Movie Review: Oscars Shorts Dominated by Movies that Cram Big Plots Into Short Runtimes

The annual program of Oscar shorts hit theaters this Friday, with five live-action and five animated shorts. (There’s also a documentary program, but as of yet it is not being released locally.) Along with some very capable directing, a flavor of nostalgia, sentimentality, and a Romanticism persist through both programs, whether it is a story of young office worker hopelessly chasing a crush (Paperman), or dead man who pines for his lost love from the afterlife in the setting of a ruined gothic church (Death of Shadow).

In the animated slate, the most moving moments are provided by Head Over Heels, a claymation parable about an aging couple living in a house that is tumbling through the skies (c.f. Up). He is living on the floor, while his wife lives an entirely parallel – but separate life – on the ceiling. Beyond this simple, yet poignant, metaphor of love and disconnectedness, Timothy Reckart’s film builds to an emotional ending that is both magical and sweet. Adam and Dog (Minku Lee) presents Eden setting for a morality tale about the first man finding man’s first best friend. All is interrupted by a female character (presumably Eve) shows up and the dog is abandoned to the frightful forest. Equal parts haunting and sweet, the short is a most memorable for its exquisitely rendered animation: rich and evocative hand drawn and painterly scenes.

Also visually innovative is the very short Fresh Guacamole, a film that is simply a dramatization of the preparation of the Mexican dip, although each ingredient is some visually associative – and yet decidedly inedible – random object. For example, the avocado is a grenade, the onion a baseball that is minced down to tiny dice, the tortilla chips are poker chips. Beyond the visually compelling way each swipe the knife introduces a new object/vegetable stand-in, the choice of the objects – emblematic of violence, money, and sport – introduces an intriguing political subtext. Fresh Guacamole is also, in both programs, the only idea that feels like it is an intrinsic expression of the short form medium, and not a feature film idea ably distilled into a shortened format.

The live action shorts each display an incredible storytelling economy, finding ways to develop expansive plotlines into films only 15 to 25 minutes long. Of these, the strongest include Asad, a story about a Somali boy caught in a world dominated by pirates and bandits. Rather than a life of violence, he chooses to follow his grandfather’s footsteps as a fisherman, and is rewarded with a strange and unexpected catch. Another standout in the program is Henry, a film about an old man with dementia who is struggling to hold on to his fading memories. Director Yan England does a good job keeping the film’s narrative perspective tight-fixed on its main character, so that all he needs to do is pull back ever so slightly to reveal a heartbreaking portrait of a man whose losing the very things – memories — that make him most human.

Like Asad, Buzkashi Boys is set in Afghanistan, and is also concerned with young boys coming of age in a hostile environment. But while it does well to capture the color and cloudy feel of a frosted Kabul, something about this cut-and-dry morality feels too rushed and thin. Likewise both Curfew and Death of a Shadow are both films that are dramatically shallow, yet stylistically accomplished. Curfew presents a despondent young man — we meet him, veins slit open, lying in a bathtub – who finds hope for life through human connectedness. There’s a cute music video-like interlude, which, while stylistically well-crafted, only serves to illustrate that the short offers little more than pop song.

Photo at top Asad