So before I start, I have to say I watch shorts differently than most people. I probably saw about 1000 (no exaggeration) last year as a programmer as well as over the course of attending several festivals. I don’t get hung up too much on fancy budgets or star power (although both can add to the overall effect) – what I look for is story. A short should tell just as much of a story as a feature, it has the opportunity to explore subject matter that could not carry a full-length film (or would frighten away a producer). It can take more chances, but at its abbreviated length, everything has to be that much better. You can’t take a minute off from telling a great story – everything has to be utilized to its fullest potential. This year SXSW selected 113 shorts from over 4,000 submissions. I wasn’t able to make it to the music videos, the doc shorts or the animated shorts program, so what follows are my picks for the best Live Action Shorts at SXSW 2014.
Still Great: Three of my favorite shorts were films I saw at Sundance in January: Dig, Verbatim, and Jonathan’s Chest. Dig was the best of the Texas Shorts program, and provides a child’s view of parental squabble as a young girl watches her father dig a huge hole in the backyard without telling her mother why (or getting a permit). It’s the perfect example of a short exploiting a simple topic for fresh story, and finding a depth only possible by just keeping the film tight and on edge. Verbatim fills its seven minutes with the actual deposition from a case filed in the Supreme Court of Ohio in which one lawyer grills an office worker on whether or not he understands what a photocopier is. Certainly Verbatim was the funniest short at the festival (as it was at Sundance). Finally, Jonathan’s Chest is about a boy who wakes in the middle of the night to find someone claiming to be his long lost brother. A mystery where we are left as struggling for clues as the characters, there is a nice open-endedness to the story which seems to be either the conclusion or the beginning of a much larger tale. The performances are solid and there is a quiet intensity to the whole thing, which takes place mostly in a bedroom. Even though it opens the door for a larger story (much like Curfew became the feature Before I Disappear), Jonathan’s Chest also holds together on its own, and the tone of the film was very different than most of the shorts at SXSW, a thriller that did not rely on the shock or gross-out factor.
New Favorites: My favorite SXSW short was Peepers, a brilliant satire by director Ken Lam and writer/actors Laura Grey and Jordan Klepper. As a fashionable couple settle in for the dinner, they become obsessed with the idea that someone is outside their window, watching them, and judging them, and all their stuff, and the way they live, and if they really like this soup. It is hilarious and really makes its point, without belaboring it. I loved the way the two actors allowed their characters to spiral out of control as the short progressed. As these are UCB performers and the director regularly producers skits for the web, there is a good chance this will end up there sometime – do not miss it.
On the serious side, I thought the most beautiful short at SXSW was The Kármán Line. A very smart way of looking at terminal illness, the film follows a suburban mother who mysteriously finds herself a few inches off the ground, floating in the air. The family watches helplessly as she slowly lifts up into the atmosphere, doing what they can to ease her condition: cutting holes in the ceiling, putting a vest of weights around her to slow down her progress. In the end, they have to say their goodbyes as she leaves them behind. In The Kármán Line, director Oscar Sharp and Writer Dawn King have given us a very original film, touching and packed with remarkable acting and beautiful cinematography.
The most complete short of SXSW for me was Blood Pulls A Gun, an Australian film noir set at a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Director Ben Briand and Screenwriter Kevin W. Koehler deliver the whole package, a film so well-crafted, well-shot, and well-performed that it feels like watching a feature in 16 minutes. Not to mention it oozes with sex, as it concerns the coming-of-age moment for young Alice who develops a dangerous interest in a mysterious gun-toting hotel guest named Blood. I would look for a feature from this team soon, not based on this film or anything, but just because they seem completely ready.
Bonus Points For Style: My other top shorts were the spunky Crystal, about a trailer-trash would-be pop star who keeps getting lost in her own imagination, Super Sleuths, a silly Nancy-Drew duo type story where two girls hunt down an absent boyfriend but keep getting sidetracked every few feet, and Prospect, a sci-fi father-daughter story that really made the most out of its limited budget despite the need of creating an entirely different world. The jury award winning short Quelqu-un d’extraordinaire was a great character piece, but did not have much of a story and, at 28 minutes, felt eternal. My low budget crowd pleaser goes to Texas short Molly, which was really funny and simple and sweet all at the same time. It was a good example of just how little you need to tell an engaging story.
After Midnight: The Midnight shorts program was my least favorite of the festival, and I will admit I missed a couple short ones because I had to remove myself from the screening during one particularly violent and disturbing short (I know, that’s the point, right? But I have a thing for how animals are used and portrayed on screen). Anyway, the most fun film of the program was the one with the star power, Dog Food featuring Amanda Seyfried – the story of a butcher who loses his dog, only to find the girl he has been flirting with has kidnapped him under the guise of serving him at dinner to prove a point. It’s well-told and well-performed, though a bit predictable at times. And again, at 18 minutes, has long made its point before it ends. Happy B-day was the one that felt most like the Midnighters in the feature section, funny, dark, and a little gory. The jury winner in this category, Wawd Ahp was cute, but slight, and really was more of a music video than a true short film. Unfortunately, I found the whole Midnight Shorts selection too dependent on shocking the audience or disgusting them, or both, rather than telling effective stories. Rat Pack Rat (which also played Sundance) had the strongest story of the bunch, but I have to admit, having seen it a few times now, it is not easy on the eyes.
Anyway, a lot of great shorts at the festival this year, and it is nice to see SXSW supporting a few of the same artists each year, while mixing in new fresh voices. If you didn’t get a chance to see any shorts programs while you were at Southby, what were you doing? Next time get away from that line to see Lady Gaga and check out some of the most creative artists working in film – shorts filmmakers.