6:30 PM PST, January 12, 2013
The Irvine International Film Festival has nine Oscar-nominated short films on its program this year. As Oscar movies go, they're the most obscure — but are they any good? Features Editor Michael Miller reviewed each of the nominated films, rating them on a scale of four stars (great) to one star (awful).
Live-action short film; directed by Bryan Buckley
A young Somalian boy who dodges soldiers and lives among pirates in his seaside town gets a hoped-for chance to prove his mettle as a fisherman.
For most of the way, this film is an intriguing slice of life, depicting a part of the world where a gun over the shoulder is as casual as conversation, and a death threat from soldiers is so commonplace that it stirs only mild alarm. Buckley provides some sharp dialogue as well — it brings a poignant smile when a teenage pirate hails the image on his Jay-Z T-shirt as his ideal of wealth. The tone of the final stretch feels off, though; the hero encounters a traumatic situation that the movie brushes aside much too quickly, and the payoff at the end feels cute and unconvincing.
Live-action short film; directed by Sam French
The friendship between two boys in modern Afghanistan — one a blacksmith's son, one a street peddler — takes an unexpected tragic twist.
French uses a Third World backdrop for an old-fashioned story — the relationship between the free-spirited urchin and his tentative sidekick evokes Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn at times — but it works with effortless performances, plus some gorgeously composed shots. The most vivid character here is Afghanistan itself, which serves as a snapshot of a country teetering between two walks of life: one so dusty and decrepit it seems practically mired in Biblical times, the other dotted with cars and modern buildings that evoke a city being pieced together slowly as parts become available.
DEATH OF A SHADOW
Live-action short film; directed by Tom Van Avermaet
A photographer who works for a mysterious employer has an assignment to take pictures of people at the moment of death.
So much is haunting and intriguing about this film that I wanted to like it more; Van Avermaet stages shots in seductive film-noir style and gives us flashes of a story that feels too complex (and too full of unanswered questions) for a 20-minute short to successfully handle. What lingers in the mind, more than anything, is lead actor Matthias Schoenaerts' face: hollow, bemused, almost spectral in its numbness. With more development, this concept could be brilliant — remember, Billy Bob Thornton's Oscar-winning "Sling Blade" started life as a short as well.
Animated short film; directed by Pes
Stop-motion film showing hands creating guacamole out of oddball ingredients.
Anyone who enjoyed Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," about the rediscovery of silent-film pioneer Georges Melies, ought to enjoy this brief experimental concoction. Make that very brief — it runs only a minute, 40 seconds. As such, it seems a slight choice for Oscar consideration, but it's at least worthy of a spot on the Food Network.
HEAD OVER HEELS
Animated short film; directed by Timothy Reckart
A married couple live in the same house, but on different planes of gravity — the man on the floor and the woman on the ceiling.
Obviously a metaphor for broken marriage — the man and woman, in their dueling gravities, fight over which side of their wedding portrait should go up — this wordless film is a true charmer. The lack of dialogue gives added weight to small gestures, and the image that accompanies the beginning of the end credits has a surreal splendor. (Comparisons with Pixar's "Up" may be inevitable; the male protagonist has a similar craggy face and glasses, and most of the film involves a house hurtling through air.)
Short documentary; directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
A homeless 15-year-old girl lives between two worlds — her family's precarious life in San Diego and her burgeoning career as a painter.
The legendary director Ingmar Bergman was quoted as saying the human face was the cinema's greatest subject, and this documentary gives us quite a face: that of Inocente, who addresses the camera with intricate patterns painted around her eyes, sports a vibrant yellow flower in her hair and, in general, comes off as both a playfully artistic child and a mellow old soul. Within five minutes of the film's start, you want to give her a hug — or buy one of her paintings, some of which take shape from beginning to end in remarkable fast-motion shots. This is feel-good entertainment in the least maudlin sense.
Short documentary; directed by Sari Gilman
A group of residents in a Florida retirement home share their anxieties about aging, losing partners and rekindling romantic passion.
More than anything, this heartbreaking documentary astonishes with its language — some of the lines are so expertly crafted that you almost have to pinch yourself to remember they're not scripted speech. "I buried one wife; I don't want to bury another," a man says, explaining why he's resisted the affections of a woman several years his senior. A fellow resident, sizing up her neighbors' social mores, opines, "Self-preservation is number one, always." That statement is an unsentimental as the film itself, which evokes feelings of loss and hope without straining for pathos; the shock for young viewers may be that these seniors' concerns — social cliques, nervous courtship — are a mirror of many of their own.
MONDAYS AT RACINE
Short documentary; directed by Cynthia Wade
A hair salon, which provides head-shaving for women undergoing cancer treatment, brings together the stories of several families coping with illness.
As a look at people struggling with the growing limitations of their bodies, I actually found this film more moving — more emotionally rich and surprising — than the Best Picture-nominated "Amour." Wade's subjects, seen in closeups that magnify stubble and disappearing eyebrows, endear themselves with their openness; as ordinary as they are, you're constantly aware that you're in the presence of remarkably brave souls. Most striking is a conversation a woman has with her doctor about whether to keep undergoing treatment, which turns into an unexpected, and quite profound, debate about the intentions of God.
Directed by Kief Davidson
A Rwandan doctor escorts a group of young heart-surgery patients to Sudan, which offers the only clinic in the region capable of treating their condition.
The stunner in this gentle documentary comes when Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir arrives at a heart-surgery treatment center in his country to hear pleas for funding. For a few minutes, he sits docilely at the table like any other bureaucrat, then is gone just as quickly. When the lives of young patients are at stake, is there any need to bring up war crimes? That's the underlying paradox of this film, which depicts a warm and nurturing setting with one of the world's most tumultuous regions looming in the corners. The kids, mostly androgynous with their hospital clothes and shaved heads, put a winsome face on the proceedings.