For me, this year’s Tribeca Film Festival was a bit of a journey. I started with the experimental shorts program, an odd assortment of films that faced a number of problems not only in content but also up in the projection booth. That experience, among other things, led me to a Short Rounds column proposing a better way for festivals to program shorts. Yet as I continued along, I found plenty of films that surprise, entertain and really speak to the form’s potential. Picking out ten shorts from the sixty that played was not easy, and I could definitely have replaced these films with ten others. Close runners-up include Fireworks, Unmanned, and the prize-winning Asad.
Because the selection is so diverse, I’ve arranged them alphabetically. Ranking a list that includes a quirky cat documentary, a dark NYC family drama and an unexpected French concept comedy seemed ridiculous. So, here are my ten favorite short films of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
CatCam, by Seth Keal
What if cute cat videos were directed by the felines themselves? Isn’t that the most wonderful idea you’ve ever heard? A young German couple in South Carolina decided to bring that into the world, strapping a tiny camera to the collar of their adopted stray, Mr. Lee. CatCam is a delightful documentary that tells us how Juergen was inspired to investigate his cat’s secret life and how he made it happen. And while it’s totally cool that it became an international media sensation, the highlight is the collection of pictures and videos Mr. Lee took while out on the prowl. This cat’s got quite the social life. (CatCam is currently available to watch in the Tribeca Online Screening Room)
Chupachups, by Ji-suk Kyung
Great shorts shouldn’t convince you that they’d make a great feature film. They should make you forget that’s even an option. Chupachups is a beautiful, simple glimpse at two women with a shared past. We don’t need to see their romantic history to know how Sung-joo and Shin-hee feel for each other. The wardrobe alone, Shin-hee’s relaxed flannel opposite Sung-joo’s new police uniform, tells us all we need to know about why they cannot be together. Their gestures and sparse dialogue, helped along by the lush scenery, paint the film’s emotion directly onto our imagination. Chupachups proves that we don’t need an hour of backstory to feel someone’s pain.
Curfew, by Shawn Christensen
Two years in a row, Shawn Christensen is at the head of the Tribeca pack. Curfew is a step up in ambition from 2011’s visually harmonic Brink. Taking the lead role of Richie himself, Christensen leads his new film into troubled waters. The opening gambit is the attempted suicide, shocking us to attention with a bloody bathtub and the demanding ring of an old school telephone. Then it twists, sending Richie off to take care of his snarky young niece while his sister is out. Riffing on otherwise tired tricks, Christensen manages to keep the dynamic fresh by bending reality in one particularly clever scene at a bowling alley. This is the work of a rapidly growing filmmaker.
Every Tuesday: A Portrait of The New Yorker Cartoonists, by Rachel Loube
I do not like New Yorker cartoons, almost on principle. I think it’s absurd that an entire area of comedy is predicated upon the notion that a texting dog is inherently funny. Silly, I know, but the fact that I loved this documentary in spite of my stubbornness should tell you something. Director Rachel Loube meets the quirky group of cartoonists for their weekly post-pitch lunch in Manhattan and follows them home, offering us a lovely portrait. Even if you don’t like the jokes themselves, I dare you to watch this without a smile on your face.
The Last Ice Merchant, by Sandy Patch
67 year old Baltazar Ushca lives in rural Ecuador, in the shadow of Mount Chimborazo. For decades he has climbed up its slopes to cut ice, plentiful on this highest point in the nation. Now he’s the last one, made effectively obsolete by modern freezers. Yet Baltazar still has enough clients in the village to survive, and seems determined to keep it up as long as he can. The film is a strong example of visual poetry, enriched by the mystique of a dying art in the manner of 2009’s Sweetgrass. There’s something uniquely mesmerizing about the ice mining process, from the massive slabs on Chimborazo to the colored smoothies of the village street.
My Neighbourhood, by Rebekah Winger-Jabi and Julia Bacha
Sometimes a documentary needs to delve much, much deeper than scenery to make its point. Not that The Last Ice Merchant tells only a surface tale, but the political penetration that these two talented directors bring to My Neighbourhood is extraordinary. It is very, very easy to make a film about the Palestinian Occupied Territories without an ounce of nuance and still be taken seriously. Rebekah Winger-Jabi and Julia Bacha are having none of that. Building from interviews subjects of all ages and political opinions, the film presents a political narrative that is only by the diversity of its discourse. Well done.
Paraíso, by Nadav Kurtz
The Last Ice Merchant gives us pause by looking up, dwarfed by Chimborazo. Paraíso does the same by looking down. Nadav Kurtz follows a group of window washers as they work in downtown Chicago, living not so much on the edge but over it. In a city known for its skyscrapers, there is a constant need for this high-up maintenance despite the implicit danger. It takes no more than ten minutes to relay the risks and quirks of the job, from looking into some very private scenes to how these men understand their own chance of falling to doom. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Picture Paris, by Brad Hall
Picture Paris has absolutely no right to be so funny. It’s almost half an hour, it’s a star vehicle (for Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and it’s about a frustrated housewife in Los Angeles who dreams of a charmed life in France. It’s a perfect storm of clichés and bad ideas for short films. And yet somehow it works. Brad Hall’s screenplay continues to surprise throughout, which is almost miraculous considering the set-up. Louis-Dreyfus is hilarious¸ working a subtle balance of wit and physical comedy for which she doesn’t get enough praise. Someone give this woman a sitcom. Oh, wait. Watch Veep!
Stitches, by Adiya Imri Orr
Much in the same way that Chupachups tells as all we need to know with a few cinematic gestures, Stitches keeps us quite close to its central couple. Yet Adiya Imri Orr isn’t quite interested in telling us the whole story. Amit and Noa, in the hospital after the birth of their child, seem on the verge of collapse. Perhaps it’s because of Noa’s Caesarian section, perhaps something else. We feel both their pain and their love, but we do not quite understand it in words. The unique relationship between this two women is simply too enigmatic to be fully expressed, and that coyness on the part of the director is what gives Stitches its unique power.
Voice Over, by Martin Rosete
Well, the alphabet seems to have saved the best for last. I won’t go so far as to give Voice Over the number one spot, but it certainly packs the most awesome into the fewest minutes. Is it about an astronaut, crashed on a distant planet and struggling to reach his oxygen supply before certain doom? Yes, but also probably not. I’d say more, but I don’t want to ruin anything. This is certainly the most surprisingly written film I’ve seen in the entire festival, and perhaps the most fun. Also, France’s 1963 Eurovision entry plays over the end credits, so that’s something.
You think I’m kidding, but it has much the same effect as Julio Iglesias singing “La Mer” at the end of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Closing films with classic EuroPop is a thing now. Embrace it.