I’ve been struggling for years to express to other people exactly what I love about short films as an art form. Some of that is definitely that short films have no significant constituency in popular culture, so you can’t really assume a lot of priors. I don’t need to explain what feature-length films are like as an art form before I tell you why I like feature-length films, but most people don’t watch a lot of short films so in almost every conversation I have about them, I’m on the back foot from the get-go. I think there’s a popular view of short films as either Very Important Movies About Very Important Issues, like the tens of thousands of anti-bullying short films on YouTube, or pretentious film school nonsense, and probably shite either way.
And there is a lot of stuff like that, sure, but if it feels like that’s all short films are, that’s really just a reflection of how accessible they are as a medium, if not necessarily for audiences, then certainly for filmmakers. All you need to make a short film is a camera, a way to edit the footage and the time to make it. Every phone in the world has a camera on it right now more powerful than almost anything imaginable just thirty years ago, and there’s loads of free editing software, some of a very high quality, available on your phone or computer. All that leaves is the time, and short films by definition are generally less time-consuming to produce. Even with the constraints of needing a computer and Internet access to do it, I’m not sure there’s a medium other than the written word with a lower barrier to entry as both an artist and a publisher than short films right now. It’s no shock it produces tons of rubbish, any more than it’s a shock most self-published novels are total shite. But the vast and overwhelming shiteness of self-published novels has never impugned the novel as an art form. Yet the glut of bad short films on the Internet has undeniably tainted the reputation of the medium.
The most obvious explanation is there are virtually no large commercial interests behind short films (and there haven’t been for decades), whereas novels are produced and distributed by some of the biggest commercial interests in the world. Short films are a relatively uncommodified form, which is fantastic in a lot of ways, but it also means they aren’t marketed outside a small niche of filmgoers and largely lack even the infrastructure for formal, large-scale distribution outside the festival circuit or self-publication on the Internet. For novels, there are official routes to publication that, however flawed they may be in other areas, do provide some level of quality control just on the basic level of competence with language. It’s a reassurance that, if nothing else, a bunch of people who aren’t the author read the book before you and made sure it wasn’t just absolute unreadable gibberish. The line it draws is imperfect and hardly meritocratic, but it mostly succeeds at sorting some of the wheat from most of the chaff. The only guides people interested in or curious about short films have to finding the good stuff is articles like this by critics and other enthusiasts. And then you have to be able to get your hands on the films to watch them, which can be pretty tricky given the lack of distribution. Unless you have a load of cash to drop on expensive Blu-ray boxsets or Vimeo rentals – and even then, not everything is available to buy – you end up dependent on people willing and able to upload them for free, legally or not, just to be able to see them, and even official uploads can be pretty low-quality if they haven’t been reuploaded since YouTube started allowing higher-definition video.
But I love short films despite all the hassle. I love short films because they’re films and there’s almost nothing in this world I love as much as I love films.
I’ve spent a long time trying to explain what I love about short films through the metaphor of other mediums. How, like poetry, they excel at compression, at crystallising a specific feeling or mood into a small, intense package. How, like short stories, they’re often a great place to appreciate basic craft because the limited scope focuses your attention on the details. How, like songs, they’re well-suited to tracing a feeling through time without necessarily following characters in a story, whereas longer movies tend to test the patience of even enthusiastic audiences with such non-narrative approaches to filmmaking. I think all those observations are pretty true, and they’re certainly useful to me as a way to express some of the things I like about a lot of short films. But they’re not why I love short films, and thank God. Reducing my love for an art form to its particulars belies the happier reality: that I’m just completely and utterly head-over-heels for movies. I’m crazy about them. I love them from the core of my being. I adore them so much that it drives me mad to know I will die without seeing every film I want to see. I would rather watch a movie than do almost anything else in the world, so of course I love short films, because loving them just means having more films to love. More kinds of stories and storytelling, more ways of seeing, more feelings, ideas and experiences expressed through the ineffable magic of the screen. So many of them are so great, and the best of them aren’t just great short films, they’re great films, full stop, end of sentence. It just seems kind of absurd to me that anyone who loves films and filmmaking can arbitrarily exclude such a large swathe of the medium’s history from their diet, as if somewhere between 75 and 50 minutes, the magic just starts to fade. It doesn’t.
Previous attempts to share my love of the medium have aimed for a balance of different styles and eras, even splits of live-action and animated shorts, and other criteria to make sure I cover as many bases as possible and hopefully capture as many hearts and minds as possible. This time, I just want to talk about some movies I really love. Here’s fourteen more short films that you should definitely watch if you’re interested in film, short or otherwise.
Steamboat Willie (1928)
I’ve trashed Disney several times on this blog, more than once in this very series. But it would be insane to pretend I don’t love loads of art produced by the Walt Disney Company over its near-century in operation. Steamboat Willie always was and always will be one of my favourite films of all time. It’s the image that always pops into my mind around ideas like “the birth of cinema”, not only because it genuinely is a film that feels in retrospect like a huge shift in the medium, but because it is the birth of cinema for me, one of the first films I really, truly loved, even as a child. And that’s for one simple reason: it’s so, so funny. It’s just gag after gag after gag and the sense of humour is so wonderfully whimsical and every bit is so tight, so brilliantly constructed. When the goat eats the sheet music and Mickey plays the song out of his mouth using his tail as a hand crank! Incredible, just one of the most purely delightful movies in film history.
Regen is a peculiar example of an early documentary genre, the “city symphony”, in that it sort of has a plot even though it has no characters. City symphonies were essentially montages of scenes from a particular city, usually focused on the environment itself rather than the people living in it. But Regen (Rain in English) introduces a narrative to its portrait of Amsterdam through the arrival of rainfall. It opens with clear skies, then follows how the city changes in response. The streets empty, people do their awkward little half-run with their coats pulled up around their heads, raindrops fall melancholically down windows, buildings that gleamed in the sun glower in the shade. And then it subsides and footsteps fill the still-wet streets once again. It’s a beautiful film, and a soothing one too, one I often turn to when I need to chill out.
It’s a Bird (1930)
Charley Bowers was a reasonably popular and acclaimed slapstick comedian and animator around the same time as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but he was largely forgotten in the intervening years. That’s a tragedy, because Bowers was a great comedian and an even more incredible animator. It’s a Bird starred him as a scrapyard worker on a radio show about Tall Tales, telling the story of how he captured a metal-eating bird. The bird is a claymation effect and despite the technological limitations of the time, it looks amazing. Then it starts eating metal and it looks even cooler. It all builds up to the bird laying and hatching an egg from which an entire claymation car slowly emerges. It’s one of the most incredible special effects I’ve ever seen in any film and it breaks my heart that it’s not one of the most iconic images in the world.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936)
I was spoiled for choice when it came to choosing a Fleischer Studios short for this article. For many years in the early days of popular animated film, they were the most exciting and innovative studio in the business, over Disney, over MGM, over anyone else in Hollywood. They produced some of the best animated films ever, from Bimbo’s Initiation to Minnie the Moocher to their series of Superman shorts. But it’s hard to argue against Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor for their crowning achievement. It’s a classic Popeye film, very funny, good gags, but on top of all that, it’s astonishing to look at. Several of the backgrounds are richly textured, colourful model sets that the characters have been composited on, and the match between the motion of the characters and the motion of the sets is seamless. It’s the kind of film that phrases like “a feast for the eyes” were made to describe.
An Optical Poem (1938)
An Optical Poem is the only film by abstract animator Oskar Fischinger released by a major studio: namely MGM, from whom he received no royalties thanks to Hollywood accounting. It describes itself as an experiment, an attempt to realise in film the impressions of colour and movement that sometimes appear in our minds when we hear music. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 bursts onto the screen in a dance of brightly coloured shapes over shifting backgrounds. The animation was actually accomplished by moving paper cut-outs in time with the music and the use of paper gives a real richness of texture to the film. The pores of the paper are visible, as are the shadows they cast on each other. It doesn’t feel as visually flat as hand-drawn animation – particularly abstract animation – so often does. There is a palpable depth to the plane of movement that exaggerates the motion, makes it feel livelier, like a joyous explosion of light and colour. It doesn’t look at all like music does in my head, but that just adds to the appeal for me, the small chance to feel what it is like to experience an element of life through another person’s point of view.
The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
The Tell-Tale Heart, adapted from Poe, might be the best short film UPA ever made. It tells the story entirely from the killer’s point of view as he slowly loses his mind to guilt and the haunting sound of his victim’s heart beating under the floorboards. But not only his physical point of view: The Tell-Tale Heart is a visual inner monologue, slipping from present moment to memory at the drop of a hat. It has lots of neat transitions and cool cuts that really accelerate the feeling of panic and deterioration, like when a memory of the victim cracks and falls away. The killer, played by James Mason, narrates the whole time as his own perfect murder unravels in his mind and Mason really sells the melodrama without hamming it up too much. Its dramatic, gothic visual style, the frantic, panicked editing and Mason’s performance weave together into a gorgeous tapestry of paranoia and guilt.
When I say the best short films aren’t just great short films, they’re great films, full stop, end of sentence, I mean films like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Emotion. Released ten years before his first feature, the cult classic psychedelic horror masterpiece House, it tells a very different tale of young schoolfriends in a troubled world. Where the schoolgirls of House get crushed to death by mattresses or eaten by pianos, the schoolgirls of Emotion experience more mundane issues (at least initially). The telling itself is anything but mundane, however: it has so much going on that it’s ridiculous it all works. Almost all the scenes are in black and white tinted with a cornucopia of different hues and the few scenes late in the film shot in full colour are so bright and vivid that they pop. The editing is frenetic and impressionistic, with cuts coming fast and often. There’s very little dialogue outside the interior monologues of the leads and the bilingual narrations, in English and Japanese, which differ subtly in enough ways that they often offer very different interpretations of the same scene. And that’s all before the vampire shows up.
The Glass Harmonica (1968)
The Glass Harmonica is one of the early works of Russian animator Andrie Khrzanovsky, a surreal fairy tale about an oppressed town ruled by the “yellow devil” of money, represented by a sinister suited man with a gold coin embedded in his palm. An inventor arrives with a beautiful instrument of his own creation, made from shimmering crystal shards, that he called the glass harmonica. His music turns the townsfolk away from their work, so the suited man has the inventor taken away by faceless goons. But a young girl decides to set things right, and so on. The story is told through a mix of portraiture and cutout animation that makes the characters feel really expressive even though the animation is relatively limited, more like a montage of still images than what we commonly imagine animation to be. Though it’s very overtly anticapitalist, it was nonetheless censored by the Soviet state, who recognised the only slightly more subtextual themes of censorship and the visual resonance of the jackbooted thugs dragging a subversive artist as a critique of their own policies. A censored anti-censorship film. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Jabberwocky is the first short by Czech animator Jan Švankmajer I ever watched and still my favourite. Set to a reading of the titular Lewis Carroll verse, it’s mostly a story about moving (living?) objects, animated in stop-motion. The characters (?) include a wardrobe, a child’s sailor outfit and a folding knife, all watched over by a photo of a bearded man with a grim expression. The wardrobe runs through a forest, the sailor outfit leads an army of tin soldiers in battle against a baby doll, the knife dances on a doily, cutting it to shreds. The narrative, such as it is, is intercut with scenes of a line trying to escape mazes from a children’s puzzle book. The madcap visual chaos, the antagonism the other characters express toward the man in the portrait and the line’s desperate struggle toward freedom all combine to create an atmosphere of rebellion purely through the resonance between the images. It’s a story of creativity, represented by youth, motion and play, in resistance to order, represented by age, stillness and supervision. And it’s just wild to look at, the kind of stop-motion that awes you in its precision, detail and complexity. It instantly made me want to watch more of Švankmajer’s work. Maybe you will too.
The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (1977)
One of the things that makes the National Film Board of Canada possibly the best animation studio of all time is that its lack of concern for profit means it’s willing to fund unfashionable, expensive and time-consuming animation techniques. Case in point: Caroline Leaf’s 1977 adaptation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, animated by arranging sand on sheets of glass. It’s so beautiful to watch, it could be telling any old story at all and it would still rule. But it’s also a particularly brilliant choice to retell The Metamorphosis because of its fluidity of motion and its tendency to distort perspective. The scenes slip and slide over each other, transform seamlessly into each other in strange, unexpected ways. It’s the style of animation that most naturally renders the visual grammar of a dream, I think. The perfect style for adapting one of literature’s greatest nightmares.
The Case of the Spiral Staircase (1981)
At just two and a half minutes, The Case of the Spiral Staircase is the shortest film on this list, and by far the most abstract. It’s a simple study in motion: a woman walks down some spiral stairs. The angle changes as we follow each step. And then things change very suddenly. The triangular faces of the shapes that make up the steps separate from each other and swirl around her as free-floating 2-D segments. They lift up and fall back like petals blooming, spin in the air as she keeps descending, drift listlessly up and down as she waits for them to return. She starts to frantically crawl down them backwards as the steps fly off one by one, slowly gaining on her until she’s caught and thrown in the air. The triangles go on spinning impassively. It’s a lovely example of abstract animation, literally deconstructing the traditional rules to play with our perceptions. The synth score slaps too.
Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions (1991)
Henry Selick has gotten a really raw deal in the popular memory. He’s been totally overshadowed as director of The Nightmare Before Christmas by producer Tim Burton, who wrote the story the film is based on (accounts differ as to how involved Burton was, but he was certainly less involved than the bloody director). Even his film Coraline – with which Burton was not even tangentially involved – is regularly misattributed to Burton. It’s an absolute insult to a director who made not just two features as good as Nightmare and Coraline, but a short as good as Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions. Originally shot as a pilot for MTV, it’s a mostly animated story about, well, a load of weird shit. A pair of conjoined twins (made from mannequin dolls, with visible hinges) sneak out of bed at night to look through a keyhole, where a man called Slow Bob gets teleported into a 2-D world by a bunch of lizards so he can save the locals – who are Polaroids – from a flock of flying scissors. It’s deliriously insane, delightfully inscrutable and magnificently surreal. I’m not surprised MTV passed on it, but I am disappointed.
The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience (2019)
The Lonely Island’s most recent film is a parody of “visual albums” like Beyoncé’s Lemonade. But it’s not about the Lonely Island, it’s about the eponymous disgraced baseball players, José Canseco and Mark McGwire, who secretly recorded an album in the nineties… an album of raps (not all the songs are raps). It’s almost as gag-dense as their previous film, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, but where Popstar has heart, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is all about pure commitment to the bit. All but one of the songs is myopically focused on Canseco and McGwire to the exclusion of almost any other topic (the sole exception is “IHOP Parking Lot”, sung by a girl group consisting of Maya Rudolph, Stephanie Beatriz and HAIM.) The overwrought visuals and melodramatic tone – especially in the transitional scenes between songs where Andy Samberg as Canseco rambles pretentiously about nothing – do a great job skewering the self-seriousness of the genre. But it’s not just funny as parody, it’s funny because it has tons of good jokes, from a song about bench-pressing women shot like an infomercial to Mark McGwire rapping about how his balls are “shrinky dinky” from steroid abuse to Canseco appearing wordlessly from behind a potted plant while McGwire is in the middle of sticking up a pooka shell store with a switchblade. Also, Sterling K. Brown plays Sia for her feature on “Oakland Nights” and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an actor have so much fun.
What Did Jack Do? (2020)
The surprise release on Netflix of David Lynch’s short film about a detective (Lynch) interrogating a monkey called Jack Cruz (credited as “himself”) about a murder was one of the only good things that happened this year. I’ve seen it called a send-up of noir films, but it’s not. It’s a loving tribute to them that also happens to be about a man asking a monkey (with an unsettlingly human mouth superimposed over his own) questions about his alleged affair with a chicken called Toototabon while the monkey yells back stuff like “ARE MY PUPILS DILATING?” It goes without saying that it’s surreal, but like so much of Lynch’s work, it’s also strangely sweet. Jack seems like he’s genuinely, passionately in love with Toototabon and the short climaxes with him singing a warbling love song to her called “The Flame of Love”. The vague, slightly mismatched dialogue, where the questions or statements of one character don’t quite match the responses of the other, treads the line between absurdity and dream logic that Lynch walks so well and the results are frequently hilarious. (Jack: “For argument’s sake, let’s say I was a horse. Even so, it’d be hard to imagine how hard my first wife rode my ass.”) I’m not sure it’s necessarily Lynch’s best short – Absurda (aka Scissors on his YouTube channel) might just pip it – but watching it again and again this year has been a reliable source of joy during a long drought. Justice for Jack Cruz!