There are five strong contenders; production values are high, the actors excellent, and four are beautifully grounded in their settings—Norway, Calcutta, and two in Ireland.
2012 Oscar Nominated Live Shorts. At the ICA, Coolidge Corner Theater, and Kendall Square Cinema. Check cinema websites for films and screening times.
By Tim Jackson
A great short film delivers a compelling story, characters you care about, a feel for a particular place, and builds smoothly to a justifiable conclusion—all in 30 minutes or less. It can be a comedy with a snappy finish, a nuanced character study, or a rousing yarn. This year’s Oscar nominees for Best Live Action Short satisfy on all those levels. Three of the five are outright comedies. Like several of the best picture nominees such as The Descendants, The Help, and The Tree of Life, they are redemptive and optimistic. The production values are high, the actors excellent, and four are beautifully grounded in their settings—Norway, Calcutta, and two in Ireland.
The Norwegian short Tuba Atlantic by Hallvar Witzo is set on the rugged, rocky shore of Norway. The director is a graduate of the Norwegian Film School, and the film was first slotted as a nominee for best student short. With its stark, Norwegian ocean landscape and overtly quirky, Scandinavian characters, some critics see the film as a strong contender for the bigger prize. The story concerns an old man who finds he has six days to live and sets out to communicate with his long-lost brother, with whom he had a falling out. He believes his sibling lives in New Jersey, so he readies a huge instrument that he has developed to bellow his atonement across the Atlantic. Along the way, he resists the best intentions of a self-proclaimed “Angel of Mercy,” a well-intentioned local girl on a mission from her religious school to serve the Lord by ushering the dying man to the other side. The job is not what she expected. As he rails against nature, the crusty old man teaches her a number of things, such as how to kill seagulls with a machine gun. It has the craggy, offbeat humor found in many Scandinavian films from the little-known Elling and O’ Horten to the better-known cinema of Lars Van Trier.
The 12-minute short Pentecost by Peter McDonald and Eimear O’Kane blends the Irish obsession with football and the responsibilities of being Catholic into a gently irreverent comedy. The priest who coaches the altar boys as if he was a football coach is a bit obvious, but the payoff is nicely done. It is also wonderfully Irish, cast with stern and cherubic faces, lilting brogues, and delightful countryside settings.
The outrageous comedy Time Freak by Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey plays a little like a sketch comedy, but the film is so ingenious, so perfectly cast, and moves at such a brisk pace that it keeps you off kilter and laughing at its outrageous premise. A young man (a befuddled Michael Nathanson as the ironically named Stillman) has invented a time machine. His friend, Evan (John Conor Brooke), comes see this invention. His entrance is replayed in several variations. Soon we see why. Using his time machine, Evan revisits and corrects the most recent moments of his life. It becomes an endless rehearsal and performance of “I shoulda said this” or “I shoulda done that.” At one point he begins using his invention to endlessly revise an encounter he has with a girl (the enormously engaging Emilea Wilson) on whom he has a crush. It is a wonderful parody of a generation’s solipsism, ingeniously structured, edited, and directed.
The most serious and suspenseful film is the German Raju by Max Zähle and Stefan Giere. A couple travels to India to adopt a child. The situation develops into troubling revelations that test the couples’ sense of ethics and responsibility, as well the audience’s attitude about the growing global phenomenon of international adoption. The film’s strengths are many. It has a jittery, realistic style that catches the colors, rhythms, and chaos of Calcutta. It is economically paced and edited and efficiently builds suspense and anxiety into a tight 22 minutes. Any more details would spoil the plot, but the story is capped by a very satisfying and honest ending that still leaves much unresolved. It is a skillful and thoughtful piece of filmmaking.
As good as Raju is, my personal favorite was The Shore by Terry George. This film draws on the power of a great story. George, who wrote Reservation Road, Hotel Rwanda, In the Name of the Father, and The Boxer, among others, also directed three episodes of In Treatment. He has a pitch-perfect sense for writing characters, directing, and casting the right actors. Set in Northern Ireland, the story revolves around two friends reuniting 25 years after some misunderstanding. Joe (the wonderful and familiar Ciarán Hinds) returns to his homeland with his grown daughter Patty to visit friends. He is soon convinced by her to reveal a certain story about his past in Northern Ireland prior to settling in America. His best friend from his early years, Paddy (after whom his daughter was named), is now married to Joe’s former fiancée Mary. It’s a convoluted love story that pivots on a father’s revelation to a daughter. The tone is never melodramatic. The theme of how we embrace the past, particularly with families who may understand little of what we once were, is given a masterful touch. It’s not the burden of the past; it’s just the past. As Patricia hears the emotional and surprising events of her father’s early life, her humanity deepens. It’s a moving, often very funny, and insightful film.