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The Long and Short of It

Except for a few gems, Oscar-nominated shorts fall, well, short
Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare’

At their best, each year’s Oscar-nominated short films are a chance to see something new, or unusual, or unlikely. Short films can take different chances with structure, rely less heavily on traditional narrative or capture a moment rather than laying out a whole tale. But this year’s crop of live action shorts is a bit of a letdown in this regard: They tend toward the traditional, are predictably heart-wrenching or fall a little short in one aspect while succeeding in others. 

“Henry,” the weakest of the bunch, takes an initially interesting perspective on the confusion of an elderly musician but slips into over-familiarity at the end. “Buzkashi Boys,” which follows two boys in Afghanistan who dream of changing their futures, has a weird tonal disconnect between hope and resignation, idealism and tradition; you can almost see it reaching out, trying to pluck at your heartstrings.

“Asad,” about a Somali boy who wants to go to sea with the pirates but is pressed to be a fisherman instead, has a peculiar and effective mix of darkness and humor. It’s an odd little tale, weaving in truth, loss, imagination and care, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it added another prize to its growing tally.

“Curfew” has a slightly anachronistic side — maybe it’s just the oddness of people smoking in bars — but feels indulgent even as it’s meant to be about connection. A young man (director Shawn Christensen) interrupts his attempted suicide to take care of his precocious young niece. There’s sweetness in their connection, and a delightfully unexpected dance sequence, but despite its darkness, the film flits away, airy and ungrounded.

The most interesting of the live-action shorts is stronger on concept than execution. “Death of a Shadow,” from Belgium, stars Rust and Bone’s Matthias Shoenaerts as a peculiar sort of photographer: He captures people’s shadows at the moment of death. Steampunky and sleek, “Death” takes time to explain itself, unwinding the rules of its peculiar afterlife/purgatory/museum of the macabre. Despite a slightly mushy end, it’s this careful pacing that makes me want to see “Death” as a feature; expanding on the secondary characters would give this one greater resonance.

The animated shorts are far more playful, especially the clever and brisk “Fresh Guacamole,” which clocks in at less than two minutes yet made me giggle several times. None of the animated shorts have much by way of dialogue, and Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare” is no exception: Marge leaves Maggie at a peculiar daycare (to name it would spoil one of the jokes), where she outwits a bully and overcomes being put in the average-kids group.

Bittersweet and lovely, “Head Over Heels” depicts a long marriage that’s fallen into disrepair; for reasons the film is too smart to explain, husband and wife live in different gravitational fields. His world is the floor, hers the ceiling. Stop-motion animation gives the characters expressive faces, and their world exists in glorious, lived-in detail. 

“Paperman,” the latest Disney-produced short, showed before Wreck-It Ralph, which means it’s been seen by exponentially more people than the rest of these. A lovely blend of computer and traditional animation, the mostly black-and-white short has its whimsical, romantic heart on its sleeve. It’s a pleasure to watch, though the score works a little harder than necessary.

The longest animated short is “Adam and Dog,” a fable-like vision of what might’ve happened when the first man met the first dog. Director Minkyu Lee (a character designer at Disney) and his team of animators have man’s love for dogs — and dogs’ love for their people — down pat; the ears crook just so, the tail wags tentatively. The man accidentally throws the stick, and then throws it again and again. Around them, in a lush, wild Garden of Eden, other animals go about their business. Hand-drawn, moving, gorgeous and thoughtful, “Adam” should get the shiny gold man. But don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself.

Oscar-nominated shorts screen at the Bijou Feb. 15-21, visit bijou-cinemas.com for listings.