Since some of us at Slant regard the Oscar season cycle as an irresistible cinephile parlor game, and others among us as an annual month-long plunge into total masochism, it’s entirely appropriate that we start our winner predictions for what is shaping up to be a comparatively off-kilter year by ripping some of the stickiest bandages in one ruthless swoop. That’s right: Clear a path for those Oscar pool-deciding short-film categories. The shorts may have seen their cachet rise in the last few years as they’ve been collected in limited-release anthologies, but let’s be honest: These are still the only three categories not obsessively hooked up to the AMPAS EKG® by Sasha Stone and other full-time Oscar pundits over the course of an entire year, so predicting them paradoxically requires even more attention to be paid to those patterns Stone, et al. cling to in all the glamour categories.
The email paper trail this year’s live-action short category has left in its wake has litigation written all over it, but our expert panel [sic] managed to agree on at least a few things. First, all three of the short categories have a clear Amour doppelganger, so if voters are feeling particularly symmetrical about things, then Henry has a decent shot here. In fact, this rather obvious depiction of two married concert musicians who are torn asunder by the arrival of death and dementia isn’t just suggestive of the Haneke film, it’s a fully foursquare distillation of that movie’s most Academy-friendly elements without any stray pigeons around to frighten and confuse voters who, themselves, are no longer receptive to nuance and insinuation. It notably ends with the Isabelle Huppert stand-in making a brief connection with her Alzheimer’s disease-suffering father only to tearfully see him slip back into the fog. Ka-ching!
Another thing we mostly agreed on was that the showdown between wide-eyed, oppressed preteen boys in Afghanistan against wide-eyed, oppressed preteen boys in Somalia at least could theoretically end in a draw. Most of us thought Buzkashi Boys was the more impressive, more epic, and occasionally more portentous piece of filmmaking (it’s the category’s longest entry by at least 10 minutes), but others were taken by Asad’s latent sense of irony. Though, as we’ll get to in a second, this category generally favors the droll over the earnest as of late, what exactly are voters going to make of a scenario that begins with an aspiring young pirate being persuaded to pursue fishing, and ends with him pulling up to a yacht and finding slaughtered Paris Hilton’s ugly handbag cat, which he then brings back to his village and, thereby, avoids a life of piracy? Buzkashi Boys, a neo-Vittorio De Sica drama in miniature about two friends who hope to become Buzkashi riders when they grow up, probably retains the edge for the scope of its vision and its intensely rendered urban decay, but it doesn’t wear its efficacy as loudly as its counterpart. Buzkashi Boys may have been filmed under the auspices of, to quote Wikipedia, “a non-profit organization who aims to tell Afghan stories while rebuilding the Afghan film industry, used a mentoring program to train Afghan citizens modern production methods,” but Asad gathered its cast entirely from Somali refugees and asylum seekers, and announces the year each actor achieved that status in the closing credits.
Death of a Shadow (or, Terry Gilliam Presents Lady Gaga’s Death of a German Steampunk Fetish Ball: A David Fincher Film) is this year’s foremost demo reel and the short most likely to whet voters’ appetites to see what the director can come up with next, ¬an undeniable plus in this category. It’s a jaundiced, evocative sci-fi lite tale about a WWI soldier, Nathan Rijckx (even his name seems covered in rivets), whose shadow was enslaved by a Faustian collector who forces him to travel through time, capturing the shadows of people the moment they die so he can frame them in his subterranean personal gallery. Last year’s winner, The Shore, suggested star power can tip the scales, and Matthias Schoenaerts is rapidly proving himself the thinking queer’s sex symbol of the year. Though it’s an eye-opening piece of filmmaking, as R. Kurt Osenlund has pointed out, much of the film’s innovation seems a tad superficial, not to mention largely secondhand.
Which brings us to this year’s absolute monster on the fest circuit. The both very superficial and extremely secondhand Curfew had most of us relapsing into the post-traumatic stress disorder we’ve suffered ever since the shocking and painful victory for the smug The New Tenants a few years back. A love letter by Shawn Christensen to himself (but also tangentially about an adult brother, his sister, and her daughter who were all estranged no doubt by their mutual hatred for their own modish selves), Curfew is the most calculated, the most arrogant, the most deliberately constructed piece of self-flattery in the bunch. It’s got God of Love vibes to the nth degree. The lengths to which Christensen goes to valorize his insular sense of self-worth were enough to give some of us grave misgivings about its overall chances, but this category’s recent history speaks for itself. Though every single frame of Curfew is calculated for maximum hipster cred, we have to admit that no other film in the lineup more gluttonously has its cake and eats it too. It probably already had the award in the bag when Christensen went all Louie C.K. on those two nattering cougars outside the bathroom, but to follow up a synchronized new wave dance party in a bowling alley with a cathartic, thwarted suicide attempt via rotary phone? Unless you’re on Instagram (and most voters aren’t), you just don’t see solipsism on a level this refined every day.
Will Win: Curfew
Could Win: Death of a Shadow
Should Win: Death of a Shadow