught this “tiger.” The boy proudly says yes as he makes his way home.

Writing out this story makes the ending sound a bit cheesy, but it really isn’t. Much like Curfew, Writer/Director Bryan Buckley does an amazing job balancing drama with humor while addressing a very serious subject matter. The production value is really terrific in this film as is the acting. The Academy will clearly love the end credits where we find that this movie (shot in South Africa) was filmed entirely with a cast of Somali refuges (except for the dead, large breasted white woman on the yacht). This has everything the Oscar voters are looking for – poor kids in a foreign country spurning and international issue that has had plenty of exposure here in the US, Somali piracy.


As I said earlier, I really felt like this has been a terrific list of films. Personally, I’m going to put my money on Curfew. I think Asad has a good shot, but having seen the short docs, I think the voters will save their “vote for a cause” and give it to Open Heart. Looking at some of the past winners – New Tennants, Pickpocket and even God of Love – I think these sort-of down home dramatic rides with some good punches tend to do pretty well. I could also see Buzkashi Boys making a really good run. And seriously, who would not like to see that Afghani kid up there? Other than remembering all of the bad press about those kids from Slumdog Millionaire after their moment in the big spotlight?

For someone else’s perspective you can check out Slant Magazine’s review and perdictions (

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Scott Roberts
Re: 2013 Oscar Nominated Short Films - Live Action
on Feb 12, 2013 at 6:06:40 pm

Curfew looks like the one I'd most like to check out, seems most up my alley. Buzkashi Boys and Asad look a little too overly serious and/or overly political and/or overly poverty porny for me to fully enjoy them. They're probably still good, though. Henry looks like something I'd fall asleep during, and Death of a Shadow looks like a major 'style over substance' issue..

Curfew just looks like the most well rounded of the bunch. Thanks for your recaps, Jeff! I'm not going to have time to check out any of the other short film showcases... :( This is going to be a hard decision come voting time, they all have that Oscar baity attitude, but in completely different ways!

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