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.