Best Live-Action Short

As technically impressive as you might expect from a commercials veteran called "King of the Super Bowl" in the New York Times, with "Asad," director Bryan Buckley suggests his tastes lean closer to Mark Romanek than Michael Bay when it comes to promo-helmers-turned-proper-filmmakers. Set in a Somalian fishing village, using non-professional actors, it's admirable, and hugely confident directorially, but feels a bit too much like cultural tourism. That said, it's the kind of thing that the Academy eat up in this category, so despite its somewhat pat conclusion, this could very well be the winner. [C+]

Buzkashi Boys
"Buzkashi Boys"
Like "Asad" an internationally-produced human interest tale from an American director, "Buzkashi Boys," from helmer Sam French, was shot in Afghanistan, using cast and crew from the region, and that's certainly an admirable thing. The plot revolves around two young boys from different backgrounds who hope to grow up to play in the local game of buzkashi, a task that ends in tragedy. Again, we're glad the film exists, but even more so than "Asad," it's somewhat labored and self-important, and somehow feels a touch exploitative. Plus the filmmaking certainly isn't of the same caliber. None of these are necessarily an obstacle to the film winning, though; weighty subject matter like this could well earn favor with voters and the young leads Jawanmard Paiz and Fawad Mohammadi are excellent. [C]

Of all the Oscar nominees this year, Shawn Christensen might be one of the least likely. He first came to fame as the frontman for never-quite-got-there post-Interpol indie band stellastarr*, and more recently has moved into screenwriting, with his biggest produced credit so far being Taylor Lautner vehicle "Abduction," marking the first time that that film has been mentioned in the same paragraph as the Oscars. Christensen didn't just write "Curfew," he directs and stars in it too, but the film suggests he should focusing on some of these skills more than others. The film's tonally awkward, and self-consciously quirky and Christensen, in the lead role of a drug-addict forced to care for his niece, is comprehensively out-acted by his younger co-star (unsurprising, as she's the voice of "Dora The Explorer"). But he does at least have a good eye. Even as the only English-language nominee here, it's probably too slick to win. [C-]
Death of A Shadow
"Death Of A Shadow"

Unless you're a huge stellastarr* fan, "Death Of A Shadow" certainly toplines the most reconizable figure of any of the nominated films, in the shape of Matthias Schoenaerts, unrecognizable from the bruiser he played in breakouts "Bullhead" and "Rust & Bone" (he looks more like Mads Mikkelsen here, frankly). It's also by some distance the best film of the five. From Tom Van Avermaet, it sees Schoenaerts play an eerie photographer who's employed by a mysterious, demonic figure to take picture of silhouettes at the moment of their death. Reminiscent of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it's visually spectacular, but has an emotional backbone to it that makes it about more than just impressive production design and lighting. Van Avermaet just got signed up by CAA, so expect him to move into features soon. [B+]

A narratively tricksy film from Quebecois actor-turned-director Yan England, "Henry" serves a curious counterpart to "Amour" -- it focuses on an elderly musician in the last part of their life. That said, the comparison doesn't do it many favors. While the structure is ambitious, the audience are ahead of England's game, and it's easy to see where it's going from early on. It's undeniably emotionally wrenching in places, and Gerard Poirier is very strong in the title role, but it feels manipulative and somewhat cheap, and wears out its welcome long before the ten minutes are up. [C]