I wish I could say short films have a bad rep with the general public, but that would imply they have a rep at all. Short films may as well not exist for a lot of people, even people who love movies, and that’s just a shame. The only short films most people I know have seen, if they’ve seen any, are Pixar or Disney shorts, old Looney Tunes one-reelers, or “short films” that are actually just long ads (not to police the boundaries of the medium or whatever). Some of those are good, sure, but if your entire diet of short film is just Disney and ads, like, Jesus, that’s just not good for the soul.
Here’s a selection of great short films from right across the medium’s history. I’ve excluded films that wouldn’t have been considered short when they were made (e.g. A Trip to the Moon) and anything made by Disney or a Disney-owned studio, though I couldn’t resist including a classic Looney Tunes short. Hopefully, this can be a first step into the wider world of short films, but, if not, just these ten are all pretty great.
Cops shares its foundational premise with many a Buster Keaton short: a young man (Keaton) is a huge idiot. Hilarity ensues. He sets out to become a big businessman to earn the affection of his upper-class love interest and unwittingly commits a series of increasingly serious crimes, from petty theft right up to domestic terrorism, due to a mixture of chance and stupidity. It’s still so funny almost a hundred years later. Some of the gags unfold like a Rube Goldberg machine, each misunderstanding compounding the next, and some come out of nowhere, but they’re always surprising and silly and strange. Buster Keaton was, fundamentally, a gag technician, and Cops is pure, uncut Keaton.
Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928)
The sound version of Ghosts Before Breakfast – including its original score – was destroyed by the Nazis as “degenerate art”, like so many modern and surreal works of the interwar period. Directed by Hans Richter, a Dadaist, it simultaneously manages to have a distinct beginning, middle and end, and no plot whatsoever. The main characters, such as they are, are a bunch of flying bowler hats that float around, irritating and scaring people. A lot of other strange stuff happens, some of it very funny (a man’s bowtie unties itself and assaults him) and some of it very unnerving (a group of men stare at a group of women and stroke their beards, which disappear). It’s a really, really weird film, and certainly not for everyone. But, screw it, if everyone else gets to recommend Un Chien Andalou as if it’s not completely bonkers, I get to recommend Ghosts Before Breakfast.
At Land (1944)
Meshes of the Afternoon is the best-remembered of Maya Deren’s experimental shorts, but, for my money, At Land is her best. It’s so brilliantly put-together from start to finish. How it draws attention to its own silence by opening on crashing waves. How it eases you into fucking around with time and space, starting off simple – the protagonist is suddenly beside a piece of driftwood and starts to hoist herself off the sand – then suspicious – wait, how long has she been pulling herself up this piece of wood? – and then smacks you in the face with it as she lifts herself over the edge of a dinner table. It just goes and goes and goes, sneaking up on you with new and unexpected turns until you’re dizzy trying to keep track of what’s going on, if anything is going on.
A Short Vision (1956)
A Short Vision is about as succinct and awful a summary of nuclear apocalypse as you could hope for, and it’s still scary and upsetting decades removed from the end of the Cold War. Partly because nuclear apocalypse will – or, at least, should – always be terrifying, but mostly it’s because A Short Vision uses the style and tone of an animated film for children. It’s not just the picture book watercolours, though there is something uniquely distressing about watching flesh melting in that style. The music is so simplistic, and the narrator’s gentle voice sounds right out of an episode of Mr. Benn, and there’s all the animal characters, and then suddenly there’s nothing. Literally nothing.
Whoa, Be-Gone! (1958)
Director Chuck Jones called this his favourite Road Runner short, and it’s not hard to see why. At just six minutes in length, it’s so dense with gags that it can be hard to catch your breath between fits of laughter. I think my favourite is probably when Road Runner speeds away and Wile E. Coyote follows him through his dust cloud only to immediately walk right off a cliff, but it’s an embarrassment of riches from start to finish. It’s not as flashy or high-concept as What’s Opera, Doc? or Duck Amuck, but that’s part of why I love it: how the simplicity lays bare the technical brilliance and sharp sense of comic timing that made Jones one of the best to ever do it.
La Jetée (1962)
La Jetée is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film set in the ruins of Paris that depicts a time traveller trying to use his memories as a conduit to physically return to the past. It’s a very odd film, even for this list: the whole film is a montage of photographs and the plot is relayed entirely in voiceover. It’s incredible that such an ambitious and affecting story can be told with such modest tools, but it never once feels like its style is holding it back. The photos perfectly portray the discrete and fragmentary nature of memories, while the editing recreates the act of remembering, the memories sliding over each other with every cross-fade. It’s so simple and so beautiful.
The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983)
Originally conceived as an animated segment for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Terry Gilliam persuaded the other members of Monty Python to let him film The Crimson Permanent Assurance as a live-action short, and thank God. It takes a straightforward premise – the elderly employees of the Permanent Assurance rise up against their corporate taskmasters – and a moderately amusing visual gag – the employees as slaves in a Roman galley – and runs wild with both. The humour is classically Python, but visually it’s a blueprint for Gilliam’s solo career, from the cluttered set decoration to the low-angle shots of skyscrapers that render them sinister, almost alien. It’s not his most incisive critique of modernity, but it’s probably his funniest.
Small Deaths (1996)
Three vignettes, each depicting a scene in a girl’s life: first as a small child, then as a teenager, and finally as a young adult. Shot with the grim withholding realism of Lynne Ramsay’s early work, Small Deaths seems to announce its theme – the thousand tiny ways that parts of us die as we grow up – pretty bluntly, but the segments never quite go where you expect them. The three actresses who play the protagonist do fantastic work and the final vignette uses some lovely repeat cuts – using multiple takes of the same action – to build tension and disorient the audience.
Le Maison en Petits Cubes (2008)
Le Maison en Petits Cubes is the second film on this list set in a post-apocalyptic France and primarily focused on memory. An elderly man lives on top of a tower in a flooded village and wakes one day to find the rising sea levels have reached his home. He builds a new one on top of his roof, but drops his pipe while moving in and has to go scuba diving down through the tower to retrieve it. As he descends, he has flashbacks to scenes from throughout his life: taking a family photo; meeting his son-in-law for the first time; his infant daughter playing with building blocks. It’s a beautiful, sweet, heartbreaking film: there’s a bit where the air bubbles from his diving gear float up over his face like tears falling in reverse that absolutely floored me the first time I watched it.
World of Tomorrow (2015)
Don Hertzfeldt is one of the most influential and iconic animators of his generation, in no small part because his short film Rejected got bootlegged and uploaded to the Internet in the early days of virality. Rejected is great, but World of Tomorrow is something else entirely. A little girl called Emily is contacted by a clone of herself from the future and given a whistle-stop tour through the terrifying technological dystopia that awaits her. It’s both extremely funny (Future Emily falls in love with a rock) and extremely sad (Future Emily has to leave the rock), with the bleak deadpan of Future Emily simultaneously underselling the horror of her reality and amplifying the horror of the audience when you wonder how she could talk about such awful things so matter-of-factly.