Wide-eyed children and dying old men once again make up the majority of the Academy’s live-action short offerings, making for a solid if disappointingly familiar crop of nominees. As a result of Shorts Intl.’s ongoing curatorial efforts, auds can download them individually or catch all five via a Magnolia-released theatrical package, with 2011 winner Luke Matheny (“God of Love”) offering pithy soundbites between the selections. Rest assured, there are more original shorts being made than this year’s crop of play-it-safe nominees suggests, but the same could be argued in most of Oscar’s live-action feature categories as well.
First up is director Tom Van Avermaet’s “Death of a Shadow,” which won the L.A. Shorts Fest and looks like a million bucks; it’s yet more evidence of the impressive young talent pool hailing from Belgium lately. This Steampunk-styled, WWI-set romance imagines a kind of Borgesian purgatory where a dead soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts, a meek shadow of his “Bullhead” self) is tasked with collecting 10,000 photographs of other people’s dying moments. A few snapshots away from his goal, the maudlin chap finally re-encounters the mysterious army nurse whose memory has motivated him this far. With its gothic flavor and intricate brass mechanics, this reverse Orpheus myth — in which a lover must repeatedly emerge from the underworld for love — echoes the early work of Guillermo del Toro (namely “Cronos”), which explains why the Mexican helmer has taken a shine to this emerging talent.
Equally sentimental in a more conventional sense, Canadian-made “Henry” offers another single-reel meditation on death and loss, this time set in a rest home where an elderly gentleman (Gerard Poirier) lapses in and out of his own memories. This second short from director Yan England, inspired by his grandfather, offers a poignant if not terribly original treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, using creative techniques to transition between Henry’s reminiscences and reality, though 21 minutes should have been time enough to establish a sense of character, of which this short ultimately falls short.
By contrast, Shawn Christensen’s “Curfew” practically explodes with personality. A throwback to the cheeky, ultra-stylized indies that took Sundance by storm in the ’90s, this dark comedy opens on a suicidal young man (played by the director) wallowing in a bathtub. An inopportune phone call interrupts his wrist slitting, offering a lifeline of sorts. On the other end, his estranged sister (Kim Allen) desperately asks him to babysit her bratty daughter (Fatima Ptacek) — a task that miraculously rouses him. There’s not an emotionally genuine moment in the short (whose understanding of depression borders on insulting), but it packs a few good laughs and demonstrates a fresh voice capable of great things.
A fest favorite, Afghani/American co-production “Buzkashi Boys” feels like a retread of similar nominees from years past, providing yet another tale of Third World urchins, but that’s not to diminish its various accomplishments. In telling the story of two kids who dream of finding a horse so they can compete in Afghanistan’s polo-like national sport, director Sam French demonstrates a great eye and gets good performances from his two young thesps (Fawad Mohammadi and Jawanmard Paiz), even if much of the film’s grit was artificially achieved by smearing the cast in soot and shooting their troubled life through blue-gray lenses. Less cynical auds will appreciate the aspirational tale at face value.
The fifth and final nominee, Somalia-set “Asad,” provides a similar glimpse of struggle through destitute young eyes. The deserving winner of at least a dozen prestigious fest prizes, the pic also includes character, political context and a stunning sense of place. Living by his wits in a beach community where honest fishermen uneasily coexist with heavily armed pirates, young Asad (Harun Mohammed, himself a displaced refugee) ventures out to sea alone. Upon encountering a raided ship, he makes a life-changing decision to reject violence, returning instead with the most unusual catch the town has ever seen. An admirably nonjudgmental take on a tricky subject, the haunting widescreen short was directed by acclaimed blurbmeister Bryan Buckley, whose resume boasts nearly 50 Super Bowl spots; in 18 minutes, the pic displays more humanism than one might expect from a helmer with an ad background.
Together, the five noms represent considerable talent operating in a range of styles without a clear frontrunner dominating the race.