I recently watched approximately 1000 short films in the space of two months while working at a film festival, an experience I will write a proper blogpost about another time. As a result, I feel well-placed to assemble a list of some of my favourite weird, wonderful, and wild shorts from the past few years that I’d recommend to anyone looking for some entertainment, provocation, or inspiration. There’s a fair amount of disturbing or explicit content, which I’ve marked as mature, so maybe skip watching those ones at work. Just a warning.
This list is in no particular order so feel free to dip in and out as you wish.
1. And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool (Makoto Nagahisa, 2016)
“One summer day, 400 goldfish were found in the swimming pool of a secondary school. This is a story about the four 15-year-old girls who put them there.”
Set in sleepy Sayama, a much-neglected town in Saitama prefecture, this film based on a true story effectively captures the mundanity of suburban life, oftentimes using wide framing to show off the dull landscape or the decidedly un-trendy local stores and attractions. Its at-times jaundiced colour scheme manifests the paradoxical discomfort of suburban comfort – we begin to feel the girls’ sickness and frustration, their utter boredom and lack of escape. The film also explicitly addresses contemporary Japanese societal issues, particularly female agency (or lack thereof) and the general doom in store for millennials becoming adults in a world where the money has run out, and is the perfect film for 2017.
2. Mouse (Celine Held and Logan George, 2017) – MATURE
“Fueled by coke, a desperate couple attempts to capitalize on an unlikely opportunity.”
This film is simultaneously a hilarious sendup of US litigation culture, and a sympathetic look at the desperation of poverty and addiction. Once again, the golden color grade evokes not the warmth of the sun but the stuffy heat of enclosed spaces, poor hygiene, and despair. This film is utterly grotesque (we are simultaneously repulsed by and sympathetic towards the characters’ actions) so be warned, but I strongly believe Mouse proves it is possible to construct characters who, despite being trapped in a terrible situation, display agency through their ability to make choices with real consequences.
3. Throw Me to the Dogs (Aaron Dunleavy and Joseph Ollman, 2016) – MATURE
“A troubled teenage boy growing up in a dreamless urban wilderness is stripped of his dignity as his father abandons him for the very outside world he is trying to hide from.”
Shot in a Bazinian deep focus, this film invites the viewer to inspect every corner of the frame. Gritty handheld camerawork, non-actors cast off the street, and crowdfunded, this film is democratic in production, form, and release, its stylistic choices motivated by a tradition of realist and neorealist cinema.
4. Lucia, Before and After (Anu Valia, 2017)
Part of Refinery29’s ‘Shatterbox Anthology’, an online platform founded to give female filmmakers a voice and make up the huge gender disparity in director demographics, Lucia, Before and After follows its titular protagonist over the mandatory 24 hours before she can receive her abortion in Texas.
Form becomes content once again, as the filmmakers use framing to convey Lucia’s alienation and trauma. Her body is dissected through a series of contextless closeups stripping her of her agency as a whole, as a human, and rendering her a disconnected jumble of body parts as she is denied the right to have an abortion on her own terms when she wants it. This often unconventional framing leaves important parts of the action off-screen, adding to this feeling of discomfort as the audience has to work hard to gain understanding and control over the onscreen images.
If we are to believe the post-structuralist theory that the viewer is an author of meaning themselves, the audience’s occasional struggle to interpret some of these images parallels Lucia’s inability to gain control over the terms of her abortion and her body itself. To underline this further, Lucia is often juxtaposed with shots of dancers. Dance has been often described as one of the purest expressions of agency as it revolves around bodily control, something Lucia is not afforded by oppressive regulations. Overall, confident storytelling with a strong social message.
5. Martin & Lynne (Patrick Chamberlain, 2013) – MATURE
A silent short about a sinister couple.
One of the creepiest shorts I’ve seen in recent years. Fantastically cast (just one look is all we need to know everything about these characters), great low-contrast cinematography, well-paced; the trashy aesthetic works perfectly here to convey a message of grotesque indulgence and corruption.
The aesthetic could hark back to Dogme in the way the filmic image itself conveys and becomes a site of trauma, the low-fidelity image falling apart and rendered devoid of beauty in a way that reflects back the characters’ lives. Alternatively it could be read as a resistance piece to the bourgeois tyranny of ‘good taste’, allowing it to metamorphose into a film that explores class tensions and the hegemony of white middle-class values.
6. Next Floor (Denis Villeneuve, 2008)
“During an opulent banquet, eleven pampered guests participate in what appears to be a ritualistic gastronomic carnage. In this grotesque universe, an unexpected sequence of events destabilizes the endless symphony of abundance.”
Directed by French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 amongst others) this short immerses us totally in a world of abject, bourgeois excess. The spoilable food poses a constant contamination threat, particularly when dusted with fragments and floor and ceiling each time the floor gives way under their weight, leaving us with a feeling of discomfort underlined by jarring and repulsive sound design.
Indeed, the constantly collapsing floor can be read as a metaphor for the way (Western) society has for the past few years effectively been on an economic elevator to hell, under the force and weight of the gluttonous one percent who continue to feast on, even as the world falls to pieces around them. Surreal, bizarre, and grotesque, this short is definitely worth a watch.
7. Cruising Electric (1980) (Brumby Boylston, 2014)
“The marketing department green-lights a red-light tie-in. Sixty lost seconds of modern movie merchandising.”
A great parody of William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), Cruising Electric also stands on its own as an example of films that can disrupt the order of traditional narrative structure whilst remaining entertaining, building on a nostalgia for questionable cinema and 20th century toys.
Much like the previous two films in this list, it doesn’t strictly follow a traditional narrative, but this one goes further, being an ad for a fictional product. Cruising Electric screened at Sundance before becoming a Vimeo Staff Pick, and is an excellent deconstruction of a controversial film, showing that the short form is perfect for weirder fare like this to find an audience.
8. Spider (Nash Edgerton, 2007) – MATURE
“Jack and Jill are always hurting each other’s feelings. But like Mum said, ‘It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.'”
From Joel Edgerton’s brother, Nash, this film takes a lot of tropes, and subverts them. Utterly irreverent, a film about a character who takes things too far – does it take things too far itself? The jokes are built on cruelty, and it certainly can’t be said that it has much emotional depth.
9. Nothing Ever Really Ends (Jakob Rørvik, 2017) – MATURE
Every New Year’s Eve, Ebba and Marius resolve to break up. Every year, they fail.
There is something about middle-class European couples being utterly horrible to each other that I really enjoy. Schadenfreude I guess. This one has a slightly long runtime but you don’t feel it. With a somewhat non-linear structure, past and present collide as the characters’ mental barriers between anxiety, love, hatred, and self-loathing collapse, before order is once again restored as the cycle starts again.
The film’s visual polish mirrors the middle-class comfort that the characters enjoy, in which their biggest worry is breaking up for no real reason other than their own comfort and boredom.The single-location setting of the film is a smart filmmaking move to save budget, but also points at Marius and Ebba’s myopic self-centeredness. Juxtaposed with images of them from happier days (filmed notably everywhere OTHER than their apartment) it grounds the reality that the scope of their world, and their issues, does not extend beyond their very local environment.
10. Five by Five (Kate Herron, 2017)
“In a city of millions, teenager Ash is lost. He wants to be the big man, but reality doesn’t quite deliver. A chance encounter leads him to make a dangerous decision, starting a chain reaction that plays out across these five connected short films.”
This film captures perfectly the diversity of London life, and shows both the good and bad of working-class life, where most films only show the bad. It does a lot to challenge perceptions of minority groups, building layered, three-dimensional characters who are given opportunities to express their emotionality and the pressures they face. Eschewing the standard formal choices employed by filmmakers making “urban” stories (super grainy, low contrast, low saturation, shaky images) Five by Five instead shoots its heroes as, well, heroes, with agency. Sure, it’s not vibrant like, say, something lensed by Benoit Debie, but there’s a certain aesthetic beauty to the images, which mixed with humour and emotion makes for conscious, positive storytelling.
Technically Five by Five is an anthology of five shorts, with stories that cross over through chance encounters between characters. Each segment is written by a new and diverse writer, produced by Idris Elba, and directed by Kate Herron, proving BBC Three’s movement to an online-only platform is allowing it to bring a far broader range of content forms to audiences.
I think the takeaway for filmmakers is how tonally specific each of these shorts is. A world is set up with a clear and unique voice/vision and maintained throughout. Let me know your thoughts on Twitter.