The best short films are like the best short pop songs: marvels of compression. Bob Dylan required 12 minutes to get through Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, but didn't he cover just as much emotional terrain in the three-minute radio edit of Just Like a Woman? As this year's Oscar nominees for best live-action short film demonstrate, you don't need 100 minutes, heavy-duty CGI and big stars to grab the eyes and pack a punch.
(U.S./South Africa, Bryan Buckley, 16:28 minutes)
Bryan Buckley's skills as an award-winning writer and director of TV commercials stand him in good stead in this gripping, deftly paced story about a runtish Somali boy (Harun Mohammed) who dreams of joining the older boys of his village in their raids on trawlers and yachts on the Indian Ocean. Forget piracy, advises the elderly Erasto (Ibrahim Moallim Hussein) – stick to fishing. And he emphasizes the point by giving Asad a big tuna to take to his mother. Things get complicated when Asad crosses paths with heavily armed thugs on the prowl from Mogadishu. Shot in South Africa with a cast composed entirely of Somali refugees, Asad is a winner on all fronts: There's suspense, humour, pathos, wonderful characters, adventure and the sense we're getting the real goods about a part of the world we don't know enough about.
(U.S./Afghanistan, Sam French, 29 minutes)
Produced by Afghan-Canadian Ariel Nasr for the not-for-profit Afghan Film Project, Buzkashi Boys is set in hardscrabble contemporary Kabul, where poverty is all and everything seems to be in hues of chalk, grey or ochre. As with Asad, director/co-writer Sam French relies heavily on local, untried talent to tell a bittersweet tale of two charcoal-smeared urchins – one (Fawad Mohammadi) the son of a widowed blacksmith, the other (Jawanmard Paiz) an orphaned beggar – who dream of lives beyond what circumstances have provided so far. Ahmad the beggar is particularly keen on being a buzkashi rider – Afghanistan's equivalent of polo, except that it uses a headless, disemboweled goat carcass instead of a ball. A great coming-of-age film, carried by the underplayed brilliance of its two young stars and its rich mise-en-scène.
(U.S., Shawn Christensen, 19:41 minutes)
New Yorker Richie is having a bad night, so bad in fact that as Curfew opens we find him prone in a water-filled bathtub slitting his wrist and preparing to slip this mortal coil. Then his rotary phone rings: It's his sister (Kim Allen) who's in desperate straits and needs Richie (played by Curfew writer/director Shawn Christensen) to babysit her nine-year-old daughter Sophia (Fatima Ptacek). Richie agrees, and he and the precocious, loquacious Sophia proceed to have a series of modest adventures. Beautifully paced, elegantly shaped, funny and sad, with a hip score, Curfew feels wonderfully complete, rather like a good New Yorker short story by Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill or the young Richard Price.
DEATH OF A SHADOW
(Belgium, Tom Van Avermaet, 20:29 minutes)
The sumptuous production values and narrative slipperiness of this Goth-inflected fantasy/thriller are worthy of a much larger picture. And who knows? Maybe that will come to pass. Short films often have served as that sort of calling card. Matthias Schoenaerts is Nathan Rijckx, a soldier apparently killed during the First World War but who now exists in a sort of twilight zone between life and death, present and past. He's working for a mysterious, menacing art connoisseur for whom he takes photographs of people's shadows at the moment of their violent deaths, the results of which are then pinned and framed in a long hallway. Apparently once Rijckx photographs 1,000 shadows, he can resume living and rejoin the nurse (Laura Verlinden) he was smitten with just before he was killed. There's a twist, of course. Easily the most gorgeous looking of the five nominees.
(Canadian, Yan England, 21 minutes)
This is Montrealer Yan England's second live-action short, an affecting and persuasive depiction of one man's descent into the foggy, prismatic universe of Alzheimer's. England self-financed the film and that fact is evident in the modesty of Henry's production values. England nevertheless has a firm grasp of narrative, which is helped immeasurably by the lead performance from veteran Quebec actor Gérard Poirier. Indeed, Poirier, 83 at the time Henry was shot, is in every scene and functions without fail as the film's heart and soul. Like Curfew, Henry feels complete as it is, neither a feature-film wannabe nor under-realized cinematic sketch.
Oscar Shorts: Live Action runs Feb. 1 through 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. www.tiff.net