The AMPAS voting committee that weighs live action shorts has a narrow definition of what constitutes an Oscar-worthy live action short. If they didn’t, Stan Brakhage wouldn’t have only been mentioned on Oscar telecasts after he died. Instead, and with exceptions, they favor small, if not trite, stories in which someone climactically learns a life lesson.
Style is appreciated, though, as it is in Shawn Christensen’s Curfew, which has a grimy American urban look paired with a pitch-black sense of humor. Indeed, it opens with its lead (played by Christensen) in a tub with freshly opened veins, on the phone with his estranged sister as she unknowingly begs him to babysit her precocious young daughter. No cigars given for guessing that our depresso antihero will find Something Worth Living For in this little girl, but it has a pissy streak, and Christensen, as an actor, has a faintly Ruffaloesque vulnerability and mumbleability.
The Belgian/French Death of a Shadow has an ornate, musky palette and a mysterious premise that’s fun to untangle: Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) plays some sort of minion in the afterlife who captures the living’s shadows as they die for some sort of immortal art collector. It’s compact and of appropriate length, as is Henry, from Canada, a kind of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the elderly, jumping around the memories of an old man as he’s losing them.
Two films from around Arabic nations, meanwhile, offer disparate ways to tell bleak dramas about young boys. The darkly comic Asad traces a vaguely whimsical Somali refugee as he brushes up against kids with guns who want to be Jay-Z, his fisherman relatives and eventually a neighboring yacht blasting Three Dog Night. Despite an all-Somali refugee cast, its unpredictable nature downplays potential self-importance while saying a lot. Buzkashi Boys, which follows two kids, one the son of a tyrannical laborer, the other a fatherless beggar, is more dour, but it doesn’t build to a life lesson so much as end on a crossroads that may be less positive than it may seem. It understands that life is too complex to be reduced to affirmative platitudes. As such, it’s amazing it got nominated.