Oscar nominees: Short but (sometimes) sweet
This year's crop of Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts - five in each category - are a hodgepodge of quality, country of origin and artistic intent. They range from experimental whimsy to brutally realistic Third World drama. Some are original and intriguing, seemingly made by people with a passionate need to express what's on their minds. Others are conservative and dutiful, as if their career-minded creators are hoping to catch studio executives' eyes.
One of the brighter bulbs on the live-action marquee is the eerie, stylish Belgian vignette “Death of a Shadow.” It stars “Rust and Bone” hunk Matthias Schoenaerts as Nathan, a World War I casualty on a one-year reprieve from death. The grim reaper himself admires Nathan's skill as a photographer, employing him to snap amusingly composed silhouette pictures of mortals at the moment of their demise. Mr. Death hangs the prints in a macabre gallery, savoring the images like a connoisseur. When Nathan's term of service is over, he can return to the realm of the living. Unfortunately, he develops tender feelings for one subject, putting his resurrection in jeopardy. The atmosphere is suitably mysterious, the production design darkly luscious, and the plot machinations suspenseful until the fade-out.
The other live-action entries, in decreasing order of interest:
“Buzkashi Boys” is set in war-ravaged Kabul, Afghanistan, where two street kids imagine becoming sports heroes. The athletes they revere play Buzkashi, a bruising horseback game of capture the flag, where the flag is a dead goat. The risk taker of the pair, a confident beggar boy, dares his friend, a blacksmith's son, to break from his family trade and follow his dream. But this is not a land where happy endings come easy. The child actors are engaging and unaffected, and the film feels as authentic as a National Geographic photo essay.
“Asad,” from Somalia, is another story of youths in a violent region, directed with tight efficiency. The title character is a boy from a seaside village whose main occupation has shifted from fishing to armed piracy. An elderly fisherman tells Asad he's destined to land an amazing catch, and when the boy sets out in the old man's dinghy he returns with a most unusual prize. The film affirms the human cost of the region's lawlessness, but leavens it with humor.
“Curfew” gives us a morose New York City hipster who's called to baby-sit for his precocious 9-year-old niece on the worst night of his life. The story is improbable and the relationship he forges with the bossy, insistently cute kid feels forced.
Limping along at the tail of the live action field is “Henry,” a lachrymose French-Canadian tale of an aged concert pianist who is losing the power to distinguish between his present life and memories of better times. Cheap pathos for people who buy their tissues in bulk.
From cartoon land, the best of the bunch is “Paperman,” a black-and-white charmer about a lonely office worker in a mid-century metropolis and his efforts to catch the attention of his dream girl with a squadron of paper airplanes. The Disney Studios entry boasts handsome traditional animation, simple, direct dialogue-free storytelling and admirable comedic-emotional chops.
There's a big-studio polish to the hand-drawn Garden of Eden pooch tale “Adam and Dog,” too: director Minkyu Lee got his start as an animator on Disney's “Winnie-the-Pooh” and “Wreck-It Ralph.” The visually ravishing film explores the links of affection, shame and sympathy that make man, woman and their best friend such a great team.
The Fox entry, “Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare,'” is a five-minute gagfest with a so-so hit-to-miss ratio. Dropped off by Marge at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, Maggie tries to rescue a butterfly from the mallet of her malicious nemesis, uni-browed Baby Clarence. The short reflects the long, slow creative decline of the classic TV series. Somebody tell the writing staff that jokes about annoying security screenings are about nine years out of date.
“Head Over Heels,” a claymation story about healing a broken marriage, is nicely produced, shot and edited, but it's overwhelmed by its visual gimmick. After ages of drifting apart, he lives on the floor and she lives on the ceiling. At 10 minutes long, it overstays its welcome by five.
Finally, there's the trippy but trivial “Fresh Guacamole,” a stop-motion throwaway that imagines a recipe for party dip involving sliced hand grenades, chopped baseballs and diced dice. Tastes . gimmicky.
Colin Covert is a film critic for Star Tribune (Minneapolis).