Oscar’s Live-Action Shorts: Death, Aging and Piracy in a Tight Race

In a tough, competitive year for live-action shorts, all five contenders are rich and substantial enough to win

For a while, the live-action shorts category was routinely populated with clever European-made shorts with twist endings. It's not quite so formulaic anymore, and in fact this year's lineup is one of the strongest and richest in years.

The five nominees were drawn from 125 qualifying shorts, far more than any other recent year; it's possible to imagine any of them winning.

For a change, voting will be open to the entire Academy, rather than just the members who attend special screenings of the nominated films. Screeners of the nominees are being sent to all eligible voters, who will be on the honor system to watch the films before voting. But since the entire slate of nominees takes about an hour and 40 minutes to watch, it's reasonable to think that most interested voters will find the time.

The live-action shorts also open in theaters in Los Angeles on Friday, with additional cities added in the weeks leading up to the Oscars.

This is part of TheWrap's three-part survey of the three shorts categories at this year's Oscars.

Also read: Oscar's Animated Shorts: A Student Film and a Cooking Lesson Take on Disney, 'The Simpsons'

Asad"Asad"
Directed by Bryan Buckley
16 minutes

Director Buckley is known as the king of Super Bowl commercials, but he's turned far from the booming glitz of those ads and recruited a cast of Somali refugees for this story of a young man who must choose between becoming a fisherman or following the more lucrative path to piracy.  Somali piracy – young boy torn between the lucrative life of fishing and the more demanding life of fisherman.

The connection to real-world events gives the film a punch it would not otherwise have; Buckley has told the story quietly, focusing on performances from his largely amateur actors and never hyping the drama of the situation. This is the one nominated short that does have something of a twist ending.

Buzkashi Boys"Buzkashi Boys"
Directed by Sam French
28 minutes

Another short that uses local performers, some of whom had never acted before, "Buzkashi Boys" is part of an initiative from a nonprofit organization devoted to boosting Afghanistan's film industry and telling Afghan stories. Its lead characters are two young boys who become obsessed with the brutal sport of buzkashi, a type of polo that substitutes a sheep carcass for a ball.

The film is a stark, rich look into another culture that moves at a slow, contemplative pace despite the frenzy and violence of the game it depicts. Like "Asad," its strength lies more in its window-into-another-world aspect than its cinematic flair.

Curfew"Curfew"
Directed by Shawn Christensen
20 minutes

In a category in which black comedy has often fared well — witness recent winners like "Six Shooter" and "The New Tenants" — "Curfew" has a shot. It's also the only American-made film, shot in New York by a U.S. writer-director-actor-musician, who also stars as a morose young man we meet just after he's slashed his wrists and settled into the bathtub. When his sister calls and begs him to babysit her young daughter, he climbs out of the tub, bandages himself and has some awkward but life-changing moments with the girl.

The film is kind of sick, in a good way, with its dark humor offset by odd touches like a dance sequence set in a bowling alley. By the end, it also manages to be quite touching — and the combination of twisted humor and true sentiment is one that could stand out in a tough category.

Death of a Shadow"Death of a Shadow" ("Dood van een Schaduw")
Directed by Tom Van Avermaet
20 minutes

Odd, very stylish and dramatic, "Death of a Shadow" stars a nearly unrecognizable Matthias Schoenaerts ("Rust and Bone," "Bullhead") as a meek, bespectacled World War I soldier who is killed in action but finds a way to strike a deal with Death that may return him to life.

Schoenaerts' character takes shadowy photos of other people's deaths — and when he completes 10,000 of them, he's returned to the living for an hour to locate a long-lost love, only to be surprised by what he finds. The creepy supernatural tale is one of the boldest, most imaginative and moodiest of the nominees, and that boldness and imagination may give it a real shot at winning.

Henry"Henry"
Directed by Yan England
21 minutes

Call it "Amour" writ small, though without the rigor and discipline of Michael Haneke's minimalist masterpiece. The tale of an old man in a rest home wondering where his wife is, Canadian actor-turned-director England's story is dark and at times purposefully disorienting; the filmmaker uses desaturated color to follow its main character's swings between coherence and hallucination, memory and reality. 

The film is sentimental, to be sure, as the audience slowly gets a grasp of the man's situation. But it is also very touching, and it feels substantial and personal, which always help in this category.

My take:
Likeliest winners: "Death of a Shadow," "Curfew"
If voters go for the real world: "Asad," "Buzkashi Boys"
If "Amour" creates a bandwagon effect: "Henry"

Thursday: The Oscar-nominated documentary shorts