Oscar Guide 2011: Best Short Film (Live Action)

Posted by · 11:31 am · February 14th, 2012

(The Oscar Guide will be your chaperone through the Academy’s 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 26, with the Best Picture finale on Saturday, February 25.)

Quick, what do Walt Disney, Jean-Claude Carrière, Taylor Hackford, Christine Lahti, Andrea Arnold, Martin McDonagh and that bloke who directed “The Devil Wears Prada” all have in common? If you wouldn”t have needed the headline of this post to tell you that they all won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, then you are a sage and dedicated Oscar scholar. If you didn”t know that, however, you might now realize that the winner of this humble award, used by many a viewer as a bathroom break opportunity, is often a name worth filing for future reference.

Whether any of this year”s nominees in the category have quite such bright futures ahead of them is open to question – well, except in the case of Terry George, twice Oscar-nominated in the past for feature film work. For my money, it”s a below-par field this year, with one clear standout – I hope the Academy agrees, and not just because I want to repeat my 3-for-3 prediction tally in the short races. If you fancy making your own educated guess, the films are currently in selected theaters, courtesy of Shorts International.

The nominees are… 

“Pentecost” (Peter McDonald and Eimear O’Kane) 

“Raju” (Max Zähle and Stefan Gieren)

“The Shore” (Terry George and Oorlagh George)

“Time Freak” (Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey)

“Tuba Atlantic” (Hallvar Witzø)

As usual, it’s a pleasingly international slate, with one entry from the US pitted against two from Ireland, one from Germany and one from Norway. For the last two years running, the lone American nominee has triumphed — though this is an award the Academy is often happy to export, and I have a feeling that’ll be the case this year. 

One of two 10-minute films in the running, Peter McDonald“s “Pentecost” is comfortably the slightest – and shabbiest. A cutesy, one-joke exercise in Irish whimsy, drawing strained parallels between the duelling religions of Catholicism and football, it tells the story of Damian, a rebellious pre-teen altar boy banned from watching his beloved Liverpool matches after causing trouble in mass. When the archbishop visits his local church, it”s a golden opportunity for the tyke to exact his revenge – but the punchline is a bit of a so-what, and the gags feel mistimed. Cute kids count for a lot with some voters, but this trifle is lucky to be here.

If any voters are feeling broody, they”re likelier to respond to German newcomer Max Zähle‘s “Raju,” a reasonably well-made, well-acted mini-drama covering the topical theme of international adoption, but weakened by its attempts to create moral conflict where none really exists. (It’s “Gone Baby Gone” all over again.) Taking place over a few days in Calcutta, the film follows a childless, clean-cut couple as they complete the process of adopting a saucer-eyed Indian orphan from the slums – or so they think, until the kid disappears and the husband realizes something fishy is afoot. It”s the plottiest and most serious-minded of the nominees, which could give it a leg up in the race, but the thriller element strains credibility, and the film rushes its emotional reversals in the final minutes.

This category is generally the domain of up-and-comers, but Irishman Terry George needs no introduction: the Irish writer-director was Oscar-nominated for the screenplays of “In the Name of the Father” and “Hotel Rwanda.” Things have since taken a turn south, however: after the disaster of 2007″s “Reservation Road,” perhaps downscaling to shorts was a good idea. Sadly, regardless of length, “The Shore” is no return to form: a pedestrian, sentimental story of an Irish emigrant returning to the Emerald Isle after a quarter-century”s absence, it feels distinctly televisual in form, and doesn”t give the great Ciaran Hinds much to chew on in the lead. The presence of familiar names may give the film an advantage with some voters, but others might feel newer talents deserve the exposure more. 

For two years running, a quirk-laden American comedy has taken the prize ahead of more straight-faced contenders. If that pattern continues this year, the beneficiary will be Andrew Bowler“s “Time Freak,” an amiably goofy time-travel skit that plays a little like “The Big Bang Theory” for the indie set – but could probably stand to extend its conceit past 10 minutes. Not unlike “Groundhog Day,” the narrative pivots on a character given multiple opportunities to replay and perfect the same everyday situation, but the film leaves its central logistical paradox unaddressed, and doesn”t push the premise”s absurdities as comically as it could. Still, it”s bright, gamely performed and audience-friendly enough (as evidenced by prizes at several festivals, including Seattle) to be a spoiler in the race.

Still, it”ll have to get past a more layered comic contender in Norway”s “Tuba Atlantic,” by far the most narratively distinct and technically accomplished of the nominees. Hallvar Witzø“s debut effort is already AMPAS-endorsed to some extent: it won the foreign film category at the Student Academy Awards last year. Shot through with a typically mordant Scandinavian brand of black humor and taking full cinematic advantage of its icily desolate coastal landscape, the film portrays the unlikely bond between a crusty pensioner given six days to live and the perky teenage girl appointed as his “Death Angel” by the local authorities: together, they laugh, cry and learn inventive new ways of murdering seagulls. It”s an affecting oddity that also boasts more surface polish than any of its rivals in the category: I”ve a feeling voters will be tickled.

Will win: “Tuba Atlantic”

Could win: “Time Freak”

Should win: “Tuba Atlantic”

Should have been here: (abstain)

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(Read previous installments of the Oscar Guide here.)

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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