At last November’s Asheville Cinema Festival, attending filmmaker Richard Keith noted that Hollywood studios wouldn’t consider him for feature projects until he made a short film. The hurdle led to him write and direct the hilarious “Grow Up Already,” a fine stepping stone on the way to more prestigious assignments. For Keith and numerous young hopefuls, festival screenings are key resume builders, but perhaps the greatest exposure for a film of such length is an Oscar nomination. Past winners include directors both great (Martin McDonagh) and decidedly mediocre, despite being president of the Director’s Guild of America (Taylor Hackford). Whether or not the masterminds behind the latest crop of shorts go on to greater things remains to be seen, but the joint program of five nominated films in both the live action and animation categories provides an exciting glimpse at these filmmakers’ respective potential.
Beginning with the animated films, a curious quality shared by each contender is that they are bereft of dialogue, raising the question of whether the Academy should establish a subcategory for silent entries. Regardless of the wordlessness, all of the nominees exhibit a great deal of imagination and between them showcase a range of the form’s approaches, covering stop-motion, hand-drawn, and computer generated techniques.
The best of the lot is Minkyu Lee’s “Adam and Dog,” a leisurely paced but beautifully sketched origin story of man’s best friend and a fresh take on the Eden saga. The film’s surprising depth of heart and narrative ambition make it an easy winner, though the wishy-washy Academy could easily resist its classical style. Nearly as strong are a pair of name brand products, Disney’s “Paperman” and Fox’s “The Longest Daycare,” starring Maggie Simpson. Sadly not a sequel to The Paperboy, the latest from the House of Mouse features pleasant black and white images reminiscent of the studio’s earliest work, but with a shiny new glow. Its tale of young love in the working world is both fun and funny, though the same is true of the Simpsons short, in which the famous family’s youngest member does her best to survive her fellow attendees of the Ayn Rand Daycare Center. The various potshots at the Atlas Shrugged author and at modern childcare in general make for steady laughs in the funniest of the nominees.
One notch down is “Fresh Guacamole,” a two-minute claymation look at a person making the titular dish out of unusual ingredients. Though the visual trickery at play is never dull, the film also has no real message and is too bizarre to sustain more than its runtime. Slightly less wonderful is “Head Over Heels,” an odd yet creative metaphor for a marriage suffering from disconnect. A great deal of time must have gone into depicting a husband and wife in the same house but operating under opposite laws of gravity, hence one on the ceiling and the other on the floor as the building tumbles through space. The overall effect of such a set-up, however, is rarely pleasant and the humans’ design feels dated, as if from an ‘80s Will Vinton film.
Towering above their live action competition are “Death of a Shadow” and “Curfew,” two very different yet extraordinary short works. From Belgian writer/director Tom Van Avermaet, “Shadow” is the stunning tale of a deceased young WWI soldier who, with the assistance of a special camera that lets him see the living, photographs their deaths. The shadow of each demise is then projected onto a canvas and displayed in a hall by his boss, a mysterious collector. Clean and crisp all around, the film is a constant mystery and shows immense promise for its creator. The lone English language nominee, the masterful “Curfew” takes modern cinematic clichés (precocious children, troubled 30somethings, big speeches) and injects them with a freshness that makes them feel like novel concepts. Written and directed by Shawn Christensen, who also stars, the NYC set tale of an uncle’s night out with his estranged niece is funny and heartfelt, extremely well made, and features an absolutely fabulous dance sequence.
The other three nominees all have their moments, but are held back by their commitment to bleak subject matter. Sam French’s confident, capable filmmaking in “Buzkashi Boys” shows a Paul Greengrass-like eye for editing and a pair of impressive performances by its young leads. Shot on location in Kabul, the relationship between a blacksmith’s son and an orphaned beggar is stirring, though thoroughly depressing. Another downer, the French language short “Henry” is an accomplished yet somewhat dull portrayal of dementia. The concept of holding on to memories has been done before and more skillfully (see: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but the sad message resonates here nonetheless. Also in the running is “Asad,” in which the titular Somali boy is caught between aspirations of joining a local pirate gang or becoming a fisherman, like the kind old man who aims to steer him right. Starring actual Somali refugees, the film has plenty of good ideas, but its amateur acting lessens the stark material’s impact.
Bursting with possibility and covering a range of emotions, 2013’s Oscar nominated short films are a fine showcase for viewers interested in variety or discovering the next great filmmaker. The collection also offers a brush with two categories with which many tuned in to the February 24 telecast will be unfamiliar, so if an edge on one’s friends is appealing, be sure to prioritize time for these three compelling hours.
(Overall) Grade: B
Not rated, but contains adult language and themes.
The Oscar Nominated Short Films – 2013 is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
Category: Asheville film