Friday, March 9, 2012

2012 Oscar-nominated Short Films

And Now for Something Completely Different

One of the things one notices after watching films for long enough is that movies have their seasons, just like fruit. There is Oscar Season, late in the year, when the studios release the movies they think have the best chance of garnering awards from both the Academy and other ceremonies. There is Blockbuster Season, generally from mid-May to late September, when the schools are out and the studios drop their big-budget action and effects showpieces to rake in as big of a young-male demographic as possible. And then we have the period I like to call "The Doldrums".

The Doldrums stretch from February through April, and consist of the period when most studios drop the movies that they think, in-house, cannot compete with either the Oscar-dramas of late fall, or the blockbusters of high summer. These are the films that, for one reason or another, have not inspired faith from their own producers, and are therefore released against as little competition as possible, in the hope that the sheer lack of anything else worth seeing will enable them to do well. Studios don't always know what they have on their hands, and sometimes a movie can be relegated to the Doldrums by mistake, because of studio politics, or just lack of imagination on the part of bosses. But that said, most films wind up in the Doldrums because they're total crap.

Last year, just as an example, the Doldrums brought us such scintillating films as Tron Legacy, Battle Los Angeles, and Suckerpunch (which I loved, but I admit is clearly a bad film). This year, the Doldrums have already given me Red Tails (an early candidate for worst film of the decade), Mission Impossible 4, and would have given me several more turds had I not managed to stretch out Oscar season deep into February. Looking ahead, I have to look forward to such shining lights as Battleship, 21 Jump Street, This Means War, and the Lorax, all of which are either currently in or about to enter theaters. Having exhausted most of the hidden gems I can sense coming (there's always a few) and with six weeks minimum of the Doldrums left to go, my stated goal of a film a week is likely to lead me into unpleasant places in the near future.

Which is all a fancy way of explaining why, this week, I wrung a little bit more moisture out of the last remnants of Oscar Season by going to see all five of the Academy Award-nominated Live-action short films. My alternatives were on the order of Tyler Perry's Good Deeds. Sue me.

Pentecost: Shortest and thinnest of the bunch, this 11-minute send-up to a single joke is kind of out of place, given its fellows. The story (if you can call it that) is about an irish altar boy who is preparing to "perform" (what do you call what altar boys do?) at an important mass in his home parish. The movie essentially plays like a particularly long Monty-Python joke, with the priests and deacons speaking about the boys like they're the coaches of a soccer team. The soundtrack is excellent, and actors have good comic timing and expressions, but there doesn't seem to be much point to it all.

Raju: The most "Oscar-like" of the movies by far, and the one I was certain had won the award until I got home and found out that it had not, Raju is about a German couple who goes to India to adopt an orphan, only to find themselves in the middle of a corrupt kidnapping ring. The write-up makes it sound like an action film, which it is not, as well as an unflattering portrait of India's society, poverty, and problems with corruption, which it absolutely is. Very well-acted and shot, the film is quite uncomfortable to watch, and gets across the utter alienness of a place like Calcutta (to a westerner at least), as well as the ugly reality of many "charities" in the third world.

The Shore: Longest of the five movies, and the one that actually did win the award, this movie stars CiarĂ¡n Hinds (aka Gaius Julius Caesar) as a Northern Irishman returning home for the first time in 25 years, and re-uniting with his ex-fiance and best friend. A careful, gently meandering film, centered around a legitimately funny sequence involving misunderstandings, mussel collectors, and a horse, the movie doesn't have much of a point to make really, save that Ireland is pretty and it's good to forgive people. A decent film, but light on substance, and I admit to being surprised that the Academy chose it.

Timefreak: A hilarious send-up to movies like Back to the Future or Primer, this one's about a guy who invents a Time Machine and begins obsessively returning to the previous day to "get everything right". Very brisk and tight, the movie gets a lot across purely with its editing, and compresses what feels like a longer movie's worth of material into an eleven-minute running time. Michael Nathanson, playing the lead, gets the mad-scientist role down pat, and the film's ending is perfect for its style. A real gem.

Tuba Atlantic: A movie like this could somehow only come from Norway. An old man finds out he has six days to live, and tries to complete his life's work with the help of an "Angel of Death", a young girl sent to keep company of the dying by her church group. Despite the subject matter, this is the funniest by far of the five films, if only because it grants us the sight of an octogenarian massacring seagulls with dynamite and a machine gun. Twisted and yet oddball, this is one of the least morose dying-films I've ever seen, and is filled with dark comedy, hilarious one-liners (made more hilarious, I must admit, by how odd Norwegian sounds to my American ear), and a completely ludicrous premise taken to its illogical extreme by the end of the film. My personal selection as best of the bunch, and by itself worth the price of admission.

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