Over the past few years, the short film contests have become my favorite Academy Award races.
While the contenders tend to be uniformly brilliant — it's remarkable how potent narratives can become when their creators are working in a 30-minutes-or-less format — they typically have little else in common. The Oscar-nominated short films often are capable of transporting viewers into all sorts of new and unfamiliar places, whether real and imagined.
And isn't that what movies should do?
This year's Academy Award-nominated live-action short films come from all over the world, and their makers are fearless and forceful in pulling audiences into gripping narratives that are both specific and universal.
Set in war-torn Somalia, “Asad” centers on a young boy (Harun Mohammed) who must choose between sailing into a traditional career as a fisherman or taking up automatic weapons and following his brother into modern-day piracy. While many of his neighbors in his small village believe Asad has been cursed with bad luck, aged fisherman Erasto (Ibrahim Moallim Hussein) predicts the boy will someday make an impressive catch. Writer/director Bryan Buckley's coming-of-age fable has a surprising and blessedly uplifting ending made all the more poignant by the credits, which reveal that the cast is made up of Somali refugees and asylum seekers.
Another story about poor, war-weary boys pondering their futures — unfortunately, not one film in this category is told from a female perspective — “Buzkashi Boys” vividly depicts life in present-day Afghanistan. Shot on location in Kabul, the sobering story trails best friends Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz), a daring orphaned street urchin, and Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi), the reserved but rebellious son of a stern local blacksmith (Wali Talash). While both dream of riding to glory in the national sport of Buzkashi — a brutal polo-like game played on horseback and incorporating the carcass of a slain goat — Rafi must balance his boyhood ambitions with his responsibility to continue the family business.
On the other end of the age spectrum, Gerard Poirier gives a compelling lead turn in “Henry” as an elderly pianist whose life turns tumultuous when his wife suddenly disappears. Although it quickly becomes clear where the French-Canadian drama is going, filmmaker Yan England manages to maintain an air of mystery that enhances the heartrending emotion.
From an emotional standpoint, the New York family saga “Curfew” is the standout in this race. Writer/director Shawn Christensen also stars as Richie, a suicidal former drug addict who has just slit his wrists when he gets a call from his estranged sister Maggie (Kim Allen). Maggie desperately needs a baby sitter for her precocious 9-year-old daughter Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), whom Richie hasn't seen since she was a baby. Between the strong performances and the impromptu Talking Heads dance party at a dingy bowling alley, “Curfew” is unforgettable.
But it faces stiff competition from the category's most inventive entry, the thoughtful Dutch sci-fi drama “Death of a Shadow.” In a steampunk afterlife, Nathan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a soldier who died in World War I, is unwillingly employed by a creepy collector (Peter van den Eede) to capture the shadows of 10,000 dying people. If he fulfills his mission, Nathan hopes to get the chance to reunite with Sarah (Laura Verlinden), the compassionate beauty he met just before he left the mortal coil. Writer/director Tom Van Avermaet's twisty tale keeps you guessing while delving into big issues like life, death and love.
The 85th Annual Oscars will be handed out Feb. 24 and air on ABC. As part of its Oscar Tune Up, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art is showing all five nominated live-action short films at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Feb. 22-23, and 3 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 24 at its Noble Theater, 415 Couch Drive. For more information, go to www.okcmoa.com/see/films.
— Brandy McDonnell
Live-action short films
Films: “Asad,” “Buzkashi Boys,” “Curfew,” “Death of a Shadow” and “Henry.”
Now playing: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Feb. 22-23, and 3 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 24 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive. For more information, go to www.okcmoa.com.