I threatened to go hard experimental with this list if I didn’t see a visible uptick in appreciation for short films after my last paean to short cinema. But I also said no one in my life had bought a boxset of Jan Švankmajer shorts I could borrow and now someone has bought me one, so I’ll go easy on you all this time. Today’s selection stretches exactly one hundred years, starting in 1919 with a silly British cartoon and closing out in 2019 with a surreal masterpiece of the online. Nine decades, six or seven countries (depending on how you want to count Scotland), five animated and five live-action, it’s another cornucopia of fantastic art to sample.
Here’s another ten further more short films also again for you to enjoy.
Most reimaginings of Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view emphasise the tragedy of her story. Oh’phelia, as the title suggests, plays up the farce. Hamlet is portrayed as a scruffy eccentric loon with Albert Einstein hair and when he cuts off Ophelia’s hair for no reason, the intertitle says “Shorn of her Locks, Ophelia was visibly dis-Tressed” – it’s all silly pantomime humour like that. Laertes is a gun-toting cowboy for some reason, Polonius dies of getting kicked in the arse, Claudius and Hamlet both have wacky animal sidekicks. Like lots of early animation, there are meta elements like a cartoonist’s hand on-screen drawing the scene, or a censor showing up to replace the word “bloody” with “blooming”. It’s just funny and silly and cute and I like it a lot.
Them Thar Hills (1934)
Them Thar Hills is the middle child of Laurel and Hardy’s “tit for tat” trilogy. It’s not quite as great as either its predecessor, Big Business, or its sequel, Tit for Tat, but it’s a better introduction to Laurel and Hardy and showcases more of the full breadth of their brilliance. His leg bandaged due to a nasty case of gout, Hardy is told by his doctor to avoid hard living, so he and Laurel take a camper van into the mountains for a relaxing weekend. The boys show off their slapstick chops an escalating tit for tat exchange with the jealous husband of a woman they accidentally got drunk. But the build-up highlights the genius of their writing and the perfection of their performances. Laurel’s line reading of “I’m going to look for a horse” while standing dead-eyed, axe in hand, will linger in my memory and delight me for years.
School for Postmen (1947)
Jacques Tati’s directorial debut hardly foretells the brilliance that would follow, but it’s still a good time. Tati plays a foolish country postman under pressure to cut twenty-five minutes from his route to facilitate a transatlantic mail flight. The physical comedy is so inventive and delightful – I gasped when Tati used the open back of a farm truck as a desk while riding his bike and chuckled as he chased the runaway bike down what must be several hills. The number of places he finds to put letters alone is a tribute to Tati’s skill as a gag technician in the tradition of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Also, the instructor at the titular school has a really, really funny voice.
Knights on Bikes (1956)
Ken Russell’s first film is a beautiful example of amateur filmmaking. It’s a simple Keatonesque tale of a knight rescuing a princess, but made by young people with no money, so the knight rides a bike. It’d look cheap if they played it straight, but it works so well played for comedy. The cinematography is so gorgeous, especially when the knight stands on a log to pull his sword from it and the silhouette against the sun looks like he’s pulling it from a dragon’s head. It’s not the most ambitious work of short cinema, but it made me feel inspired about what’s possible for aspiring filmmakers even with such tight financial constraints.
Munro is about as adorable as anti-war satire comes. The titular four-year-old boy is mistakenly drafted into the Army. He manages to pass a physical, get through basic training and deploy on the front line before anyone realises or admits he’s a four-year-old boy, despite regularly telling nearby adults “I’m only four”. An early joke about the shouting drill sergeant who “speaks in code” foreshadows his nightmarish struggle against the bureaucratic “official” reality that insists children can’t be drafted, so if he’s been drafted, he can’t be a child. Munro is voiced by director Gene Deitch’s actual four-year-old son and he’s heartbreakingly cute, which only makes the Kafkaesque horror of the story hit all the harder.
The Hand (1965)
Often cited as one of the greatest animated shorts ever made, The Hand is one of the greatest animated shorts ever made. I was spoiled for choice when it came to Czech stop-motion films about totalitarianism, but The Hand stands above the rest for the sheer, simple power of its atmosphere. A solitary but contented potter just wants to make flower pots, but a sinister hand interferes to force him to make statues of itself. The allegory for repression of creative freedom is not exactly subtle, which makes it all the more bitter that it was suppressed by the communist authorities after its director died. I’ve been watching a lot of stop-motion animation lately, but nothing has hit me quite like The Hand.
Mindscape is a tribute to the creative freedom that makes the National Film Board of Canada one of the best animation studios in the world. Most of the major animation studios that dominate theatres today have a very limiting “house style” that limits their films from taking risks or experimenting. The NFBC has always given its animators huge latitude to make specific and personal movies in their own distinct visual style. Mindscape follows an artist’s journey into the worlds of his drawings, rendered in beautiful pinscreen animation that I genuinely can’t believe isn’t charcoal. It fades from landscape to landscape through a wonderful free association of memories. It feels like imagining.
Broken Down Film (1985)
Osamu Tezuka is often described as “the Walt Disney of Japanese animation” and Broken Down Film is his tribute to the early Disney cartoons that inspired his own love of animation. A young cowboy sets off to rescue a damsel in distress and faces off with a bearded villain, but it’s animated like it’s a decayed print of a hundred-year-old film, with grain and scratches and other flaws used as setups for visual gags and meta jokes. When the hero is rescuing the damsel from the train track he wipes the grain off the film so he can read her lips, a random frame from an unrelated film is cut in, one of the villains shoots a speech bubble to pieces. I don’t want to give the best gags away, but rest assured I laughed out loud the whole way through Broken Down Film.
Fridge is a post-industrial fable set in the alleyways behind a housing development in Glasgow. Two homeless alcoholics – played brilliantly by Gary Lewis and Vicki Masson – try to help a little boy who’s been trapped in an abandoned fridge by a neighbourhood hooligan. It could easily come off shallow and moralising as a pair of volatile drunks strive to save a child’s life while the residents of the tenement ignore the situation or actively refuse to call firemen to free him. But the fantastic performances of Lewis and Masson, and the smart decision to focus more on their relationship than a heavy-handed message, lifts it into a rich and affecting drama.
The Howard Schultz Tapes (2019)
Adapted from a series of Twitter vlogs by comedian Conner O’Malley and edited by Jack Bensinger, The Howard Schultz Tapes is a masterclass of found footage filmmaking in the age of social media. Howard Schultz tapes (4K FULL MOVIE 2019 FREE), to give it its full name, is possibly my favourite work of political satire in This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit. O’Malley stars as “a 17 year old boy who loves pepsi / hates water” and has been missing “from his home in Fight Club City, indiana” since becoming psychotically obsessed with the presidential run of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. It’s played at a level of all-or-nothing surreal horror-comedy that makes The Eric Andre Show look restrained. The boy begs Howard Schultz “to send me and my family a monthly envelope of pills” and calls himself a “slut for Schultz” just to warm up. It’s the only video that YouTube has ever warned me had “been identified by the YouTube community as inappropriate or offensive to some audiences”. I think about it every day.