Thursday, February 09, 2012

2012 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action

Last year, Luke Matheny won the best live action short Oscar for God of Love and delivered the best acceptance speech of the night. He had respectable competition for the former but practically none for the latter. This year’s field is also looks relatively competitive, but viewers can judge for themselves when the Academy Award nominated live action shorts program opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

If this year’s Oscar nominated short form animation has a Canadian flavor, the live action shorts have a slight Irish disposition, at least according to some definitions. As it happens, one of the best contenders hails from North Ireland. Regardless of identity issues, Terry George’s The Shore (trailer here) is probably the film to beat. It hardly hurts that George is a highly regarded filmmaker, already twice nominated in screenplay categories. The Shore also stars an actor viewers will recognize: Ciarán Hinds, currently seen in finer theaters as “Soldier” in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Yes, The Shore addresses the troubles, but not in a polarizing context. Twenty-five years ago, Jim Mahon’s grandfather was spooked by the escalating violence and trundled the young man off to the American relations. He has finally returned with his grown daughter to make peace with his former best friend and the woman he jilted. Although it is more of a drama than a comedy, The Shore has a wry, knowing sensibility that should appeal to popular audiences. Rather than dwell on Belfast’s battle scars, George captures the picturesque landscape of Northern Ireland. One of the great actors of our day, Hinds is perfect as the conflicted Mahon and Kerry Condon is appealingly smart and down to earth as his daughter.

Unfortunately, the proper Irish contender is not nearly as rich. An incompetent choir boy is offered a chance to redeem himself in Peter McDonald’s slight Pentecost. However, the big mass plays out as a childish rebellion fantasy at the expense of the mean old Catholic Church.

Though also relatively short, Andrew Bowler’s genre comedy Time Freak (trailer here) is easily the most entertaining live action nominee. An obsessive scientist has developed a time machine, but his regular guy best friend is alarmed by the self-defeating ways he has been applying his breakthrough. A very funny film, Freak is similar in tone to some of the original Twilight Zone episodes that played it strictly for laughs.

There are not a lot of laughs in Max Zähle’s Raju (trailer here). There are not a lot of surprises where this international adoption morality play is headed either, but it is executed quite well, especially for a student film. Shortly after Jan and Sarah Fischer adopt the title character, he disappears under mysterious circumstances. However, as the German would-be father searches for Raju, he learns troubling facts about Raju’s circumstances. Filmed on the streets of Kolkata (a.k.a. Calcutta), it conveys a sense of the city’s teeming poverty and sets up the protagonists’ ethical dilemma rather effectively.

Another international award winning student film, Hallvar Witzø’s Tuba Atlantic offers an Academy friendly blend of quirk and heart-string pulling. Given exactly six days to live, grouchy old Oskar Svenning sets out to contact his estranged brother in America via the monster tuba they constructed on the shore. Although he stubbornly refuses help, a young Evangelical Christian insists on acting as his “angel of death.” While innocent Inger might sound like a hopeless caricature, Ingrid Viken plays her with a fair degree of innocent charm. Granted, it is unabashedly sentimental, but the unrestrained war Svenning wages against the pesky seagulls is frequently quite amusing.

Either Time Freak or The Shore would be deserving Oscar winners. Both are thoroughly engaging and satisfying films. If not at the same level of accomplishment, Raju and Tuba are certainly perfectly respectable, falling somewhere on the spectrum between good and nice. Altogether, the 2012 live action Oscar nominees are a strong group, mostly recommended as films in their own right as well as for their Academy Award interest. They open this Friday (2/10) in New York at the IFC Center as part of the annual showcase of nominated short films.