NOTE: Since this was written there has been one change. The short documentaries are being run (in limited screenings). The Animated/Live Action films are at 11 a.m., 3 p.m, and 7p.m. daily, except Wed. when the 11 a.m. set goes to the docs.
As has become standard, The Carolina is bringing in the collected Oscar-nominated short films, so that Oscar completists can be as knowledgeable as possible come Oscar night (and not just mark time while awards are doled out to movies you’ve never seen or, in most cases, never had a chance to see or have even heard of). Thankfully, that hasn’t been an issue for the past few years since audiences supported these bookings. (And before anyone asks, no, it appears that the short documentaries are not being included this year. The official reason is that their cumulative running time is too long, but let’s be honest: these docs have little drawing power.) As is to be expected with a collection of 10 movies — five animated, five live action — the results are in the realm of the mixed bag. And this year, they’re a little more mixed than usual, especially where the animation is concerned. In fact, the animated films strike me as a fairly weak lot.
Easily the best of the animated films is Paperman — which you may have seen since it was attached to Wreck-It Ralph (and was better than the feature). It comes from Disney and is the directorial debut of animator John Kahrs. It’s a simple story — as befits a seven-minute running time — about an office worker trying to attract the attention of a lady who works in the building across the street by sending her paper airplanes that go astray in various amusing ways. If Paperman has a fault, it lies in the fact that the ending becomes obvious considerably before it arrives. This is a basic pitfall of short films that rely on some kind of big reveal or surprise ending (last year’s Pixar entry La Luna is a prime example). It doesn’t hobble the film or lessen its undeniable charm, but it does stand out.
The other four animated shorts were more troublesome for me. The Longest Daycare — a Simpsons short film featuring Maggie — is probably the best of the four (the idea of an Ayn Rand Daycare Center is amusing in itself), but I’m hard-pressed to think of it in terms of an Oscar. That’s even more true of the admittedly clever Fresh Guacamole — a two-minute film involving the slicing and dicing (literally) of everyday objects that are then turned into guacamole. That’s exactly all there is to the movie. The 11-minute British film Head Over Heels — about a couple who have grown so distant that one lives on the floor and the other on the ceiling — is certainly well-made and has a certain charm, but it suffers from heading to a foregone conclusion. The weakest of the lot is the exceedingly bland Adam and Dog, which purports to be the story of Adam and the first dog having a grand time in Eden until Eve comes along and spoils it all. It’s done in pretty colors and has very fine animation, but at 15 minutes it really overstays the value of its slim story.
We’re on much firmer footing with the live action shorts, two of which strike me as absolutely brilliant (and I’m having trouble picking a favorite). The most impressive and accomplished is the Belgian Death of a Shadow starring Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) as a man who is taxed with the job of photographing (collecting) shadows at the moment of death so he can buy back his own life from the Collector of Shadows (Peter van den Eede). As a superbly crafted exercise in expressionist fantasy, this is hard to beat — and the absolute stunning production design gives it the look of an expensive feature. In fact, it terms of production, it can easily hold its own with a feature. That’s the kind of delight you sometimes find in the world of short films.
Very nearly as good — and perhaps more emotionally resonant — is Shawn Christensen’s Curfew. Christensen is best known, I guess, for having written Abduction — the movie that tried to break Taylor Lautner out of Twilight-dom — but don’t hold that against him or this remarkable short film that Christensen wrote, directed and also starred in. This is a wry, dark comedy-drama about a young man (Christensen) whose suicide attempt is interrupted by a phone call from his estranged sister (Kim Allen) asking him to babysit his 9-year-old niece for a few hours. After a shaky, “OK,” he gets out of the bath, washes off the blood, bandages his wrist and sets off on what turns out to be a memorable experience — and a memorable, stylish movie. Christensen is good as the suicidal Richie, but Fatima Ptacek as his precocious, self-possessed niece is even better. This is a wonderful little movie — with a charming surprise at the halfway mark. Unfortunately, I think it’s a long shot to win because of the grandeur of Death of a Shadow — and the more Oscar-bait nature of the remaining three films.
Don’t get me wrong, the other films — Asad, Buzkashi Boys and Henry — are good, especially Asad, but they have the feel, to me, of having been made less because the filmmakers had a story or a vision they wanted to share than because they wanted to win an award. The trick is that they’re all good and any one of them might. In this year of Amour fever, my money’s on Henry, which is the weakest of the lot. Oh, it’s well-made, but, like other shorts this year, it suffers badly from heading toward a big reveal moment that’s painfully evident long before it gets there. However, I know it will appeal to a lot of people who will also find it incredibly moving. I’d suggest seeing for yourself. Not Rated, but contains adult themes.
Starts Friday at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14