10 Short Films You Should Watch Right Now
The rise of new technologies and the proliferation of digital media has caused us to rethink traditional ideas of production and reception. Filmmakers, for the most part, must make films that can play well not only in theaters, but on laptops, iPads, and smartphones. Distributors and exhibitors must figure out how to make a profit on films that will mostly be circulated on the web. Audiences, as well, have to learn how to access this content and also how to watch it without being distracted and ruining the so-called cinematic experience.
In film studies, there are essentially two sides of the digital media debate. One side laments the death of traditional cinema and views digital technology as the cause of its destruction, while the other side remains hopeful that the latest technologies and emerging medias will open up something amazing that we, at the moment, are unable to fully anticipate. The former predicts the apocalypse while the latter braces for a revolution that digital enthusiasts often equate with the second coming. The problem with such polemics, however, is that both sides fail to offer an accurate and balanced account of digital media. It is possible to imagine, for instance, that digital media will not destroy cinema, but will instead transform it just as the coming of sound did in the 1920s.
Digital media is too broad and complex to be just one thing. It is foolish to take a complicated, global concept like digital media and claim that it is either good or bad. As I will show, a prime example of digital media’s complexity is the short film.
The short film is an interesting phenomenon for a number of reasons. On the one hand, it is often overlooked in film criticism, as most writers devote their careers to feature length films and directors, and most film studies programs tend to offer courses on the films of Alfred Hitchcock as opposed to the films of Stan Brackhage. On the other hand, the short film has become chiefly affected by digital media, and the new technologies have given us more accessibility to short films than ever before.
Understanding genre as Jim Collins, Rick Altman, Steve Neale, Richard Maltby and Christine Gledhill have done, as a historical practice and process in which text and aesthetics intersect with industry, society, and culture, it is both appropriate and difficult to conceptualize the short film as a genre. It is appropriate because the short film in many ways is a genre of filmmaking, in which films must adhere to a certain running length to be considered short, but it is difficult because there is no definitive way to say exactly how long a short film should or shouldn’t be, and also because a genre approach can, on occasion, impose boundaries, as if to say this film is a short but that film is not.
On a basic level, it is fair to claim that Gone with the Wind (1939) is a feature length film because it runs over three hours, and that Charlotte et son Jules (1960) is a short film because it runs under 20 minutes. It might also be appropriate to assume that Charlotte et son Jules is a short film because it is a constructed work of visual art, but so is La Jetée (1062), and since the former is constructed with moving images and the latter is constructed with still photographs that are edited together, it becomes increasingly more difficult to say exactly what a short film can and cannot be. Similarly, when we understand that film is not solely narrative, we must consider other works. What about commercials? Music videos? I don’t intend to make such distinctions and impose such boundaries with this list.
If it is difficult to classify exactly what a short film can be, it is even more difficult to do so in the digital age. Are web videos on FunnyorDie.com, for example, short films, even if they are originally released on the internet? What about Superbowl advertisements that used to premiere on television but now premiere on the web before the big event? The point I am trying to make is quite simply that we cannot make such classifications. The short film exemplifies the difficulty of film criticism in general, and one of the main reasons why it is seldom discussed is precisely because critics don’t know to approach it.
My attempt with this list is to highlight ten short films that have only two things in common: they are short in running time and they are works of visual images that move, even if, as Le Jetée reminds us, they are not moving images per se, but instead still photographs that are edited together in a kinetic manner. Some may debate this approach because, for example, I include music videos, but if digital media has taught us anything, it is that the medium-based distinctions between film, television, and the web have become increasingly blurred, and, as a result, generic boundaries are more difficult to make. So, I ask, why make them?
Linda Williams recently touched upon this in her speech at the SCMS 2013 conference, and she makes two points that I will highlight here. The first is the way digital media has changed reception practices. As Williams notes, it used to be more difficult to watch films because one would have to find them, but the advent of the internet and digital archives makes it easier to access lesser-known titles, including but not limited to short films. In addition, she asks us to question the thing that seems most obvious to us, and for me, it is always the boundaries we impose with our generic classifications, especially in the digital age.
Ultimately, if digital media serves as an open platform for artistic expression, in which anyone with internet connection can distribute their work to a mass audience, then we must open up and expand our generic classifications to make room for the many different types of films to which we now have access in today’s convergence culture. We must realize that the short film encompasses not only the narrative film from Jean-Luc Godard, but also the web video from the college student, the music video from the emerging rapper, the visual sketch from the aspiring comic, and the mash-up trailer from the cinephile.
Thus, the best we can do is say that the short film is not a genre of narrative, thematic, or aesthetic distinctions. Short films can be horror, comedy, mystery, thriller, western, just as they can be music videos, animations, avant-garde experiments, infomercials, documentaries, narratives, advertisements, and sketches. Moreover, the short film can be shot on celluloid or video, can be circulated in theaters, on television, or the internet, and can be viewed on any screen size in any location by any person. Therefore, the short film should be comprehended as a genre of filmmaking, which means that any work of the moving image that runs under 60 minutes (a suggestive cut off, though certainly not set in stone) and is not the product of a larger project can be considered a short film. This leaves out literary short stories, feature length films longer than 60 minutes, television series, web series, miniseries and video games. Any other filmed collection of images in visual motion should be considered a short film and should be worthy of our attention.
With that, the list:
10. The Lincoln Division (2012)
Bowie Alexander’s short is relatively unknown, but it highlights exactly how far the genre can go. It originally premiered in 2012 at a university short film festival, and since then, it has received hundreds of views on the internet by anonymous digital users. This is significant, because the film arguably wouldn’t be known without the internet. The internet allows more people to see it than those who attended the film festival, which opens up the possibility of more exposure. The Lincoln Division is a mock documentary in the vein of District 9 (2009) with battle sequences that are reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan (1998), albeit on a smaller scale. Add to the mix a clever metaphor of the afterlife and you get one of the most creative short films in recent years. Overall, the small budget does not detract from the film’s technical, structural, and thematic achievements.
9. Bjork, “Crystalline” (2011)
Some might argue that the music video isn’t as relevant as it once was, given that MTV turned to reality programming, but I don’t think it is that simple. Music videos still exist, and many of them are as artistic and well-crafted as they’ve always been. What has changed, however, is the format on which a music video can be viewed. Now, it seems that most music videos are released strictly to the internet. A case in point is Bjork’s music video to “Crystalline,” her 2011 single, directed by Michel Gondry. The video is a weird, wonderful blend of computer generated imagery and stop-motion animation. I believe that the video illustrates certain aesthetic achievements that would not be possible without digital technology, and as a result, it shows us the many ways filmmakers can innovate within the short film genre.
8. The Lunch Date (1989)
The Lunch Date is a more traditional example of a short film, and if you’ve taken a film course in college, chances are that you’ve watched this one. It is for good reason one of the standards of the genre. The film tackles issues of race and judgement and it would be a shame to spoil the premise for those who are unfamiliar. The filmmaker Adam Davidson relies on the classic twist that is featured in so many short films to provide the audience (and main character) with what James Joyce calls an epiphany, and what Oprah Winfrey calls an aha-moment. Whatever term you use, you won’t be disappointed by the film’s conclusion and the way it alters our perception of what we just watched.
7. Louis CK learns about the Catholic Church (2007)
Louis CK quietly uploaded this video onto his Youtube channel in 2007, and it is one of his funniest and smartest moments of comedy. Let’s be honest: this is not safe for work, and it is made with the sole purpose to offend, but if you can approach it with an open mind, you might see the twisted genius that I did. The film, like The Lincoln Division, is a mock documentary in which Louis CK learns about the Catholic Church, and the revelations are nothing short of repulsive, disgusting, and hilarious. A video like this is only possible within the realm of digital media. It is too inappropriate for television and too short for the cinema, which makes the internet the home for many short films that dare to be edgy and controversial.
6. Long Branch (2011)
Long Branch has been making its way around the festivals since 2011, but its circulation through digital media has given it a reputation of one of the best short films in years. Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart’s film is funny and touching, with a concept that is clever in its simplicity and relatable in its honesty. It follows two twenty-somethings who prepare to embark on a one night stand, but public transportation prolongs their sexual encounter and forces them to converse and get to know one another while they wait. While most films cut from the moment when a couple meets in a bar to the moment when they are in bed together, this film shows us what really happens in between, and how those long, anxious moments of waiting can ruin the sexual tension, only to give rise to something more meaningful.
5. Un Chien Andalou (1928)
This classic surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí inspired what many scholars today call the avant-garde movement. The film disregards narrative continuity for dream logic, and it is a visual exploration of Freudian free association. Un Chien Andalou makes little logical sense, but that is the point, as many of the images are supposed to represent the subconscious. It is worth seeing for its bold, striking images, including the infamous slit eyeball, and also to capture a sense of an important art movement that inspired the likes of Maya Deren, David Lynch, and Alain Resnais, to name a few.
4. Consent (2004)
Like other established filmmakers, Jason Reitman began his career making short films. His best is Consent, a satirical portrait of sexual negotiation between teenagers. The concept of the film, which I will not spoil, is ingenious, and it is one of those simple yet perfect ideas that surprisingly hadn’t been thought of before. It is also interesting to watch the film and see the ways in which Reitman would incorporate aspects of it into his later projects. The satire is reminiscent of Thank You For Smoking while the droll, observant humor mirrors Juno (2007) and Young Adult (2011). Consent shows us that the short film is often a concept-driven genre in which artists have more room to experiment.
3. Between Bears (2010)
This experimental animation by Eran Hilleli is a perfect harmony of visuals and acoustics. The narrative may not make sense, but like all great art, Between Bears makes us feel and forces us to think. It requires us to contemplate the images and the melancholy mood they evoke, and it has a long-lasting impression that gradually increases to the point where we cannot shake what we have seen. One of the great surprises of the film is that its director is a student. Like The Lincoln Division, Between Bears is professionally made, and it bridges the gap between novice and expert. It may be true that digital media has exposed us to more mediocre films than before, but it is also true that it gives us access to great works of art like Between Bars.
2. Neighbours (1952)
If Between Bears shows us the innovations that can be achieved with digital technology, Neighbours demonstrates the creative ways photochemical film can be manipulated for artistic results. Normal McLaren’s Neighbours utilizes a technique known as pixilation, which uses live actors as stop-motion objects, in order to convey its strange visual atmosphere. In addition, McLaren scratched on the film to create its weird soundtrack. The result is an odd, playful film that challenges our conventions of what film is and allows us to rethink what film has the potential to be.
1. The Fatal Sneeze (1907)
Although most of the films on my list are relatively recent, The Fatal Sneeze deserves the number one spot for being so innovative at a time when cinema was in its early stages and the latest technology was the camera apparatus itself. As Tom Gunning argues in his work on the cinema of attractions, early silents are not that different from today’s 3-D blockbusters, in the sense that both emphasize visual attraction and spectacle over narrative. Lewin Fitzhamon’s film incorporates the attraction into the narrative, like most blockbuster films today, but the reason why we love it is because of the virtuosity of the spectacle. How does the filmmaker pull this off and make it look so believable? It is even more amazing to know that Fitzhamon couldn’t work with computer generated imagery or other digital effects, and instead had to rely on real life magic tricks to project the illusion of cinema onto an audience.
Whether it is a silent film from 1907 or a music video from 2011, the short film can be one of cinema’s most innovative and artistic genres of filmmaking. My list hopes to highlight some of the artistic achievements within the short film genre over the years, with a particular emphasis on those films that defy conventions and challenge expectations. When a generic approach imposes boundaries and focuses on what to leave in and what to leave out, then we begin to ignore the many diverse works of art that are possible simply because they don’t adhere to our preconceived notions of genre. By expanding the short film to any work of visual art within the medium of the moving image that has a running time of under 60 minutes, my goal is to include works that might otherwise be forgotten because they are disregarded as the other. Fortunately for us, the digital media has the potential to immortalize these works for future generations to see.
What do you think? Leave a comment.