Short Films

Straight Down Low Short Film

Why Watch? Almost a decade ago, Rian Johnson turned eyebrows with Brick by passionately sticking to noir conventions while subverting them just enough to breathe fresh life into a musty genre. To be fair to that genre, it’s one that will eternally and repeatedly enjoy new resurgences, potentially along the same tidal lines as the western, and Brick hit just at the right moment with all the right ingredients. This short film from Zach Wechter follows that same formula, and through doing so, reminds us that its the familiarity of the story beats that keeps entries in this seedy world so satisfying. Like Johnson’s film, Straight Down Low (announcing its genre right there in the title) asks a cast of high school students to get to the bottom of a gangland murder, and in not attempting to reinvent the wheel, he instead conducts a master class in cool. Beyond the tropes, Wechter’s movie has a different sheen to it — a modern noir told through clearer lenses and a drug-dealing plot that feels classic without feeling dated. The leading man is handsome and enigmatic (although I don’t totally buy Shamar Sanders as “nerdy”), the femme fatale is beautiful and wily (and I fully buy beautiful and wily from Daniele Watts), the bad men are very bad, and the twisty turns are told through the standard spoken poetry of our hero’s heady contemplation. You may need a stiff drink afterward. Overall, it’s a strong example of knocking one out of the park by nailing the fundamentals, and […]

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Follow Your Fears Short Film

Why Watch? To be honest, there’s a lot of schmaltz going on in this documentary short film from Live Unbound, but sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that dreams can be both big and personal. Sometimes it’s good to remember that, damn it, you can work to achieve your own thrills in life. Follow Your Fears has everything a soft focus inspirational story needs: a crazy person attempting something crazy, a kind message of life’s brief brilliance by a beloved relative, and a money shot that requires a mental crash pad. Brad O’Neal has wanted to launch a motorcycle into the air high enough to base jump from since he was a little kid, and now that he’s a professional Motocross racer, he’s decided he has the skills necessary to make it a reality. To be specific, that means riding a motorcycle off a ramp so high that he can pull a parachute and make it safely back to the ground. Sadly, no one else seems to want to make it a reality, so it takes an education and guts into his own hands to do something that could potentially break most of the important bones in his body (all to the tune of navel-gazing post-rock). Yes, it’s a little bit funny to pump so much grandiosity and poignancy into a 2-second bike stunt, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded that there are wonderful, wacky people out there trying stuff that we shouldn’t attempt at home.

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Chaser Short Film

Why Watch? At the center of this short film from Sal Bardo is a sex scene made uncomfortable to watch not by the presentation of the act, but by the orgy of emotive facial expressions projected by the film’s star Max Rhyser. In Chaser, Rhyser plays Zach, a teacher (with surprisingly empathetically intelligent young students) who is alienated and alienates himself from a conservative family. While his brother and sister-in-law have bought a new house with enough rooms for new humans, Zach views a foundational future as something beyond his reach, and seeks comfort in a barebacking house party that offers easy sex as a temporary fix. “Fix” is a good term for what Zach is chasing — both as a solution and as a high. There is both pleasure and pain in his stripping down in an unfamiliar room and having sex with strangers, but through the act, Zach reveals that he was used up before he ever walked into the party. There are a few hiccups — notably some stagey-feeling acting (that ends up working thematically in the story’s favor) and a few amateur lighting cues — but the overall impact of the short film is potent and aggressive. I especially loved the image of a piece of paper with continuous hollow fun advertised on one side and the chance to escape the cycle on the other.

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Beneath Short Film 2014

Why Watch? At first, this short film from director Frank Maldonado feels like an unauthorized music video, but it quickly coalesces around an enigmatic chase and several shots of self-destructive emotion. Beneath features a young man wallowing in angst and whatever’s handy at the bar, riding the subways of New York City until he spots a thuggish figure in a ripped-up black hoodie who inexplicably starts following him. Boasting that it was shot in a single night throughout Brookyln, Manhattan and Coney Island, the short film feels like it — but only because the story takes place over the span of one night leading into the sunrise. It’s gorgeous, shot with precision that makes great sense of motion (a shot of our hero walking away from us as a train heads speeding toward us is particularly strong) and showcases the loneliness of the young man regardless of whether he’s lost in thought under a shower head or surrounded by the metropolitan crowds. The editing also helps to blur the night together, flashing between moments as a collective instead of a linear series of events, placing us into his troubled headspace. It also works well because it leads in an unexpected direction. In spite of being mostly abstract — and swimming in neon-soaked visual nods to work like Only God Forgives – there’s a significant payoff for wordless curiosity.

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Mr Petrified Forrest

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career. Various things can happen to a famous director’s student films. Mostly they wind up hidden from us, sometimes permanently in the case of something intentionally destroyed, other times simply held from being uploaded to YouTube or another video site. It’s not often that a currently successful filmmaker is proud of his or her schoolwork, no matter how much money, passion and talent he or she put into it. That’s a shame, because a lot of these pre-professional shorts (and occasional features) aren’t that bad. Many have won awards, deservedly so. Others helped the student get a foot in the door, which obviously means there was promise there. In very, very rare circumstances, a student film will get distribution, possibly in an altered form. That was the case for Matt Reeves, director of the new sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as Cloverfield and Let Me In. Reeves attended the University of Southern California, where he made an award-winning short film titled Mr. Petrified Forrest during the 1991-1992 year. Other now-prominent people who worked on it include J.J. Abrams, who co-produced and composed the scored under the name Jeffrey Abrams and also created a plane crash scene (on his parents’ lawn) that looks like a Max Fischer production of the Lost pilot. Regular Abrams collaborators Bryan Burk and Greg Grunberg were also producers, the latter […]

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Time Travel Lover

Why Watch? Let’s say you tell your friend that if you ever love a Michael Bay movie, he should just go ahead and kill you. Then, 10 years later, you rave about Bay’s latest (a heartfelt remake of My Fair Lady), and your pal shows up on your doorstep with a gun. He’d only be doing his duty, right? Even more complicated, in a world where time travel exists, what authority do you have to make decisions that will affect your future self? This excellent short film from director Bo Mirosseni and writer Elisha Yaffe (presented by Partizan Films) toys with the more mundane uses of the profoundly powerful tool, proving that it’ll be the personal things (and probably not assassination attempts on Hitler) that will do the most damage. Time Travel Lover is a hilarious — often dispiriting — exercise in having a plan laid out before you that you never asked to see. In it, a young man (Yaffe) and woman (Stephanie Hunt) are about to make it past third base when a disheveled version of the young man appears to warn him of the heartbreak he’s inviting. Naturally, things aren’t that simple, and the room fills up rather quickly. Somehow, Bruce Willis never pops up with gold bricks taped to his back. More than anything else, this short film lives on the clever shoulders of Yaffe’s script and the chemistry he shares with Hunt. They both own each moment (large and small), and give the premise the exact right amount of incredulity to maintain the […]

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Ignition Short Film

Why Watch? There are few sounds in this world worse to wake up to than the noise of your beloved automobile being stolen. For Jake (Hank Spangler), it’s a fried out Kombi called Betsy, and he’s probably wishing he didn’t sleep in his tighty whities. Or that he didn’t lock himself out of his house. This short film from Dylan Kai Harris is front-loaded with potential — looking like the kind of thing Guy Ritchie and Edgar Wright might make if they had teamed up in college. Ignition takes a high concept script and fills it with colorful figures (none more vibrant than the Naked Cowboy look-a-like at the center of the action) and clever editing that offers a shot glass of gasoline. It’s also a fine example of a movie that’s 90% where it needs to be. A little amateurish acting, some timing issues and an indulgent Tarantino-aping textual trick can all be forgiven because there’s a lot of fun to be had watching a burnout aggressively asking, “dude, where’s my car?”

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Roman Polanski in Two Men and a Wardrobe

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career. Today marks both the U.S. theatrical release of Venus and Fur and the 40th anniversary of the U.S. theatrical release of Chinatown. So, let’s just consider it Roman Polanski day. In honor of the occasion, we should just skip his latest (see our review for why) and hold off on watching his 1974 classic for the billionth time. How many of you have seen his early short films? They’re available in proper form on Criterion’s two-disc DVD set for Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, and they can also be found on YouTube. For the latter, there are no English subtitles, but that only matters for one or two that have very minimal dialogue. For the most part, they’re all really “silent” films. Nine shorts are credited to the actor-turned-director through the start of his academic and professional career in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of these, however, is Rower (aka Bicycle), which was a 1955 student work that went unfinished thanks to an error by the lab. That leaves eight survivors. From 1957 there’s Murder, which is a nice short scene of a man being murdered but there’s no story there, Let’s Break the Ball (aka Break Up the Dance), an exceptional work of editing that’s even more stunning when you learn that it’s partly documentary in that it was shot during an […]

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I Will Never Let You Down Short Film

Why Watch? In the rare example where corporate synergy doesn’t create an awkward, lumbering Franken-short, Diego Luna has managed to craft a short film for Pepsi with soccer and Rita Ora at its core without compromising quality. The result is I Will Never Let You Down (conveniently sharing its title with Ora’s summer hit), a balletic view on elderly people playing the beautiful game. Like the most epic pick-up match on record, Luna makes sweeping use of slow motion and a hazy lens that gives everything a shot of instant sweet memories. It’s the slow motion — particularly making slow-moving people move even slower — that offers a wry touch of brilliance, but it’s the transformation of the players into 78-year-old children that ultimately brings the magic here. There’s also the sprightly, tinkling score and the pleasantly absurd elongation of the ref’s whistle to provide a few smiles. I’m not taking sides or anything, but that bearded keeper has some serious swagger.

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Modern Love Beyond Years Short Film

Why Watch? This is a fantastic short film, and the good news is that it’s only the start of a promising series of documentaries pinging off the New York Times column “Modern Love.” Equally parts heart-warming and -wrenching, every personal tale provides another signal that partnership comes in about a billion different varieties. Beyond Years is no different. In it, a man in his 40s and a woman in her 20s describe their relationship and the event that could have torn them apart. It’s accompanied by an animation style that uses minimalism, a hint of Escher and several gorgeously constructed visual metaphors to enhance each new sentence and situation. Animator Freddy Arenas does wonders with suggestive shapes and a limited palette — a segment using two trees is particularly striking, offering a sorrowful euphemism that holds hands with the narration instead of bludgeoning it with redundancy. As with most minimalism, there’s an everyman quality to it, open spaces where we can easily place ourselves. Even if we haven’t experienced the exact same shoes that these two find themselves in, the core emotions are all there (as well as the core fears), and Arenas’ style complements a story that politely asks for empathy.

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Dont Fear Death Short Film

Why Watch? For many of us, Rik Mayall was Drop Dead Fred — the magic man who brought an eight ball’s worth of energy and mom-defying brilliance to a movie about growing up after you’ve already grown up. Not to sound schmaltzy, but he was an imaginary friend who believed in us. His resume, of course, extends far beyond that 1991 non-fantasy film. It’s dominated by television shows — particularly the public dole celebration of Bottom and his early breakout The Young Ones – and an ever-present sense of smart, cutting edge work. Mayall died today, leaving behind loads of comedic offerings and countless people inspired by what he brought to the creative world.  Name a favorite modern comedian, and they’ve most likely publicly offered their Mayall fandom and remembrances already. He was a titan against the status quo. His last credited work is a short film from Louis Hudson called Don’t Fear Death. It’s a cruelly funny piece of black humor that feels inappropriately appropriate for today. Mayall acts as narrator, explaining all the wonderful things about being dead, from conveniences to existential freedom. Naturally, the short benefits wholly from his unique delivery and the angry joy that pervades the shouting climax of his speech. It’s one last reminder that he will be impossible to replace.

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Why Charlie Brown Why

Youth, love and cancer. That’s a formula of sorts, one that conquered the world back in 1970 with Love Story and has since bounced back and forth between Hollywood and the Lifetime network. The most recent incarnation is The Fault in Our Stars, an adaptation of a Young Adult novel by John Green, starring Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley. It’s getting decent reviews and may very well be a head above the rest of the genre, to the extent that one can use the word “genre” to describe this mini-phenomenon. Yet what I find the most interesting about this particular sort of film is the way it might be seen as something of a psychological education. The fact that The Fault in Our Stars is a YA novel has raised some eyebrows and ruffled some feathers, in particular given the anger evoked by a Slate piece shaming adults for reading the book. While I’d object to the idea that YA books are exclusively for teenagers, I wonder whether we can consider them somehow proscriptive texts. Is The Fault in Our Stars, at least in part, trying to introduce young people to the concept of serious illness? That’s an open question. It’s also a good an excuse as any to look back at a particularly fascinating cartoon. Why, Charlie Brown, Why? is a Peanuts TV special that first aired in the spring of 1990. As you can probably tell from the title, it isn’t exactly the subtlest educational cartoon in television history. Like The Fault in Our Stars it is a […]

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Troops Kevin Rubio Short Film

Why Watch? When we reported that Josh Trank would be directing a standalone Star Wars movie in the expanding universe, we included a found footage comedy short film he’d made which shows why you shouldn’t bring a lightsaber to a house party. Kid don’t play. Thus, it’s only fair that we highlight the ingenious 1997 short film from Kevin Rubio that mashes Cops together with stormtroopers  to fantastic result. As a mockumentary, it doesn’t miss a note. Not only does it include sly nods to the movies, it allows the comedy to breathe on its own by stepping back and letting dramatic situations play out in absurd ways — turning a straightforward script into comic gold by putting it in the mouths of familiar pop culture figures. The funniest part is that you can actually see this being a realistic part of the day-to-day trooper job when Luke, Leia and Han aren’t busting up their business in the name of freedom. Let’s call it believable ridiculousness. When the big adventure leaves the frame, someone has to answer the domestic disturbance calls and issue traffic tickets. The cherry on top is our friendly cop narrator who sounds like he transferred from Fargo PD. Here’s Rubio explaining where the idea first came from along with clearer (yet cropped) footage.

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Nike The Next Level

Why Watch? Wind sprints are tough. That’s why most of us will never play professional soccer. That, and a million other reasons, but it’s mostly the wind sprints. Fortunately, Guy Ritchie has our back just in time for the World Cup. He’s teamed with Nike to create a short film that puts us into the body of a pro footballer in order to experience training hard, earning glory and whining like Meryl Streep explaining her hatred of dingoes when we barely get clipped inside the box. And if you bristle at me calling this advertisement a “short film,” watch it and see why. It’s a gimmick, yes, but it’s a pristine gimmick. This isn’t merely about strapping on a GoPro and letting it do all the work. Ritchie choreographs some beautiful trickery that’s rounded out by sound design that rips through the rock-heavy soundtrack to create a multi-sensory POV experience. It’s a lot like being John Malkovich. If John Malkovich had a wicked penalty kick. It also benefits from editing that lets impressive field sequences play out while maintaining an urgent sense of chaos. Watching this should count as gym time for the day. On that note, I hope you enjoy puking. Or at least watching it from someone else’s POV.

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Sleeping Betty Short Film

The story of Sleeping Beauty is ripe for reinterpretation, if only because of how simple and boring it can be. The title character, after all, is unconscious for the bulk of the narrative. Disney’s newest solution is Maleficent, in which the villain becomes the main character. Whether that was a successful call remains to be seen (our own critic wasn’t so impressed). For my money the best, most inspired feature-length twist on the story is that of Catherine Breillat, who countered the snoozing character’s complete lack of agency by giving her a rich and exciting dream life. The prize for funniest adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, however, goes to the National Film Board of Canada. Claude Cloutier‘s Sleeping Betty is a cartoon short film that takes the strategy of the Shrek series and turns it loose on a vast panoply of familiar images and cultural touchstones. It begins in a crowded room. The queen is distraught, hunched on a chair next to the bed of her dormant daughter. The king is next to the bed, trying to shake the princess out of her slumber. Around them is a strange cast of visitors which includes familiar images of Henry VIII and Queen Victoria, a court jester and a many-eyed extraterrestrial.

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Life of Larry

Why Watch? For his student thesis at RISD, Seth MacFarlane created a cartoon short film featuring a schlubby guy, his sarcastic dog best friend, sweet wife named Lois and their fat son. Naturally, MacFarlane did almost all of the voices. The cartoon was called The Life of Larry, and its status as clear precursor to Family Guy goes far beyond the synopsis. The gags, the patter, the obsession with Star Trek and bizarre political commentary. It’s all here like an unvarnished artifact buried in hand-drawn ground. In a way, it’s like watching old stand-up routines from Jim Carrey in his too-big sport coat, where the jokes and rhythms are still raw, but the DNA for future success is clearly at work. It’s also fascinating to see a creator stick so directly to a project (not to mention a student film) that he’d massage it into a network show 5 years later. There’s a sense that he basically got it right on the first try, inventing what would become a ridiculously popular show the first year he could legally drink.

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Keith and Heath Short Film

Why Watch? Do you have a best friend? Probably not as best as Keith’s best friend Heath and Heath’s best friend Keith. These best friends are the best best friends. They’re also twins, and they’re also puppets. This imaginative short film from Andy Young thrives due to sheer cheekiness, parodic levels of sunshine and a hint of Adult Swim’s DNA. It’s a bowl of sugary children’s cereal spiked with whiskey and set loose on Saturday morning. Jon Cozart voices the titular stars of Keith and Heath, complete with their signature gag and a manic sense of comic joy that infects the entire cast. A wrench gets thrown into the happy story when the brothers face the difficult choice of living apart from one another, but the bulk of the short film doesn’t worry about plot, using it like a rag doll instead of a storytelling tool. Instead, it takes the unflappable smiles of children’s programming and exposes them for the creepy absurdity they truly are. And then things get weird.

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Mis-drop Short Film

Why Watch? Almost the entire runtime of this absolutely fantastic short film from Ferand Peek is dominated by the face of a Private on his first mission to a hostile planet war zone. He’s hazed by the old hats in the battalion, attempts a little ill-advised romance with an officer and does the futuristic sci-fi version of a para jump all while we watch his reactions and a fraction of the action via the glare on his protective gear. Mis-drop is a mastery of not showing instead of telling. The plot is as thick as it needs to be (even bearing the weight of an ounce of character development), and while the story is told through sound design and reaction shots, the visuals are absolutely not surrendered or forgotten about. It’s a generic science fiction warfare world, but it’s fully realized through impressive CGI landscapes and, of course, an unflinching static shot of Elliot Travers, the actor whose face we become intimately acquainted with by the end. He has an unenviable task and does a remarkable job of engaging the audience by engaging with the things we’d normally be seeing. And there’s something refreshing about that concept. So many short films are done purely for vaulting VFX without concern for a story, but Peek has found a clever way to twist that idea while still showcasing strong VFX skills, and more than being an interesting idea, the execution is powerful because we’re staring so stridently into the eyes of a man who […]

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Island Short Film

Cannes is a great place for cartoons. That may sound odd, given the festivals’s reputation as a towering arbiter of high-minded auteurist cinema, but it’s true. The Palme d’Or for short film (which is a thing!) has been given to many, many animated short films over the years. As is also true of the Best Animated Short Film category at the Oscars, Canada’s National Film Board has done quite will for itself. In 1955 the very first official Palme d’Or du Court Métrage went to Norman McLaren for his experimental his experimental Blinkity Blank. That said, the more interesting story is a Cold War one. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries were powerhouses of animation for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The films never quite broke into American awards, but time and again juries at Cannes chose to recognize their brilliance. Russian, Romanian, Polish, Hungarian, and Czechoslovak animators brought home gold from the Croisette. In 1973 Soviet animator Fyodor Khitruk won the Palme d’Or du Court Métrage for Island, a perfect example of the power of a cartoon to break through both censorship and international barriers of understanding. Like most of the award-winning animated shorts to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain it is essentially wordless. Its images are generic and therefore universal. And its message, at least on the surface, is very generically philosophical. Beneath this veneer of comedy and harmless pacifism, however, is a wry critique of the world that includes the Soviet Union.

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6-minute Mom Short Film

Why Watch? In this short film from Chris Shimojima, a young woman (Jenny Murray) meets with the mother who abandoned her (Ginger Grace) when she was a child. As their conversation shifts between niceties, the young woman’s internal monologue gives a convincing speech about why she shouldn’t care about the complete stranger sipping water from a mason jar across from her. The shooting here is simple — mostly done in jarring close-ups and meaningfully off-kilter over the shoulder shots — but the real power comes from the editing. A few moments are left to simmer, others flash by, and the rhythm of it all denies us the solid footing that the main character doesn’t get. Pushing that empathy further, Murray (who was recently highlighted in this short) does a stellar job being the main visual focus and proving that it takes 6 minutes for water to boil. It would be easy to say that she shines most when the fuse hits the dynamite, but it’s actually in the quieter moments when she proves how compelling an internal conflict can be with a biting rage that lives in her nuanced facial tics. Overall, 6-Minute Mom is a harsh exploration of an intensely difficult situation made complicated by denial. It’s a stellar examples of dramatic storytelling that becomes more powerful when not looked at straightforwardly.

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