From the hot, crowded streets of Calcutta to the desolate, wintry landscape of rural Norway to ripples in the space-time continuum, this year’s slate of Oscar-nominated live-action shorts are a diverse lot that uniformly focuses limited screen time on character. There’s not a disingenuous moment in the bunch.
Ireland, 1977. After a mortifying mishap during mass one Sunday involving a wayward thurible of burning incense, Damien Lynch (Scott Graham) is kicked off the altar-boy squad and banned from his favorite pastime, football. But with the archbishop making an appearance at the local parish and one of his teammates disqualified for not being baptized, Damien is given a second chance to get back in the lineup and, better yet, watch Liverpool play in the European Cup Final. In his directorial debut, actor Peter McDonald draws fun parallels between the team sports of altar serving and soccer, and Graham is a likable imp rebelling against the status quo.
Director: Peter McDonald
Writer: Peter McDonald
Starring: Andrew Bennett, Scott Graham and Michael McElhatton
Writer-director Max Zähle compresses a feature’s worth of story into an emotionally and ethically impactful 24 minutes. German couple Jan and Sarah Fischer (Wotan Wilke Möhring and Julia Richter) travel all the way to Calcutta to adopt 4-year-old Raju (Krish Gupta). On their first day as a family, however, the boy disappears, and as they seek help from the police, the orphanage and an NGO that looks after missing children, it seems the city has swallowed him whole. As awful as the situation is, Jan’s investigation into the whereabouts of their new son uncovers a scenario even worse. Eschewing exposition, Zähle drops right into the action, a strategy that appeals to viewers’ sympathies viscerally rather than narratively. There’s not enough time to deal with all of the circumstance’s complicated emotions—the couple’s inevitable doubts about whether they’re fit for parenthood is given short shrift—but Zähle’s adroit structure strikes a powerful chord.
Directors: Max Zähle
Writer: Max Zähle and Florian Kuhn
Starring: Wotan Wilke Möhring, Julia Richter and Krish Gupta
Previously nominated for screenwriting Oscars for In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, which he also directed, writer-director Terry George returns to the Academy Awards with this Northern Ireland-set drama, which he shot in the bay in front of his home with a cast and crew of friends and family. Indeed, this story about boyhood blood brothers Joe (Ciarán Hinds) and Paddy (Conleth Hill), who reunite after 25 years of misunderstanding and regret, is intimate in plot and style. A significant portion of their past is relayed in dialogue—a risky narrative strategy that works because Hinds is so good—and Paddy’s misinterpretation of Joe’s arrival results in funny yet tonally jarring comedy. But ultimately The Shore is as warm and comforting as a bear hug from an old friend.
Director: Terry George
Writer: Terry George
Starring: Ciarán Hinds, Conleth Hill, Kerry Condon and Maggi Cronin
In writer-director Andrew Bowler’s Time Freak, time travel has less in common with Back to the Future and the paradoxes of running into earlier versions of yourself than Groundhog Day and the possibilities of do-overs. Stillman (Michael Nathanson) has invented a time machine that doesn’t so much move him through the past as hit the rewind button. It remains unclear how his dream of visiting ancient Rome would work, but the point is moot since he’s hung up on visiting and revisiting yesterday to get it exactly right, from his frustrating exchange with an unhelpful drycleaner to a casual encounter with a girl he likes. The possibilities are endless, but Bowler’s tight script gets to the punch line before irrevocably boggling the mind.
Director: Andrew Bowler
Writer: Andrew Bowler
Starring: Michael Nathanson, John Conor Brooke and Emilea Wilson
No regional cinema strikes the exquisite balance between the dry humor and poignant pathos of grumpy old men quite like the Scandinavians. In Hallvar Witzø’s Tuba Atlantic, 70-year-old Oskar (Edvard Haegstad) finds out he has precisely six days to live. Young, blond Inger (Ingrid Viken) arrives, an Angel of Death assigned to his case by the local Jesus Club to help him die. “I can manage that fine myself,” he harrumphs. Still, she tags along as he wages a one-man genocide on the local seagull population and waits for the winds to shift so he can fire up a giant horn pointed at the Atlantic. He hasn’t spoken to his brother in 30 years, and he hopes to reach him all the way in New Jersey with the musical contraption they built together ages ago. Despite—or perhaps because of—the absurdity, one can’t help but be moved.
Director: Hallvar Witzø
Writer: Linn-Jeanethe Kyed
Starring: Edvard Haegstad, Terje Ranes and Ingrid Viken