Tuesday, February 08, 2011

2011 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action

The best of this year’s Oscar nominated live action short films have a measure of faith, including two sympathetic Catholic priests and some old world Greco-Roman paganism. A fair number of angst-ridden young kids also populate the final five live action contenders, which screen as part of the 2011 Academy Award nominated shorts program (trailer here) opening this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

The class of the field comes from Brooklyn, where everyone is too cool for love, except the frustrated protagonist of Luke Matheny’s God of Love (trailer here), Raymond Goodfellow, a crooner of standards and a highly-ranked competitive darts thrower. That certainly adds a unique dimension to his nightclub sets. Unfortunately, the chemistry with his band is a bit off. He is head-over-heels for his drummer, but she pines for Goodfellow’s best friend-guitarist. Much to his surprise, his ardent nondenominational prayers are answered in the form of a box of magic darts that render their target romantically vulnerable for six hours.

Witty and likably neurotic, Love clearly suggests the influence of Woody Allen, but writer-director Matheny shows wise restraint, never trying too hard. As Goodfellow, he also sounds rather agreeable on Irving Berlin’s “All By Myself.” Deftly mixing sly humor with unabashed romanticism, it is definitely a winner, regardless of what the envelope says.

The unfortunate young protagonist of Ian Barnes’ Wish 143 also has trouble fulfilling his desires. The local wish-granting charity keeps offering to introduce the terminally ill patient to a British footballer, but he would much rather meet a woman, preferably naked and willing. In a pleasant surprise, Wish probably represents the most sympathetic portrayal of a priest on film this year. Jim Carter, poised to breakout in America for his work as Carson the butler on Downton Abbey, invests the good hospital chaplain with genuine warmth and humor. A bit pat but deeply humane, Wish is a perfectly nice little short.

Despite sharing some similar elements with Wish, Tanel Toom’s The Confession (trailer here) is moody, even approaching the point of gothic. Sam is a good kid—so good in fact, he worries about not having anything to say it his first confession. Unfortunately, his buddy Jacob is only too willing to serve as the devil on his shoulder, suggesting a practical joke with a farmer’s scarecrow to give Sam something to confess. When the prank goes awry, it sets off a tragic series of events that will cost Sam dearly.

However, Confession’s priest is never portrayed as a moralizing caricature. Rather, he seems quite decent and well-meaning. Indeed, Sam’s failure is so disturbing because the priest obviously believes in grace and forgiveness. Nicely executed by Toom, Confession is a film of considerable substance.

While Ivan Goldschmidt’s Na Wewe also tackles the dark side of human nature, the Rwandan morality play falls short of its earnest intentions. Most problematically, the gimmicky plot twist comes perilously close to trivializing the 1994 genocide. Definitely the weakest of the program, Michael Creagh’s The Crush might have been conceived as a statement about violence, as well. Yet, given the lack of consequences in the story of an Irish schoolboy infatuated with his teacher, it is hard to really discern any deeper significance.

As with most Oscar categories, the nominated live action shorts are a mixed bag. God of Love is a blast, but one wonders if it might ultimately be too hip for the Academy—and yet here it is still in-contention and earning new fans. Confession is also an impressive piece of filmmaking, whereas Wish 143 boasts some very fine performances. While the lesser two nominees are essentially harmless (and probably frontrunners), Matheny, Barnes, and Toom’s films together make up a very strong program, which opens this Friday (2/11) in New York at the IFC Center.