Very strong collection of Live Action shorts this year. They follow similar themes that past shorts have explored: There's one about a kid, an ethnic one, an emotional drama, a American quirk-fest and a weird foreign comedy. That being said, these formulas work and I liked them all... and even loved a couple of them. And the nominees are....
PENTECOST (Ireland) -- A funny Irish tale from Peter McDonald that pits the two greatest religions of the world against each other: Sports and... well, actual religion. Damien is an altar boy who has been suspended from duty after accidentally hitting the priest with an incense burner. As punishment for embarrassing the family, Damien’s father has grounded him, which means no watching his beloved Liverpool football matches on TV! However, when it is announced that the bishop will be visiting for Sunday mass, Damien -- still the best damn incense carrier in town -- is called back into action. If the mass goes off without a hitch, Dad promises that Damien will get back his football-watching privileges just in time for the European Cup finals. But at what personal cost? Featuring a solid performance from the lead kid, this 11-minute short is highlighted by the priest’s pre-mass motivational speech that could have been lifted from any inspirational sports movie playbook.
RAJU (Germany/India) -- This mystery/drama is about a German couple visiting Calcutta to pick up a boy they’ve adopted from a local orphanage. Four-year-old Raju is very cute with his big cartoon eyes and the mother, desperate for a child, falls in love immediately. Seems like they’ll all live happily after after... until the father takes Raju to a market and subsequently loses him. A harrowing search through the crowded city ensues, but the police offer little help; in a particularly disturbing moment, they post Raju’s photo on a wall filled with hundreds of “missing children” notices, a striking commentary on what is clearly a big problem. The search eventually leads the father to an investigator who specializes in tracking down missing children -- and that is when a horrible truth comes to light. Director Max Zähle paints a gritty, often tense and unsettling picture, but the whole thing feels overlong at 24 minutes.
THE SHORE (Northern Ireland) -- A wonderful 31-minute epic (by short film standards, at least) from director and past Oscar nominee Terry George (he co-wrote IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER and HOTEL RWANDA). It stars one of my favorite actors, Ciarán Hinds, as Joe, a man who returns home to Belfast for the first time in 25 years to show his daughter, Patricia, their roots. Meanwhile, we’re also introduced to Paddy, a local fisherman, and his wife Mary, who are living a happy life by the shore -- and who, we soon discover, share a connection with Joe that goes back many years. As the layers of Joe’s life are peeled back, we learn about these relationships and the events that split them apart, building to an emotional and revelatory reconciliation. Aside from being a touching story of the power of love and friendship, the film is a celebration of Irish life & culture, filled with beautiful scenery, traditions and history. The story is somewhat predictable but nonetheless moving, thanks in no small part to some tremendous performances. If there were acting awards for short films, Hinds (who you may also remember from such diverse films as THERE WILL BE BLOOD, MUNICH, HARRY POTTER 7.2 and the HBO series ROME) would have an Oscar in the bag -- hopefully someday his talents will be given their due notice on the big stage.
TIME FREAK (USA) -- I really liked this little slice of sci-fi while I was watching it (and immediately after), but I find myself loving it more and more as the days go by. It’s a simple, ingenious twist on the time-travel genre: An obsessive-compulsive geek named Stillman invents a time machine with aspirations of travelling back to ancient Rome, only to get caught up in trying to correct the little things that occurred yesterday. Director Andrew Bowler puts a fresh spin on the repetition of GROUNDHOG DAY, fuses it with a Woody Allen-esque neurosis and the result is 11 minutes of zany, hilarious, expertly-crafted brilliance, complete with rapid-fire editing and cheesy lightning bolt effects for the time machine that made me cackle. Hugely satisfying, even though it gave me pause because I’m sure that if I ever got my hands on a time machine, I’d be tempted to use it in the same way -- space-time continuum be damned!
TUBA ATLANTIC (Norway) -- Like THE SHORE, this one touches upon themes of reconciliation, but does so in a much more bizarre way. Oskar is a 70-year-old curmudgeon who learns that he has only six days to live. He is then visited by Inger, a peppy young “death angel” who is tasked with making sure Oskar dies peacefully. Inger soon learns, however, that Oskar is not a pleasant man to be around -- he’d much rather massacre seagulls with a machine gun than worry about his own demise. (He sort of reminds me of a weird Scandinavian mix of Carl Fredricksen from UP and Clint Eastwood’s character from GRAN TORINO.) But deep down, what he really wants is to reconnect with his estranged brother living in America. The key to this may be the mysterious gigantic tuba sitting outside his house -- but can he get the thing to work before time runs out? The 25-minute film, directed by Hallvar Witzø, is wonderfully acted, touching, gleefully macabre, and, like the Live Action shorts program as a whole, ultimately satisfying.
I’M ROOTING FOR: Time Freak -- though The Shore would make me happy, too.
WILL PROBABLY WIN: Time Freak -- it is the clear standout, and this is the one category where Oscar seems to prefer laughter to tears!
The Oscar-nominated shorts are now playing at NYC’s finest gem of an indie theatre, the IFC Center. Yes, three separate programs means three separate admissions, but it's totally worth the time and money. Check them out before the big show and come back here to discuss!