Most years (all years really), my selections in the Short Film categories for my Academy Awards ballot have been selected purely on a basis of how interesting their titles sound or their country of origin. Fortunately, this year, I was lucky enough to come across a showing of the live action shorts nominated for the award. Thus my choices are not based upon national favoritism nor titular appeal this year, but on actual cinematic quality. And needless to say, there is quite a bit of it, especially in spans of time shorter than how long it takes me to dress myself in the morning.
Pentecost (Ireland, Peter McDonald & Eimear O'Kane)
Pentecost features an extract from the life of a young Irish Liverpool FC fanatic. Said fanatic, better known as eleven-year-old Damian Lynch (Scott Graham), also happens to be an altar boy at the local church. Unfortunately, this results in quite a conflict of interest. After Damian accidently (but, let’s be real, not really) causes Father O’Toole to tumble from the altar one woeful day at mass, he is placed under a three-month probationary period during which he is separated from his beloved footie. Most tragically, Liverpool happens to be playing the European Cup Final during this time. Damian’s father offers his son a choice- to redeem his sins by performing faultlessly during Pentecost Mass and be able to watch the match, or to cause another scandal and never set eyes on football again.
During its 11-minute span, Pentecost condenses a storyline in such a way that wouldn’t function in any other amount of time. The footie/religion parallels in the film are impeccable, especially when a priest is giving his altar boys, Damian among them, a speech which more closely resembles a locker room pep talk than any type of religious motivation. The pacing and shooting style of the film makes it incredibly entertaining, and the final scene cuts the buildup in a way which makes Pentecost my near favorite of the bunch. In truth, Pentecost shows that, to Damian especially, individual passion is the real religion.
Raju (Germany, Max Zahle & Stefan Gieren)
An Indo-German fusion, Raju tells the story of a German couple, the Fischers, that travels to the growing Indian metropolis of Kolkata to bring home an Indian orphan, Raju. The two quickly fall in love with their new child, but are just as quick to lose him, literally. When Raju disappears in a street marketplace, his adopted father’s desperate quest to find him reveals that the Fischer’s temporary loss is part of a far larger problem.
Raju carries a fairly generic theme in that it revolves around a central premise of love, family ties, and morality. Painfully bittersweet, it brings into question the value of a promising future versus a familiar past. Perhaps the most poignant detail of Raju is the hazy, seemingly unrelated scene which accompanies the titles of the film. Only after the end credits roll did I have an audible “ah-hah” moment and put together its meaning, which summarizes Raju perfectly. Overall, however, the film does teach one clear thing- do your research before bringing home a foreign orphan.
The Shore (Northern Ireland, Terry George)
Carrying the most name recognition (I could actually whisper-yell “I know about that dude” during the titles of this film), The Shore centers on an Northern Irish expat who returns to his homeland nearly three decades after having left, an evidently American daughter by his side. Aforementioned dude Ciarán Hinds plays Joe, who finds a terrifying degree of discomfort in ever discussing his mysterious childhood friends, Paddy and Mary. However, due to the persistence of his daughter, Joe attempts to seek reconciliation, revealing the origins of the group’s falling-out in the process.
The Shore isn’t anything unconventionally exceptional when it comes to short film, but it does carry the weight of a feature length film in the confines of its 30-minute span. Most of the film projects a rather perplexing yet somber tone, broken by one quite lengthy and equally hilarious instance of comic relief involving a horse chasing down a group of workers, and eventually the resolution, which turns the film from “what is happening here and why is it depressing” to “feel-good.” Overall- nothing exquisite, but not at all bad. I have a nagging feeling the Academy will take this bait.
Time Freak (USA, Andrew Bowler)
A snappy science fiction comedy, Time Freak ‘s plot revolves around a young quantum physicist’s discovery of a working time machine. However, Stillman (Michael Nathanson), the physicist, decides to use his invention for things other than visits to the 1800’s. In fact, he develops an obsessive need to fix imperfections of a much shorter timespan- that very day. Hilarity ensues, and Stillman’s misadventures are further complicated by the intervention of his friend.
Some stranger’s openly projected commentary of “good ol’ American cinema” from somewhere in the back of the theatre fits this film pretty well. No Nicolas Cage or explosions, but Time Freak is straightforward, upbeat, fast-paced, and not at all ethereal or confusingly profound. It is constantly funny, and its witty ending wraps it up well. It’s clearly the only American short film, and a welcome one.
Tuba Atlantic (Norway, Hallvar Witzø)
In Tuba Atlantic, Edvard Hægstad plays Oskar, a lonely old country man who carries a seething aversion of seagulls, and is also dying in six days. He is visited by the lively Inger (Ingrid Viken), who is part of a religious “Death Angel” club which assists the dying in their final days. Initially Oskar, who is attempting to squeeze every bit of value from his final days, is quite apprehensive about his designated Death Angel. However, following some bonding involving the mowing down of seagulls with a machine gun, Oskar welcomes Inger’s help in sounding off a transatlantically loud tuba (literally, I shit you not- he actually built the thing) in order to contact his estranged brother in America one last time before his own imminent death.
If there were a grand checklist of characteristics Nordic films commonly have, Tuba Atlantic would have filled out every single one. Complete with a chilly and airy atmosphere, warm sweaters, quirky and highly improbable events, stray violin chords, and a grizzly old man, the film screams Norway. This combination works quite well. The film is unusual and amusing, yet equally touching, seagull genocide aside. In close competition with Pentecost, Tuba Atlantic is my top pick, but maybe that’s just my affinity for stray violin chords speaking.
All five films in this category share such overarching thematic similarities that I am forced to wonder whether these short film makers have some sort of secret occult collaboration society; all entries this year focus on fixing some type of mistake. Whether it is Damian’s atonement in Pentecost, the father’s moral dilemma in Raju, Joe’s attempt to restore ties in the Shore, Stillman’s very literal mistake fixing in Time Freak, or Oskar’s final amends in Tuba Atlantic, all represent a will to straighten out muddled pasts. And all are quite effective.
My pick: Tuba Atlantic.
My alternate: Pentecost.
What will probably win: neither of the above.