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Film Review

2013 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action and Animated

Over the past six years, a few theaters have been screening the Oscar nominations for live action and animated short films. This year there are five live action and five animated with a few "commended" shorts. Mostly ignored in Oscar coverage, a short film is defined as less than 30 minutes. Most of the animated films are under 10 minutes and all but one of the live action films are under 20 minutes. These films will never have commercial distribution, so this is a wonderful opportunity to see some truly inspired filmmaking. Making a short film is at least as difficult as a feature film because the director has to develop the characters and tell the story, all in a very short time. They are the cinematic equivalent of short stories.

This year the live action films were outstanding, and all far more accomplished than the animated films, unlike last year. The first live action film is Death of a Shadow (Belgium/France), about a man who photographs the shadows of people at the moment of their death. The film opens with him photographing the shadow of a man being beaten to death during a robbery on a quaint city street at night. He uses a large science fiction type camera, but one that might have been imagined at the beginning of the 20th Century. His is regretful, saying "I'm sorry" to the victim. Then he returns to a period house with an impressive entry hall, in which is a complex clock. The elderly owner of the house asks him about his latest photograph, which is put up on a wall mounted screen, with a label identifying the victim, with cause and date of death. The photograph is of the victim's shadow. The owner, a shadow collector, is pleased, critiquing it as an art critic would critique a painting. We see scores of other shadows, already mounted, all with their labels. The photographer, a young man, is clearly uncomfortable with his mission, but the collector tells him he only has two more shadows to capture, and he is free. At this point we don't know what free means. During his penultimate mission, he sees a beautiful young woman amongst ruins of an abby, and is entranced. Although this may sound like too much science fiction, the story is riveting, and continues to its very moving ending of love and sacrifice.

The next film, Henry (Canada), begins with an elderly French pianist going out for a walk, then to a sidewalk cafe for a coffee, where a middle aged woman approaches him, and begins to talk. He doesn't know her but being polite he invites her to sit down and have a coffee. Then an elderly man warns him that "they are out to get him and that his wife is in danger". He doesn't understand this, but alarmed, runs back to his apartment. Two husky young men are waiting in the apartment, hold him down, while a women gives him an injection that knocks him out. He awakens hours later, and finds the same woman whom he met at the cafe. She talks reassuringly to him, and when she leaves, he tries to escape what has become some sort of hospital facility. He goes through a door and finds himself at the top of elaborate stairway overlooking a grand reception room filled with people. Most are in WW ll uniforms, and a beautiful young woman is about to play a violin piece. A young man in uniform rushes to the piano and begins to accompany the violinist. The young man is smitten with the violinist, and the story continues, with many flashbacks and surprises, to its poignant, moving conclusion, that is reminiscent of Amour.

The third is Curfew (USA), opening with a man in a bathtub, beginning to slit his wrists, when the telephone rings. He answers, and it is a woman insisting that he come over and take care of a child. Which he does, with many surprising revelations. The fourth, Buzkashi Boys (Afghanistan/USA), looks at two young boys, close friends, Ahmad a street beggar, and Rafi the son of a poor blacksmith. Ahmad is adventuresome, always exploring, but Rafi is mostly confined to working in his father's small street workshop. He chides Rafi for not being more adventuresome as Ahmad climbs to the roof of the ruined parliament building that overlooks Kabul. They explore the city together, and go to a Buzkashi game, which is a polo like game played by mounted horseman carrying a dead goat to a goal. The boys are fascinated and Ahmad becomes determined to become a rider. This is a highly accomplished, very moving story that will catch you by surprise. The views of Afghan society and the cinematography in this short film are breathtaking, and easily the equal of any feature length film.

The final live action film is Asad (South Africa), a story of a young teenager living in a Somali coastal village, where nearly the only way to make a living is either by armed piracy, seizing ships for ransom, or fishing. Asad is impressed with the pirates and their weaponry, and desperately want them to take him along. But he has long worked for Erasto, a grizzled fisherman, who one day brings in a big tuna. He gives it to Asad to bring home, but something happens that changes Asad life. This powerful story of fate and friendship was filmed using only Somali non actors, and is a gem.

The animated short films, mostly American, were good, but not exceptional. Several stood out, such as Abiogenises (USA), which shows a small unmanned space probe crashing down onto the surface of a lifeless planet. Four robotic machines disengage, travel the surface of the planet, sampling liquids, and return to the ship. The ship then transforms into a fantastic tree like object, which in turn seeds the planet. And then continues on to another destination. Fascinating and highly imaginative. Another is Adam & Dog (USA), about the expulsion from the biblical Eden and their faithful companion. Very short but powerful. Perhaps the best is Paperman (USA), which opens with a chance encounter at an elevated train station between a young man and an attractive woman. She smiles at him, but soon disappears onto another train, and he is resigned to not ever seeing her again. But at work in his office, he looks across the street, and sees her in an office with an open window. Too far to yell, he begins to fashion paper airplanes and launch them at her window. None make it. When he sees her leave the building, he rushes down, but is too late. She is gone. Then the last paper airplane, which has ended up in a lightwell, becomes a guide and leads the other paper airplanes to a purpose. An immensely charming film, this was done with a combination of traditional drawing and digital methods, by the Disney Studios. It has a very sophisticated look and will likely influence other animated films.

Both programs of the Oscar nominated live action and animated short films opened this weekend at the Embarcadero and the Rafael (Marin). Also opening at the Rafael, but not in San Francisco, are the Oscar nominated short documentary films. Have not seen them yet, but last year they were outstanding.

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