Short Films

Project Skyborn

Why Watch? We’ve all been there. You wake up in a snow-covered, Earth-like alien world with a loaded science gun and a limited amount of oxygen. It seems dire, but fortunately there’s someone hunting you. Maybe it’s the Herrmannesque score or the near-constant heavy breathing, but this short from Marko Slavnic is a muscle tenser. It’s a snare drum exercise in atmospheric worry that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but still adds a new tire to it.

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Most Shocking Second a Day Video

Why Watch? This awareness ad from Save the Children has been making the rounds, and rightfully so. It’s a stellar, concise flash of storytelling that shows a year in the life of a young girl as it’s ripped out of normalcy. It’s also amazing for subverting the empty-headed second-a-day video meme that typically does nothing except for profoundly showing that time moves forward along with hairstyle changes. Right down to the title (Most Shocking Second a Day Video), it uses the language of viral content to hook an audience that then receives a deeper message.

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Miraculous-Tales

The 2014 True/False Film Fest has come and gone, like a strange and wonderful whirlwind. Every film festival wants to be a physical incarnation of the love of cinema, but a lot of them wind up taken over by the business end of things. This four-day Columbia, Missouri, party for docs and doc-lovers is the real deal. The programming is creative and eccentric and so are the audiences and volunteers, among the most refreshingly enthusiastic people I have ever encountered in a movie theater. It really is a unique and shining spot on the American movie calendar. But enough about True/False on the whole. I saw a whole bunch of really interesting, unexpected films over the course of my long weekend in Columbia. Many of them took the name of the festival to heart, blurring the line between narrative and documentary. All of them contributed to the growing notion that nonfiction cinema is an equal form of artistic expression to more traditionally art-house fiction filmmaking. Here are my eight favorites: READ MORE AT NONFICS

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Life After Pi Short Film

Why Watch? As movies become more and more reliant on visual effects, the cracks of a problematic industry model have started to tear the fabric of how CGI artists can continue to do what they do best. If you kept an eye on the Oscar protest yesterday, or remember Rhythm & Hues winning last year for Life of Pi a week-and-a-half after going bankrupt, you know how dire the situation is. With a full, fascinating picture (and some magical CGI transformations), Life After Pi offers the fundamental problems in a startling fashion. It’s a matter of passionate people being asked to do impossible things. And yet, think of what might happen if VFX workers were united in a refusal to work. To take back the power calculated directly from the major studios’ reliance. If you can’t make billions without the team that creates your cape/tiger/talking raccoon/disaster sequence, shouldn’t that team be worth more? Shouldn’t their workers be treated fairly, not have to live out of hotels, and not be forced to work 100-hour weeks? If altering your production means adding more construction money and acting fees, shouldn’t it mean adding to your VFX budget? It’s one-sided, certainly, but Life After Pi is a vital half-hour for all movie fans to watch.

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Jackpot Short Film

Why Watch? Jack Hoffman desperately wants to jack his hoffman, but it isn’t all that easy. He’s resigned himself to department store catalog models — guys in tight sweaters, guys in genuine Jockeys — because 1) he’s 14 and 2) it’s 1994 and the internet isn’t in every household yet. Tough break being born in 1980. When he hears about a stash of porn mags on the other side of town, he risks being caught by a trio of bullies to secure the necessary visual aids. Funny thing is, his imagination seems to already be pretty strong. Adam Baran’s Jackpot is simple and sweet. It stops just short of being schmaltzy due to a genuinely likable hero in Ethan Navarro’s Jack, and a comic relief porn-star-of-many-wardrobe-changes played by Adam Fleming. Plus, as bully-dodging stories go, this one feels a bit more honest when it comes to danger, consequences and the anticipated payoff. It’s a warm look at the complicated problem of learning about your own sexuality — which probably felt world-collapsingly insurmountable when we were all that age — that’s pulled off with a large heart and a rebellious attitude.

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Play Time Short Film

Why Watch? The upstanding, not at all imbalanced folks at Bloody Cuts recently held a short film competition that revolved around the theme “Who’s There?”. There was a sickening amount of fantastic entries, but this one from Ryan Thompson was chosen by a panel of experts (including me, Joe Dante, Gale Anne Hurd, Drew Daywalt, Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan and more). Play Time is pure atmosphere. It’s an excellent example of production design and editing meant specifically to unnerve and disarm. The plot is merely a scare delivery device: there’s a ruckus downstairs, so a young woman goes to investigate. Although, if you want to think deeply enough, the creature imagery could be psychologically appropriate for a lone woman in a big house. Probably best to watch this after you’ve brushed your teeth and put on your pajamas.

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Rachel Brosnahan in Basically

Why Watch? Early on in this short film from Ari Aster, the young actress played by Rachel Brosnahan warns us to keep an open mind about her. The red flag proves to be half useful as she pontificates at great length about her vapid little life while surrounded by the wealth of its trappings. Here she is by the pool, here she is dancing in the house’s party room, here she is wearing a fifth designer outfit. Fortunately, as she reveals more of herself, the layers peel back to show she’s human after all — flawed in more ways than the obvious. This short works because the patience of the writing allows for a fuller figure to emerge, and because Brosnahan (House of Cards) is able to maintain attention long enough for an interesting reality to break through the beautiful spell. She magnetizes here with sneering pleasantness. Plus, the style of detachment from excess makes everything feel like a confession just before escape. The actress speaks directly to us, half-in and half-out of her world like a fourth wall was never built for this story. Aster uses that disengagement to place Brosnahan’s character into ironically funny situations like speaking blithely about dating while receiving oral on the beach or blowing smoke out a window as the maid cleans. Things move around and engage with her, but she’s still in her own world, and we (like the invisible journalist) are lucky to see it.

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I

Why Watch? Opening with a great sense of dark comedy, this short film from Ben Berman carries that wry sensibility on its shoulder even during the mournful moments. I’m a Mitzvah is a road trip for one — all the frustration of trying to get home from an unfamiliar place is on tap with the added bonus of a dead body in tow. The story focuses on a young man (Ben Schwartz) who is chaperoning his friend’s dead body from Mexico back the U.S. when there’s a flight cancellation. So how many things are there to do in Mexico when you’re dead? There’s a lot to love here, particularly the desert-dry comedy in which one man beyond the sight of other friends and relatives deals with what remains of his friend. But beyond an Overnight At Bernie’s, the short casually plays out like almost any travelogue might — instead of two friends dealing with their issues and joys, one of them is silent and undefined. Fortunately, Berman and his team have found a lot of small, hilarious (terribly, terribly sad) moments in the midnight hours.

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After Thought Short Film

Why Watch? Let’s say you get a notice in the mail this afternoon requesting payment from a funeral home whose recently hosted a somber event with your name on the casket. Let’s also say that when you try to clear it up with them, things get a little Kafkaesque. That’s a surface-level start to this quiet short film from Val Keller that explores, at its root, a standard sci-fi trope with the promise of something more steely in its angle. Shot with a quirky unease that’s like a sedated Brazil, it’s a slick, complete package that also feels like the first chapter in an ongoing series. A fun diversion that tilts its head at an existential question.

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Michael Keaton Monk

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.  Whatever your feelings are about the new RoboCop remake, there’s no denying that it’s great to see Michael Keaton up on the big screen again with such a prominent role. The actor hasn’t been in a lot of movies over the past decade, and in those he has done he’s mostly played some young starlet’s father. Or he’s merely provided his voice for a few minor Pixar characters. And now in 2014 alone we get to see him stand out in three movies, including RoboCop, next month’s Need for Speed and, best of all, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, in which he’ll star, reflexively, as a washed-up actor best known for having portrayed a superhero in the movies. If we’re lucky, next in line for Keaton is a return to another one of his most famous characters: Beetlejuice. Imagine if he’d not stuck with Hollywood long enough to work with Tim Burton and deliver his two most iconic performances? He also wouldn’t have gone on to notably play the same FBI character in two unrelated movies (Jackie Brown and Out of Sight), but then again he wouldn’t have done Jack Frost and Multiplicity either — not that he’s not great in the latter, only that he’s too good for how bad it is overall. If Keaton had left acting in 1985, we would still have his hilarious work […]

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Elko Short Film

Why Watch? Most of the time, movies with great concepts pull their punches as if knocking out their audience would be one step too far. Elko takes that step. The short film from writer/director Alexander Yan features a boy responding to a young woman’s internet post requesting to be killed, achieving an uncomfortable intimacy as they spend time together in silence leading up to the act. Populated by the kinds of activities that should be engaging and connect two people, there’s always a sense of alienation present — some kind of connection to the digital world even as they’re surrounded by the wide open rural spaces of Nevada. That it tells its story without exposition, ceremony or exclamation magnifies the unease, and the blend of true film shots with grainy iPhone camera captures means we’re never allowed to settle in comfortably. Plus, the young man (Michael Desjardin) is effectively Hannibal Lecter with a fake I.D. Clearly, deeply disturbed, he’s a chain-smoking bomb that doesn’t tick, and the young woman (Annalee Scott) plays the willing toy with a confident question mark on her face. And that’s key – Elko seems disinterested in answers, but it’s amazingly powerful in producing questions. As Yan says on his Vimeo post, Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Wolf of Valentines Day

Why Watch? Swelling music, moony-eyed lovers kissing as waves crash and uncontrollable sobbing may not be your style on Valentine’s Day. In fact, it’s hard to see that style being truly popular anymore. We seem to like thing a little more ironic now, and Lana McKissack is happy to oblige with a giant set of teeth and an ugly wig. This parody from director Nathan Moore mashes up The Wolf of Wall Street with the cutthroat world of stale chocolates to deliver a send up of the holiday that rivals last year’s Zero Dark Thirty romantic interrogation. It’s fun, breezy and hits all the right marks. Plus, you can catch a glimpse of FSR’s Broken Projector co-host and Going The Distance screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe ineptly trying to sell people romance.

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The Hunt Short Film

Why Watch? In this short film from director Spencer Estabrooks and writer Greg Jeffs, a son reluctant to make a kill goes hunting with an aggro-dad trying to turn his boy into a man. The thick fog of their strained relationship gets a genre twist, but the heart of the story is still a question of what line you must cross while coming-of-age and what manner in which you’ll cross it. The amateur markings are shown here around the edges — particularly with some overacting — but it’s a quick tale acting as a signpost of real potential. Rubber suit style aside, there are some simple, effective practicals here, and it’s encouraging to see a bit of worldview drama injected into what might have been a mindless creature feature. Looking forward to what this team does next.

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State of the Union Short Film

Why Watch? Pushing all the genre buttons at once, this short film from Bruce Branit is really the first chapter in a series he wants to get off the ground, and if the rest of it follows with this much intensity, I hope he gets all the rocket fuel he can handle. This is another outstanding example of what can be achieved on a low-budget level if you have the VFX and editing knowledge to bring your own CGI to the table. And then blow up that table. Admittedly the high concept and the revelations here have been done dozens of time before, but the first image being thrown from a smart phone into our faces is a nice indication of what this short values: adrenaline and immediacy. The technical skill here is so high (no surprise there considering the source), and the visual winks are so interesting (particularly the reveal of a particular landmark), that I’m cutting off circulation crossing my fingers that Branit can push beyond the cliches of the concept (or has another writer waiting to take the baton). There’s so much beauty to celebrate; it would be a shame to waste it on a decaying, familiar skeleton.

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LOT254 Short Film

Why Watch? Killer sharks, haunted houses and antique auctions. The classic triumvirate of horror stories. Maybe that last one sticks out like a bleeding thumb, but this short from Toby Meakins is a good argument for its inclusion on our list of fears. In it, a collector starts tinkering with a forgotten camera and finds something delightfully pants-wetting inside. Brief but bursting with atmosphere (built both by an eerie score and the constant clock-reminiscent click of a film reel), LOT254 is a “punchline” style horror short that angles up toward a beautiful jump scare without relying on it. Everything snaps into place here — from design to photography to acting — to create a fun nerve-tester that feels like it could be the pre-credit sequence for something much bigger.

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Gertie_with_cartoon_McCay

Today, February 8th, is the 100th birthday of the world’s oldest living dinosaur. Gertie, a charming and playful brontosaurus, was created by pioneering American animator Winsor McCay back in 1914. She dances, she does tricks and she has an enormous appetite. And, given that she’s a cartoon, she’s got a much better chance of survival than the rest of her species, buried forever under Alberta or somewhere similar. February 8th is actually the anniversary of the first time McCay and Gertie “performed” together. The original Gertie the Dinosaur cartoon was part of the animator and cartoonist’s vaudeville act. He would stand next to the screen and command Gertie to perform tricks for the audience, perfectly timed to his short film. Unsurprisingly, this was incredibly popular and McCay’s vaudeville performances began to occupy so much of his time that he began to slouch on his print work for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. When the tycoon cracked down on McCay’s distracted schedule, the animator decided to turn the original Gertie animations into a longer, theatrically released short. He stuck a live action framing device around Gertie’s tricks, in which he and some friends visit the Museum of Natural History in New York and he makes a bet that he can take the skeleton of a brontosaurus and bring it back to life.

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Project Arbiter

Why Watch? When you’re surrounded by a dozen Nazis with a couple of tanks, it helps if you’re wearing a suit that makes you invisible. In this Iron Man-evoking short from Michael Chance, a small crew takes on a suicide task of infiltrating a WWII villa where the Germans are doing some world-changing experiments. It’s a tight men-on-a-mission story with some excellent action (and acting that isn’t too distracting), but it shines for its pro-level cinematography and special effects that bring a steampunk hero drenched in sepia wash into a realistic world. The grisly, flesh-eating make-up effects don’t hurt either. It’s a fun alternative history vaunted by stirring visuals, keen designs and an appropriately rousing score.

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43000 Feet Short Film

Why Watch? If you found yourself falling from 8 miles above the ground, what would you do? This clever short from Campbell Hooper is a sharp primer on survival (if you don’t take it too seriously). Bursting with a style that echoes a calmer version of Fight Club, 43,000 Feet is a mash of everyday images and intriguing concepts that winks through high winds along with its monologue. Hypnotic as a TED talk, it manages some genuine head-tilters even as it scoffs at deepthink.

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The First Wave Short Film

Why Watch? First “The Infected,” now “The Cured.” Almost all zombie movies feel like a first act, which is probably why several have found success as franchises with multiple entries, but even then the story typically devolves into military madness and a society on the outs. This short from David Freyne imagines something very different: what if we defeated zombies with a vaccine, but those who return to the land of living still remember chewing into their neighbors’ cheeks? Launching from a compelling concept (that’s totally plausible) The First Wave is a contemplative story told through flashbacks and a nagging question from a doctor. But it’s not all floating, ethereal angst. The opening frames are a slap to the face, and creative framing (and a score that echoes a deep sense of loss) should keep your eyes wide open. It’s not a talky examination of an existential crisis. Instead, it offers enough of one former zombie’s story to allow the air in the conversation necessary for the original question to make its way back to the viewer. What happens when, through no fault of your own, you become a monster made of violence and regret? What if the thing you ran screaming from calmly moved in again next door?

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Nightmare on the Rozengracht

Why Watch? Experimental? Probably. Non-narrative to be sure, this mesmerizing work from Daniel Hillel-Tuch features a pair of ballet dancers stuck on a destructive loop while a young boy looks on with wide eyes and a dropped jaw. The commentary on cinema is obvious from frame one, and it only intensifies as beautiful flashes of genre staples dominate the screen — the bloody bucket of a torturous horror flick, the dangling pay phone bathed in noirish streetlamp light. It’s not a ground-shiftingly new idea, but it’s executed with great care and gorgeously vivid photography. The film strip feeding back into the projector on its own is a particularly nice touch. Plus, through the fog of all the poetry, it’s easy to imagine ourselves as that young man, eyes forced open Clockwork Orange-style by the beauty and destruction of film. That clear connection (personal as it is) makes Nightmare on the Rozengracht an intriguing success.

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published: 04.19.2014
A-
published: 04.19.2014
B+
published: 04.18.2014
C-
published: 04.18.2014
C

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