Short films are an opportunity for innovation. From the very early days of cinema to Walt Disney’s experiments with animation, from Jan Svankmajer to Pixar, the form has been used to expand our relationship with film and explore revolutionary new techniques. 2011 was a wonderful year for that spirit, pushing the boundaries of stop-motion animation, 3D, and cinema’s place on the web. It was also the year that I fell in love with this form, the compact and explosive distillation of movies down to just a few potent minutes. Shorts are ahead of the curve, an essential component of cinephilia, and just so much fun.
I should start by stressing how much this is not a “Ten Best” list. That endeavor would be pretty much impossible. It’s hard to decide whether a film even counts as a 2011 short, as most of them don’t find their way out of the festival circuit. Moreover, because you have to arrange your list based on festival premieres, the sheer number of films just shoots through the roof. I can’t claim to have seen all the best work of the year, or even most of it: I’m still waiting to catch Pixar’s La Luna, Nash Edgerton’s Bear, and countless other excellently-reviewed flicks.
This list is simply my ten favorite shorts of the year. Some I caught at major festivals, others will probably never be shown theatrically. It’s a mixed bag, but I think each film represents a great artistic talent and that all-important drive forward into the 21st Century.
10. Gulp, by Sumo Science at Aardman
Continuing to challenge themselves after last year’s Dot, the animators at Aardman put this marvelous little short online back in August. Filmed with a Nokia N8 hovering over the beach, Gulp uses the largest stop-motion animation set ever. Yet it doesn’t feel nearly that enormous. The detailed sand drawings are so perfect that this tale of an unfortunate fisherman comes to life without any trouble at all. It’s not until you watch the making-of video that it hits you how extraordinary a project this really was. This is stop-motion magic at its best.
9. Rolling in the Deep, by Sam Brown
My favorite music video of the year, I think the precise craft work and powerful vision of Rolling in the Deep raise it to the level of 2011’s best short films. The unwavering rhythm of the song, a relentless throb of longing and pain, is coupled with eerie visions of an abandoned house rattling along with Adele’s magnificent vocal chords. Cuts are often just before the beat, the editing hurtling us forward through surreal apparitions and precisely framed tableaux of loss. It should have won the VMA.
8. The Wilderness Downtown, by Chris Milk
Just a few years ago the idea of an “interactive film” would have seemed entirely ridiculous. Now, with a bit of help from Google and the Chrome Project, Chris Milk has created an early example of what I’m sure will be a flood of excellent web-videos to arrive in the next decade. It’s a shame that it doesn’t quite work perfectly with most addresses, but even without the full GoogleMaps experience The Wilderness Downtown is still one of the most exciting experiments I’ve seen all year. Taking advantage not only of the Google Streetview capabilities but manipulating a sizeable number of browser windows, Milk turns your computer screen into a dynamic space for unexpected art.
Here’s the link: The Wilderness Downtown
7. The Legend of Beaver Dam, by Jerome Sable
This depraved Canadian slasher musical has the rare skill of inducing both peals of laughter and shrieks of shock in precisely the same moment. Winner of the Best Horror Short award at Fantastic Fest back in 2010, The Legend of Beaver Dam has been sending festival audiences into chills ever since. True, we’ve all seen movies about terrified kids in the middle of an empty forest, stalked by something too terrible for words. Yet how often does that tale suddenly burst into rock opera? Director Jerome Sable juggles comedy, bold electric guitar licks and spurting blood with the greatest of ease; all we have to do is wait for Stumpy Sam.
6. Caretaker for the Lord, by Jane McAllister
St. Luke’s and St. Andrew’s Church in Glasgow, Scotland is now closed. Its parishioners were few and getting older, and there was little hope of renewal. Most documentarians, if interested at all, would probably come into this church with the depressing mission of articulating anger at demographic decline and the neglect of authority. Jane McAllister, however, does nothing of the sort. Caretaker for the Lord is brimming with compassion, listening to this aged flock rather than judging its plight. We see the women having tea, laughing and telling of their long lives, dancing and doing yoga. With remarkable tranquility and palpable warmth, McAllister has created a touching documentary that sweetly shows us life, rather than any elegy.
5. Mourir auprès de toi, by Spike Jonze and Simon Cahn
Maybe it’s my love for adorable old bookstores, but there’s something undeniably sweet about this melancholy little tale of a skeleton and his bride. Set in Paris’s famed Shakespeare & Company, whose longtime owner passed away last month, the musty air only helps us get into the mood. Dancing along to an infectious and jazzy musical score, a victim of MacBeth’s dark cover falls for the dark damsel awaiting the bite of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Love, literature, and felt come together in a marvelously antiquarian setting, coupling Jonze’s quirky sensibility and designer Olympia Le-Tan’s eccentric embroidery.
Spike Jonze: Mourir Auprès de Toi on Nowness.com.
4. The External World, by David O’Reilly
The first time I watched this short I had no idea what was going on. On the one hand it’s a deliberate and violent work, focusing on some genuinely disturbing and desolate character relationships. At the same time, however, it is all over the place. The deranged love child of Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected and Fellini’s 8 ½, David O’Reilly zooms in on abuse while simultaneously commenting on copyright policies, modern art, and even Harvey Weinstein. One character even posits “Don’t worry, it’s just animation. It has no real effect on people.” There is so much going on that every viewing is a new experience, most of them positive and all of them profound. (Review)
3. Noreen, by Domhnall Gleeson
Sure, I loved The Guard (which I reviewed for Spout, here). Yet if I had to pick, Noreen is the best Brendan Gleeson movie of 2011. Written and directed by Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son, this is a bit cleaner and lighter than the actor’s collaboration with John Michael McDonagh and his brother Martin. Yet Noreen profits from the same perfect sense of comic timing and awkward interpersonal contact. Two cops, one incompetent and the other brokenhearted, are sent off to a fairly open-and-shut case of murder. They mess it up, royally, and the audience is left with riotous laughter and a deeply unsettled impression of law enforcement.
2. Trotteur¸ by Arnaud Brisebois and Francis Leclerc
I cannot get this one out of my head. It’s extremely simple, a race between a young runner and a locomotive, presumably in the early days of the industrial revolution. Yet this confrontation between the iron horse and the spirit of humanity, represented by this determined youth with a dark past, is dripping with greater significance. The snow is beautifully shot, grand nature adding a powerful sense of style to this unique competition. The race is slowed down so that we may the fortitude behind the boy’s every step and the deliberate power of the industrial monster. Trotteur’s boldness will haunt you.
1. ORA, by Philippe Baylaucq
ORA is an example of something completely new. Choreographer José Navas and filmmaker Philippe Baylaucq teamed up to create a 3D short film about dance, filmed with thermographic cameras. It’s rare enough to catch a 3D short, but this is something else entirely. It’s an examination of the body and how we move, from a perspective most of us haven’t even imagined. Much like Wim Wenders’ Pina, ORA is staggering in its innovation while simultaneously striking very close to home. There are few things more human than the intimate details of our motion, keeping these films familiar. Yet the technological leap allows us to experience this intensely physical art in a completely new way. It is a revelation.