Pentecost, directed by Peter MacDonald, Ireland
Raju, Max Zähle, Germany
The Shore, Terry George, Ireland
Time Freak, Andrew Bowler, U.S.
Tuba Atlantic, Hallvar Witzø, Norway
The first film to take home an Oscar in this category was the 1932 Laurel and Hardy two-reel classic The Music Box. Since then, the list of winning directors, as In Contention’s Guy Lodge notes, has included “Walt Disney, Jean-Claude Carrière, Taylor Hackford, Christine Lahti, Andrea Arnold, Martin McDonagh and that bloke who directed The Devil Wears Prada.” I suspect that most of the other directors who were nominated or won for Live-Action Short are teaching film in community colleges or have moved on to more lucrative endeavors. For despite the notion that the category is a proving ground for promising filmmakers — a movie master’s thesis, if you will — your odds of success are probably better if you start off making music videos.
This year I’m tempted to abstain from Live-Action Short: five movies, most of them with modest virtues and usually predictable narratives. The Irish Pentecost, which canters smartly through its 10-min. length, tells of 11-year-old Damian’s love of soccer and hatred of his altar boy duties. Another 10-min. comedy, Time Freak, reuses the Groundhog Day premise — a young man has built a time machine that allows him to revisit his most embarrassing encounters but doesn’t teach him how to correct them — and coasts on the squirrely, Josh Gad-like charm of its young star, Michael Nathanson. Only Raju, about a German couple in Calcutta to adopt a young boy, has plot twists that deepen and complicate the emotion. Sensitively acted by Wotan Wilke Möhring and Julia Richter as the parents, the film finds a lingering sting in a moral dilemma: that children have needs, and so does a childless couple. The 23-min. Raju is the best of a mediocre lot.
The one “name” director, at at 59 the senior member of the five finalists, is Terry George, Oscar-nominated for his scripts for Hotel Rwanda (which he also directed) and In the Name of the Father. George has been hitting the awards party circuit to promote his entry, but The Shore won’t advance his reputation. It stars that superb Irish actor Ciarán Hinds as a middle-aged man back home after 25 years and coaxed into an uneasy reunion with one of his old mates. Despite Hinds’s familiar gravity, the film’s half-hour passes as if it were a quarter-century.
Fraternal reconciliation is one element of Tuba Atlantic, favored by some to cop the Oscar. Or Oskar: that’s the name of the old man (Edvard Hægstad), who lives on a desolate patch of seashore, who has not spoken to his brother in 30 years — and whose doctor tells him, with implausible precision, that he has “six days” to live. In the Norwegian welfare state, Oskar is given a hospice counsellor in the form of a gawky blond teen (Ingrid Viken). “Hi, my name is Inger!” she says perkily. “I’m your local Angel of Death!” She’s not quite suited for the job — she offers him pills for his insomnia, as if he won’t soon be in the big sleep — and knows it. Indeed, she considers herself a flop as a Death Angel, because her first two patients survived.
The 25-min. film has a few good gags, as when Inger nonchalantly rips each day page off the wall calendar, or when old Oskar stomps on the nests of the seagulls who infest his dingy beach. “Gull abortions,” Inger clucks, and he corrects her: “Preemptive strikes.” But this odd coupling, of the old man and the She, starts straining immediately toward reconciliation (the estranged brother) and redemption (through Oskar’s attempt to make use of a giant sound system, a “tuba,” to blast its sound across the ocean). This is really a Hollywood weepie intoned in a craggy Scandinavian accent. I wanted Oskar to stay as he was, die on his own terms, and maybe take Inger down with him. And then I realized: If a movie’s sentiment can trigger this outbreak of misanthropy in me, the Academy is sure to love it, and likely to give it an award.