The Best Short Film Oscars are some of the great equalizers, since by the time the nominations are announced, the odds are good that neither the hardcore film buffs nor the casual movie-going public have seen any of them. This year is no exception, but starting this weekend you’ll have the opportunity to see these films, along with the nominees in the Animated Short Film and Documentary Short Film categories, in more than 200 theaters across the United States and Canada. If you can make it, you owe to yourself to see and celebrate the undernourished art of the short film, but if you can’t – or just want to know what you’re getting into – here’s my reviews of each of the Live-Action Short Films and Animated Short Films. The nominated Documentary Short Films are also being screened, but I was unable to view them before publication.
Live-Action Short Films:
Pentecost (dir. Peter McDonald) – 7/10
A delightfully slight entry this year is Peter McDonald’s Pentecost, about a benched altar boy who’s given one last chance at Catholic greatness. The very funny gag is that the priests and parishioners all treat Sunday mass the way the eleven-year-old hero treats football. The pre-game pep talks, the overly dramatic talks about trading altar boys, and the tension building up to the big game is both palpable and sweetly ironic. The twist is that the underdog hero, Damian Lynch (Scott Graham), doesn’t even want to be an altar boy. Pentecost ends with a senseless but satisfying act of rebellion that doesn’t amount to much but does end the film on a pleasingly ridiculous note.
Raju – 8/10
Maz Zähle’s Raju is easily the most somber live-action short nominated this year, but it’s an involving and emotional mystery that deserves its acclaim. Wotan Wilke Möhring and Julia Richter play Jan and Sara Fischer, a German couple who adopts an Indian child and them loses him in a crowd. The odds of finding young Raju (Krish Gupta) are astronomically against them, but Jan manages to make a startling discovery anyway that forces him into a unique and troubling moral quandary. Raju raises serious ethical and political questions and doesn’t try to answer them beyond the personal opinions of its protagonists, making the film feel like more than the usual Oscar bait. It’s a great short film, but mercifully you won’t have to endure anything else this dour throughout the program.
The Shore – 8.5/10
The only live-action short this year to feature a recognizable cast finds character actor Ciarán Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and the talented Kerry Condon (The Last Station) as a father and daughter returning to his hometown in Ireland to confront an old friend to put their troubled history to rest. It only sounds depressing. In fact, The Shore is a wonderfully heartfelt and slightly silly affair about the healing power of time, with a memorably hilarious climax that makes it a serious contender to win the award.
Time Freak – 7/10
Andrew Bowler directed this little lark of a short film, about a scientist (Michael Nathanson) who invents a time machine, but uses it to neurotically perfect his social interactions over the previous couple of days. He winds up spending over a year of his life travelling through time just to make two of his conversations less awkward. It’s a spry short film and full of belly laughs, but it feels more like a comedic sketch – particularly that classic one from Saturday Night Live, about a guy who goes back in time to perfect his jokes at a group dinner – to make a real impression.
Tuba Atlantic – 9.5/10
The highlight of the live-action short films this year is Tuba Atlantic, an inventive and moving work from director Hallvar Witzø. 70-year-old Oskar (Edvard Haegstad) has been given only six days to live, and spends that time killing seagulls and rebuffing the efforts of an amateur angel (Ingrid Viken) to ease his journey into the afterlife. Haegstad portrays Oskar as an indomitable crab of a man, with a creative spark that for some reason relates to his sheer and utter hatred of seagulls, and an enormous tuba the size of a whaling ship. Tuba Atlantic manages to be sweet and acidic at the same time, a balance that makes it stand out from the already exceptional pack of live-action short film nominees this year.
Animated Short Films:
Dimanche – 7/10
Patrick Doyon’s 2D animated short film Dimanche is an odd combination of slice of life filmmaking and childlike silliness, about a young boy’s Sunday spent at church and his grandparents’ house. The world of his parents seems frightfully dull – because it is – and he’s left to his own devices and vivid imagination to amuse himself. There’s a particularly funny bit where he discovers that the mounted bear head in his grandfather’s living room is still attached to the rest of the bear, who is alive and well and goes for an ill-considered stroll. The film meanders as much as its protagonist does, but it also leaves a charming impression of lazy weekends long past.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore – 6.5/10
Perhaps the most beautifully animated film nominated this year is also paradoxically the least deserving. Mr. Morris Lessmore (cute name, that) is a bibliophile whose books – along with all the world’s colors – are swept away in a hurricane that puts The Wizard of Oz to shame. Afterwards, he finds himself the caretaker of a magical house full of anthropomorphic hardcovers in need of love. The film plays at deeper meaning, but doesn’t seem to offer much beyond the notion that books are grand, and the constant score inspired by “Pop Goes the Weasel” gets a little grating after a while. It’s not a bad film by any means, but it’s hard to shake the sense of pretentiousness The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore exudes.
La Luna – 8.5/10
This year’s Pixar nomination goes to La Luna, an enchanting little short about a young boy who accompanies his father and grandfather about their nightly task of sweeping up all the shooting stars that strike the moon. The fanciful concept, gorgeously animated and lovingly scored by frequent Pixar collaborator Michael Giacchino, illustrates a lovable tale of a kid striving to emulate his heroes and finally earning their respect by forming an identity of his own. The story’s a little thin, but it’s told just about perfectly.
A Morning Stroll – 9/10
A New Yorker walks down the street and sees a chicken walking by. He stands in confused silence as the chicken walks up the steps to a brownstone, knocks on the door with his beak, and is allowed inside by an unseen tenant. It’s a whimsical slice of life, inspired by a story from The New Yorker, that takes an unexpected turn when the same tale is told decades later, when the same pedestrian is too distracted by his newfangled iPhone to fully appreciate the wonder of the sight. I won’t ruin the final twist for you, but suffice it say the chicken is going about its morning stroll for a very long time. Creative and evolving animation styles bring to life a surprisingly enlightened treatise on the march of time. As droll as it is exceptional.
Wild Life – 9.5/10
A most unexpected short film from directors Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby tells the story of an effete Englishman who moves to Canada in 1909 to experience the Wild West. His letters home paint a pretty picture of his life on the prairie, but his reality is filled with depressing circumstances and willful self-deception. Energetic and deeply involving, Wild Life is the best and most striking animated film nominated this year. Unique and wonderful.