While 2011 wasn’t an especially strong year for Oscar live-action shorts, all five nominees leave auds wanting more, with the longest of these — Terry George’s half-hour “The Shore” — illustrating that not all stories require 90 or more minutes in order to convey an inspired idea. Now an Oscar-season fixture, the ShortsHD package — available in theaters, on-demand and online — has developed a sufficient following to outgross many indie features.
With virtually no commercial outlet to recoup, short films today exist primarily as proof-of-concept reels for up-and-coming directors to score bigger work. An amusing trifle such as Peter McDonald’s “Pentecost,” about an Irish altar boy given one last chance to make good after embarrassing the local priest by swinging the incense a bit too wildly during mass, serves as a perfect example. It’s good for a chuckle, but no more clever than your average 30- or 60-second TV spot. Still, the 11-minute episode amply demonstrates that McDonald knows his way around a camera and is ready to shoulder a more expansive assignment.
Another steady source of shorts are film schools the world over, and Oscar often makes room to include such thesis projects among its final five. In Hamburg Media School grad Max Zaehle’s socially conscious “Raju,” a German couple (Wotan Wilke Mohring and Julia Richter) travel to Kolkata, India, to adopt a big-eyed orphan boy (Krish Gupta). When young Raju disappears at the local market, the husband goes to the authorities, only to discover dark secrets about the child’s background. Layered with enough clues to belie its seemingly open-ended finish, the mini-thriller begs multiple viewings and wouldn’t be hard to expand to feature-length.
Far and away the most accomplished of the lot is “The Shore,” which Oscar winner Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) seems to have undertaken as sort of a palate cleanser between aggravating Hollywood experiences. Without the frustration of notes or studio interference, he assembles a pro cast (including Ciaran Hinds and Kerry Condon) to tell a simple, heartfelt story of emotional reunion between two North Ireland friends who’ve spent 25 years apart, each harboring a different misunderstanding of the unsettled business between them. With an authentic feel for the environment in which it’s set, “The Shore” leisurely unspools over half an hour, allowing room for the humor to build, the way it might if an old friend were regaling us with it over drinks.
“Time Freak” feels more consistent with the comedy stylings of the YouTube generation. An obsessive young inventor (Michael Nathanson) has finally perfected his time machine, but instead of using it to visit ancient Rome, as originally planned, he’s spent the previous 18 months trying to perfect mundane details of the same morning. It’s the “Groundhog Day” idea taken to extreme, as the poor guy endlessly replays awkward moments until an old friend (John Conor Brooke) helps him break the cycle. For American writer-director Andrew Bowler, the Oscar nom figures to open doors to feature work.
The final short, “Tuba Atlantic,” reps another film-school entry, though director Hallvar Witzo (a graduate of Lillehammer University College and winner of last summer’s Student Academy Award) conducts himself with the assurance of an old pro. His confident widescreen compositions and mildly twisted sensibility recall Scandi fave “Kitchen Stories,” as the dark-comedy short recaps an old curmudgeon’s last six days on earth. A do-gooder “angel of death” (Ingrid Viken) visits crotchety Oskar (Edvard Haegstad) to see him through the final stages, but Oskar is too busy with bizarre errands — waging war against the local seagull population and completing a horn loud enough to be heard across the Atlantic — to face his fate. Whether or not he wins, we haven’t heard the last of Witzo.