As usual, this year's lineup of Oscar-nominated live-action shorts is a foreign affair.
Just as it is most years, the slate is dominated by European films – in this case, one from Norway, one from Germany, one from Ireland and one from Northern Ireland.
"Time Freak" is the sole American entry, a distinction that worked out well for last year's winner, "God of Love."
But two of this year's European entries, "Raju" (left) and "Tuba Atlantic," also share something with "God of Love": They come to the Oscars after first winning at last June's Student Academy Awards.
And one of the nominated filmmakers, Terry George, has been at the Oscars before in the feature-film categories. He was nominated twice in the past, for his screenplays for 1993's "In the Name of the Father" and 2004's "Hotel Rwanda."
Of the five nominees, two are short and largely comic, and three are longer and more serious (though two of those make substantial use of humor).
This is the second in TheWrap's survey of the three shorts categories. The films will open in theaters on Friday as part of a program put together by ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures.
Peter McDonald and Eimear O'Kane
Set in Ireland in 1977, the 12-minute film centers on a soccer-loving young altar boy who suffers an incense-swinging mishap while serving mass, but is given a second chance.
That chance comes when an Archbishop comes to town for an important mass that the local priest treats like a major sporting event: "Let's see some grace, some vision," he says in a pre-mass pep talk. "Go out there and have the mass of your lives!"
The short is amusing and slight, with the kind of punchline at the end that's often found in this category's nominees. "Pentecost" is the type of film that frequently gets nominated, but never wins.
Max Zahle and Stefan Gieren
Made by German film students, "Raju" won the bronze medal for foreign films at the Student Academy Awards — but because a bronze medal does not automatically qualify a student winner for the Oscars, it still had to qualify via film-festival wins or a theatrical release.
The short is set in India, where a German couple adopt a young boy from an orphanage. Everything seems fine for the first third of the film, though the audience can't help but feel a sense of dread – and sure enough, the boy disappears and what starts as a straightforward search for a lost child turns into a moral dilemma as the father learns more about his adopted son.
Zahle and Gieren explore East vs. West biases and Euro-centric attitudes in their film, which ends up being less of a narrative-driven piece than an open-ended meditation on morality. As voters usually go for punchier narratives in this category, I suspect that makes it a longshot for the win.
Terry George and Oorlagh George
By far the best-known filmmaker in the category, "Hotel Rwanda" director George turned to this short after failing to get a feature he wanted to make off the ground. The film was shot near his house in Northern Ireland, and has a wonderful feel for the small-town life in a village to which the lead character (marvelously played by Ciaran Hinds) returns after a 25-year absence.
A quiet but affecting film about buried secrets and little white lies, "The Shore" makes a virtue of its modesty and low-key, lived-in feel. Again, voters usually pick something more assertive, but the performances by Hinds and Kerry Condon, and George's ability to hit on something true and touching, might well nudge it into contention.
(Oddly, the feel of the film is completely misrepresented in the artificial, stagy look of its promo photo, shown here.)
Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey
The one American film in the mix is also the shortest entry, and the lightest. "Time Freak" is an 11-minute comedy about a guy who builds a time machine; once he's perfected the machine, he finds himself compelled to travel not to Ancient Rome but to the previous day, where he tries again and again to improve upon a couple of awkward and embarrassing little conversations he had.
A charming study of obsession, the film is funny, glib, perky and slight. In many ways, it's the closest thing in the field to the funny and glib winners "God of Love" and "The New Tenants," though it doesn't have the style of the former or the anarchic spirit of the latter. A win isn’t out of the question, since it stands out from the rest of the field in certain ways, but I imagine voters will find it amusing but too slight.
"Tuba Atlantic" is the other student Oscar winner, also from the foreign student film category. But it won the category's gold medal, which automatically qualified it for the Oscars.
The 26-minute short deals with a man who lives alone and learns he has only six days to live. ("That was very precise," he tells the doctor who gives him the diagnosis.) It's a black comedy about the relationship between a stubborn, cranky man obsessed with killing seagulls, and the wide-eyed young woman who's sent by a local charity to help him in his final days; along the way, it also turns into a tale of the man's quest to contact his brother, who lives in America, by unconventional means.
The film isn't as affecting as "The Shore," but it may have the category's best combination of humor, heart and heft.
Overview: I suspect that "Pentecost" and "Time Freak" may not feel substantial enough to voters, leaving the category a showdown between the three longer entries. Of those, "Tuba Atlantic" seems like the likeliest winner at the moment, though I certainly wouldn't rule out "The Shore."