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Review and Ranking of the 2012 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

Review and Ranking of the 2012 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

I wasn’t too thrilled with last year’s Oscar nominees in the live action short category. It was my first time seeing and reviewing all the films, though, and I wasn’t aware that it was such an off year. The 2012 nominees, on the other hand, are all excellent. Whether this is evidence of a typical year for short film or an inverse fluke of this being an especially on year I can not say. But I’m happy to genuinely recommend the annual theatrical release of this category’s contenders, a program that hits cinemas nationwide this Friday.

Having seen all five of the nominated films, I still haven’t a clue what will win or even what should win. They’re so different and each is really great in their own way. Still, I can — with some difficulty for the same reasons — rank them in order of my favor with review and preview notes for each. Fortunately if you go see the program in a theater you won’t need to worry about which are better than others in order to decide which to see, because you’ll see them all. Hopefully you enjoy them collectively as much as I did.

1. “Tuba Atlantic”

Technically this has already won an Academy Award, which isn’t that surprising. Like last year’s winner, “God of Love,” and my personal favorite of last year’s nominees, “The Confession,” this hilarious Norwegian film received a Student Academy Award before qualifying for the big time. “Tuba Atlantic” won the Gold Medal for foreign film, while the next nominee in this ranking, “Raju,” received the Bronze Medal in the same category. I wonder if that will have any bearing on which short will win the Oscar on February 26. I would be surprised if one of the other three get it, actually, so maybe this is indeed the front-runner.

Written by Linn-Jeanethe Kyed and directed by Hallvar Witzo, the 25-minute film is about an old man (fittingly named Oskar) who has been given six days to live and assigned a young “death angel” whose job is to help him cope with his final moments. She also encourages him to make amends with his estranged brother in America, but he’d much rather gun down and bomb seagulls with his remaining time alive. It’s beautifully shot, scripted with just the right balance of quirkiness and heart and its climax is utterly fantastic.

To give you some idea of its tone, if Hollywood ever remade foreign shorts I’d see them easily casting Rutger Hauer as the lead for this story. I guess it just reminds me a bit of “Hobo with a Shotgun” where the hooker with a heart of gold is now a public service agent and the things being comically slaughtered are birds instead of human scum. This isn’t to say it’s in the retro style of an exploitation flick, though. It’s a bit more naturalistic, though only a bit.

Check out the film’s trailer:

2. “Raju”

As I mention above, this won a Bronze Medal in the foreign film category at the 2011 Student Academy Awards, meaning it took third place to “Tuba Atlantic”’s first. As far as serious dramatic shorts go, it doesn’t get much better than this. It’s not too heavy, not too over-the-top and not too preachy in its address of the real world issue or the moral dilemma it tackles. And unlike many dramas set in India it doesn’t really deal in poverty porn or overt orientalist attitude.

The 24-minute film was directed by newcomer Max Zahle and written by Zahle and Florian Kuhn. It’s about a German couple who are in Kolkata to adopt a four-year-old boy named Raju, who quickly goes missing in that huge West Bengal city in his first day under care of his new parents. The search that ensues reminds me a lot of Lodge Kerrigan’s exceptional 2004 dramatic feature, “Keane,” while some other things that occur are reminiscent of the more material moments of “Slumdog Millionaire.” It’s the one film in this bunch that might possibly break your heart.

Check out the film’s trailer:


3. “Time Freak”

Here’s one for the movie geeks who don’t normally pay attention to short films (shame on them). It’s also a very funny, clever and smart fast-paced sci-fi comedy that anyone else will enjoy just as much. The premise is kind of like “Groundhog Day” but where the character living in constant repeat is doing so intentionally — and quite obsessively. Michael Nathanson (“Young Adult”) plays the neurotic inventor of a time machine with the dream of traveling back to Ancient Rome. Unfortunately he gets a little sidetracked along the way, and it’s easy to think any one of us might act the same way with the same means and circumstances.

It’s hard to do a short time-travel piece without resorting too much to a central gag or seeming somewhat derivative. In a way you could consider “Time Freak” as a comical 11-minute version of “Primer,” for instance. But writer-director Andrew Bowler does an awesome job of making a fresh, firm and flawless short that doesn’t feel like either a Funny or Die skit or a foundation for a feature (let’s be clear that any such stretching of this story for a long-form adaptation would be a mistake). I’m not sure I’m fully satisfied with the ending, but that’s to be expected for this sort of narrative. It’s hard to think of any better conclusion than what we’re given, as relatively anticlimactic as it is. At least it doesn’t finish with a punchline.

Special points go to “Time Freak” for being cut by the ever-extraordinary documentary editor Geoffrey Richman, of “Murderball,” “God Grew Tired of Us,” “Sicko,” “The Order of Myths” and “The Cove.” Hmm, maybe “Time Freak” is actually a nonfiction film… That would be nuts. But we’d never know!

Check out the film’s (honestly, too revealing) trailer followed by a cute reaction video of the filmmaker finding out he got nominated (it will make you root for it to win):

4. “The Shore”

This lightly funny and emotional short comes with the most familiar and prestigious talent involved. The writer/director is Terry George, who was nominated for an Academy Award twice previously, first for co-writing Jim Sheridan’s “In the Name of the Father” and then for co-writing his own film, “Hotel Rwanda.” For this 30-minute work he returns to his roots in IRA-related subject matter, though it’s not anywhere as heavy as his past collaborations with Sheridan, including “Father,” “Some Mother’s Son” and “The Boxer.” This is more of a sideline look at the effects of “The Troubles” on people who weren’t directly involved. One character (“Game of Thrones”’ Conleth Hill), for example, lost his arm after being shot while merely an innocent bystander.

“The Troubles” are also explained, not the most clearly, as the reason for why that character and his “blood brother” were estranged for the past few decades. There’s a coincidental parallel with fellow nominee “Tuba Atlantic” in that idea of friends/siblings divided socially as well as physically. Now that Joe (Ciaran Hinds) is back in Northern Island, visiting from America with his adult daughter (“Rome”’s Kerry Condon) in tow, the chance to reconnect with his best friend and an old flame provides the gist of a familiar story that isn’t cliched nor is it as over-dramatic as some of George’s feature films. You definitely get the sense that it’s a very personally significant work, confirmed by the fact that it’s shot on location at the filmmaker’s home and employs his friends and family, including daughter Oorlagh George, who as producer shares in the Oscar nomination here.

Check out the film’s trailer:

5. “Pentecost”

At first I thought this was just the Academy’s token “cute” live action short involving a British or Irish kid in some sort of miniature coming of age tale, preferably dealing with the church and often concluding with a stinger of an ending. Last year’s comparable nominees “The Crush” and “The Confession” immediately come to mind while watching it. It does tell the story of a young altar boy and is mainly set in a church, and it’s a short, 11-minute coming of age story that builds up to a near-gag of a finale. But I really like it’s basic idea of equating a big day for the young altar servers, in the protagonist’s mind, with a big game for his favorite football team.

It’s a fine directorial debut for Irish actor Peter McDonald (“The Damned United”) with perfectly moody cinematography from Patrick Jordan and an adequate non-precocious child actor performance and is really only the least favorite of the bunch because there has to be a last pick and this one is just one of the shortest and slightest works of the five. If they were all this good it would still be a wonderful year for live action short nominees.

Check out the film’s trailer:

Once again, this five-film live action short program will be released in theaters nationwide Friday, February 10, 2012.

Also check out my review and ranking of this year’s animated short nominees.

Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter: @thefilmcynic
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