Review: The Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live-Action

Somali refugees, Afghan sporting events, suicide and supernatural photography make up this year's nominees.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The Oscar-nominated live-action short subject movies get something of the short shrift from audiences at large, who often use the category – whose nominees they generally haven’t seen – as the perfect opportunity for a quick bathroom break. They’re missing out though, since the nominees are usually each something special, and since the Live-Action Short Subject category is often a sneak peak at impressive new talent that, one day, could be a major player in popular feature films.

Don’t believe me? Just ask filmmakers John Carpenter (Halloween), Taylor Hackford (Parker), Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths), Dean Parisot (Red 2), Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later), and Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty), who each got their start working on films that were nominated for – and in many cases actually won – an Oscar in this underappreciated category.

It’s hard to tell which of the filmmakers this year are likely to go on to greater glory, but the mostly-impressive crop of Oscar-nominated live-action shorts could be a hotbed for new talent. I recommend catching as many as you can – they’re screening this weekend at the Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles and the Regency South Coast Village 3 in Orange County – but if you can’t make it out in time, here’s a closer look at the five nominated films. For once I’m glad I’m not an Academy member, because picking just one of these films to vote for would be nearly impossible.

Read CraveOnline's review of The Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Animated.

Asad (dir. Bryan Buckley)

A cast consisting of Somali refugees populates this striking short film, about a young boy named Asad (Harun Mohammed), with an aptitude for pirating but the heart of a fisherman. Bryan Buckley’s film captures a lot of culture in just 18 minutes – including the dreams of the young, the desperation of starving families, the dominance of the criminal element and the resolve of the elderly – in a strong story that sends Asad on a perilous journey that could have serious ramifications for his future. It’s a powerful film, and one of the very best nominated this year.


Buzkashi Boys (dir. Sam French)

The longest Oscar-nominated live-action short this year is Buzkashi Boys, about two kids in Afghanistan who dream of a future in Buzkashi – a sporting event involving horseback riding and a dead goat (you may remember Sylvester Stallone playing it in Rambo III) – but also have to contend with the expectations of their birth. Rafi (Faward Mohammadi), the son of a blacksmith, is tempted to a Buzkashi game by Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz), a fatherless beggar with dreams of glory in the sport. Ahmad’s resolve to make something of his life seems inspirational to Rafi until events transpire that make Rafi’s choices for his future harder to make. Director Sam French gives Buzkashi Boys an impressively grand scale, thanks largely to some spectacular locations, and the performances from the young cast are impressive, but the unusually realistic conclusion could either be a refreshing change of pace or a major disappointment depending on your point of view.


Curfew (dir. Shawn Christensen)

Curfew stars writer/director Shawn Christensen as Richie, a drug addict shaken out of a suicide attempt by a last minute phone call from his estranged sister, who needs him to babysit her young daughter Sophia (Fatima Ptacek). If you’ve seen a movie before, you probably know what happens next: bonds are formed, hearts are warmed, and so on and so on. I should hate this conventional narrative, but instead I was remarkably affected by Christensen’s energetic approach to this familiar material. Earlier this week I wrote about feature films that would have worked better as short subjects, and Curfew is the perfect reverse engineered illustration of that concept. As a feature, Curfew would have been maddeningly padded and probably distractingly superficial, but as a 19-minute short film, the framework gives Christensen just enough structure to highlight the genuine emotional drama and inject Curfew with enough personality that it stands out. This is a tough call, but I think despite its formulaic storyline, Curfew may just be my favorite live-action short subject nominated in 2013.


Death of a Shadow (dir. Tom Van Avermaet)

The most original Oscar-nominated live-action short this year is also, sadly, the least developed, trusting its enigmatic concept to carry the film past its two-dimensional characters. But boy, does it look fascinating. This gorgeously filmed short stars Matthias Schoenarts (Rust and Bone) as Nathan Rijckx, a World War I soldier, killed in action, who now collects shadows of the dead for a mysterious benefactor. When he reaches his quota, he gets his life back, but his last shadow has a disturbing impact on his dreams of freedom. The idea is intriguing, but unexplored, since we have no idea how this shadow-collecting works and whether the hero is causing these deaths or merely cataloguing them. More problematic is Nathan’s emotional arc, which seems driven more by the plot than the other way around. With a few more minutes to allow the characters to explain themselves, Death of a Shadow could have been phenomenal. As it stands, it feels more like an above-average “Tales from the Crypt” episode.


Henry (dir. Yan England)

Henry is a little hard to discuss, because Yan England’s film is based on a mystery and, with only 21 minutes in which to unfold, revealing even the tiniest secret would ruin any possibility of discovery. Here’s the set-up at least: an elderly pianist named Henry (Gérard Poirier) meets a strange woman (Marie Tifo) at a café, but is called away suddenly by a man in a wheelchair who warns him of danger. Soon his life is turned upside down, and strange figures are pumping him full of drugs, sending him on a harrowing trip through his own memories. Why? Well, that’s the whole point. The haunting performances do a fantastic job of selling Henry’s great tragedies and heartwarming personal journeys, and only a blunt, unnecessary title card at the end – spelling out the storyline long after the film has made itself clear – betrays England’s otherwise subtle, overwhelmingly emotional film. Oh, what a difference a title card makes. Henry was almost the best Oscar-nominated live-action short of the year. 


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the co-star of The Trailer Hitch. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.