One of the pleasant surprises during last year’s Oscar prep was how much I enjoyed the animated shorts. The three shorts categories – animated, live action and documentary – tend to get overshadowed by all the feature films that are nominated. That’s a real shame, as many of the shorts are just as worthy of recognition. Part of the problem is that the shorts are just not as easy to find as the films up for Best Picture consideration, but that is slowly beginning to change. I am lucky to live in a city where the art house theater shows the animated and live shorts every year (the documentary shorts are the most elusive of the bunch – I have one shot to see them locally and it’s the day of the Oscars so I’m cutting it close). Many of the shorts are also available on line, at iTunes or on demand through various cable providers. They are definitely worth seeking out; the nice thing about shorts is that they are not much of a time investment. Worst case scenario – if you don’t like one of the selections, you didn’t waste much time. And you may just stumble upon some creative and innovative creations that lead to even bigger and better things. Because shorts are relatively low risk, directors are willing to take chances and experiment. It is a good way for them to hone their craft and see what works and what doesn’t. That is less likely to happen with feature films.
This past weekend I put my time in at the theater and checked out the animated and live action shorts. I generally enjoyed the animated shorts more, as they were a lot more fun than the live action. The subject matter of the majority of the live action shorts tended toward the depressing and/or serious. There were also a lot of subtitles for the live action shorts, which wouldn’t normally be a problem. However, I’ve been watching so many of the foreign film nominees lately that I think I’m a little subtitled out.
So without further ado, here’s a look at the 2013 animated and live action shorts. Wherever possible, I’ve linked to or embedded the video so you can check these mini-films out for yourself.
We’ll get this one out of the way first, as it was easily my least favorite of the bunch. For whatever reason, this one just didn’t speak to me. The subject matter wasn’t the issue; as a pet owner, I totally get the connection between humans and animals. I think my issue was more in the execution. This was one of the longer shorts and I just didn’t feel like much happened. The film clocks in at just about 15 minutes, but I felt like I was sitting there much longer than that. The animation is very good – there is no debating that the people involved with this are very talented – but I just found this very boring. Perhaps I’ve watched too many Tarantino films, as I found myself feeling a sense of dread that something terrible would befell the dog (spoiler – it doesn’t). Whatever the reason, Adam and Dog just didn’t do it for me.
This film takes the word short quite literally, as it is only two minutes long. In fact, this is the shortest film to ever receive an Oscar nomination. I thought this film was very creative; on the surface, it is just taking you through the steps of making guacamole, but the ingredients are replaced with other objects. I’m a fan of stop-motion and Fresh Guacamole was a lot of fun, but I doubt this has any chance to win come Sunday. It’s cute, but not substantial enough.
Head Over Heels is another short that employs stop-motion and tells the tale of a completely mismatched couple. How mismatched? The actually live on completely different planes – he’s on the floor and she’s on the ceiling (or visa versa, depending on your perspective). The couple barely interacts with each other. This was a sweet story and I enjoyed the resolution. It was a nice metaphor for a marriage where the partners have drifted apart.
This was a pleasant surprise as I didn’t realize that the folks at The Simpsons were behind this short. Next thing you know, there’s Maggie Simpson! Poor kid has been dropped off a less than pleasant daycare facility where she is stuck with the sadistic Baby Gerard. This was the funniest of the shorts and had a nice satire of the education system. Marge makes a quick appearance, but this short belongs to the littlest and quietest member of the Simpson clan. This was my second favorite short of the night.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Paperman is going to walk away with the Oscar. This short ran before the theatrical release of Wreck-It Ralph and I was immediately charmed by it. It’s such a sweet and romantic story and has a beautiful score. It tells a compelling story in only a few minutes, which is a testament to great storytelling. Hands down my favorite of the bunch.
Unfortunately for Henry, it came out the same year as Amour and pales in comparison. Henry also deals with the perils of aging and the relationship of two musicians and their daughter (sound familiar?). Henry is a little too obvious; the story is pretty telegraphed from the very beginning. I knew where things were going well before they happened. A story that has been told too many times. Not a bad little film, but it lacked originality or something interesting to say. The actors do their best, I don’t see this film taking home any hardware on Sunday.
Death of a Shadow
Death of a Shadow was my favorite of the live action shorts. It was mysterious and had a creative story to tell. I thought it was the most original of the five shorts. It features the story of a man who is forced to take photos of people as they are dying; he captures images of their shadows as they draw their last breath and turns them over to a sinister man. The film has a very cool steampunk vibe to it and is visually quite stunning. I found the story fascinating and would totally watch a feature film based on this concept. A very solid film that kept me guessing the entire time. Totally dug this one.
My friend and I were pretty divided on this one; I kind of liked it and he dubbed it “amateur hour.” Curfew is definitely a little rough around the edges and is not nearly as polished as the other films under consideration, but that’s kind of what I liked about it. It’s dark and tries a little too hard to be quirky, but I saw potential in it. Perhaps I am too easily swayed by impromptu dance numbers. When we first meet Richard in the film, it would be an understatement to say that he isn’t in a good place. His sister calls to ask him to babysit his niece and she makes it clear in no uncertain terms that she is doing so as a last resort. The little girl (Fátima Ptacek) is really very good in this film (fun fact – she is the current voice of Dora the Explorer) and frequently out acts her adult counterparts. The story isn’t that unique, but I still found Curfew to be amusing. I could see the film being turned into a Ryan Gosling vehicle; it has something of a Drive feel to it.
Asad takes place in a Somalian fishing village and doesn’t use any professional actors; all of the people in the film are former residents of the country. The story focuses on one little boy who has chosen the path of being a fisherman while all the other boys have opted to become pirates. His family is often low on food and he must always be wary of running into soldiers who are passing through. This film was surprisingly funny – you don’t necessary think you are going to laugh when you hear Somalia – and the untrained actors all do a fabulous job. I just didn’t feel like Asad told a full story. I never really believed that the young man had a much of a choice in who he was going to be and the short ended somewhat abruptly. I think there was something there, but this film didn’t feel complete. I would have liked to see more.
I got the sense watching Buzkashi Boys that everyone involved thought that they had something very important to say, but I wasn’t completely on board. This film felt a little self-important. Filmed on location in Afghanistan, the film follows two boys from different backgrounds that dream of being buzkashi (a local sport) riders when they grow up. This quest winds up costing them more than either of them bargained for. The two leads are very fine actors, but I just didn’t find the story all that enthralling. Much like Henry, I had a pretty good idea where the story was going and wasn’t surprised by the subsequent turn of events. I won’t be surprised if this one wins, however; this could be the type of film that is in the Academy’s wheel house and the US/Afghani partnership for the film makes it an attractive candidate.
You may have to work a little harder to find shorts, but they seem to be worth the extra effort. And you never know when you will stumble upon someone at the beginning of a promising career. The shorts are quickly becoming one of my favorite parts of Oscar season and have inspired me to pay more attention to short films year round. You just never know who or what you are going to discover.