Where feature films conform to the three-act structure of drama, movie short subjects are more like short stories.
"The Shore," the best among this year's Oscar nominees for live-action shorts, has the surprise twist of an O. Henry tale. Written and directed by Terry George, the Northern Irish filmmaker behind Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father, this vignette set in Belfast stars Ciaran Hinds as an accidental activist who left for the United States to avoid arrest during the Troubles, and Conleth Hill as his estranged friend left behind. When Hinds' daughter, nicely played by Kerry Condon, tries to reunite the men, she doesn't know whether they will come to blows or come together.
From Ireland comes "Pentecost," a slapstick comedy that likens the Church to the church of soccer. The focus is on a priest who prepares his altar boys for the World Cup of Masses: the return of a local hero, now an archbishop, to his parish church. The priest addresses his soccer-mad altar boys as a coach might his players: "Now, go out and have the Mass of your life!" Will the youth who mistook a censer for a soccer ball be permitted to officiate? It may be a one-joke movie, but the joke is irreverent fun that stops just short of the sacrilegious.
"Raju," a German film set in India, is the one straight drama among the predominantly playful nominees. It centers on a German couple who arrive in Kolkata to adopt an orphan. On the way to the orphanage they are overwhelmed by the proximity of beauty and poverty. They are anxious about bonding with the unseen Raju, who turns out to be an outgoing 4-year-old with a smile like sunshine. The boy's mysterious disappearance leads his adoptive father on a search throughout the city, where he discovers more about Raju, and about himself.
If "The Shore" doesn't take the Oscar, my bet is that Andrew Bowler's "Time Freak" will. This modest American sketch comedy stars Michael Nathanson as a shaggy physics student who builds a time machine. The reverse of Groundhog Day, the more the physicist attempts do-overs of his social failures, the more socially maladroit he becomes.
The black comedy "Tuba Atlantic," a short from Norway, takes place during the deathwatch over a crusty fisherman whose doctor gives him six days to live. The film's tone is both magic realist and surrealist, as if Ingmar Bergman directed a Monty Python sketch written by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. As with "The Shore," this short touches on estrangement and connection: Said fisherman has not been in touch with his brother, who has emigrated to America. It also involves a hospice worker who may be the Angel of Death, a seagull holocaust, and a massive tuba that is kind of like Gabriel's horn. You've never seen anything like it.EndText