The world’s biggest short film festival is coming to New York City this summer and I don’t think I could be more excited. Tropfest will be “storming” Manhattan on June 23rd with a massive free screening in Bryant Park, the Western Hemisphere debut of an event with enormous relevance on the opposite side of the globe. At home in Sydney and around the world the event goes well beyond a single evening watching movies on the grass, encouraging aspiring filmmakers and launching careers. Nash and Joel Edgerton, Rose Byrne, Sam Worthington and other now-ubiquitous Aussies showed up at Tropfest well before their fame. It’s proven itself an excellent source of cinema for Australia, and should be a much welcomed addition to the Big Apple’s film circuit.
So what makes Tropfest so special? It’s actually surprisingly simple: all of the films in the program are specifically made for the festival. Each year there’s a Tropfest Signature Item that has to be included in every short as a form of proof. It doesn’t have to be included in the plot, only tossed onto the screen. These TSIs are usually somewhat eccentric: chopsticks, a gherkin, and the number 8 have all been featured. The TSI for the upcoming NYC event is (of course) a bagel. Submission info is up on their website, and the deadline is May 10th. Get shooting! First prize is $20,000.
Though really, you shouldn’t just take my word for it. The great work featured by Tropfest Australia over their two decades speaks for itself. Here are seven of my personal favorites, though they’re just the tip of a pretty impressive Aussie iceberg.
An Imaginary Life, by Steve Baker
What happens to imaginary friends when children grow up? Apparently they slowly wander the earth with a crippling sense of self-doubt, hesitantly animated into a world of nostalgic Super 8 home movies. Imagine if Don Hertzfeldt had directed Toy Story 3 and you begin to approach the unique affect produced by director/animator Steve Baker. An endearing conceit is matched with some quietly creepy images, as listless colorful blobs try to cope with the loss of their best friends. We’ve all been there.
Old Man, by Robin Feiner and Jesse Gibson
This short, like many of Tropfest’s best, is told like a good joke. It opens on a delirious old man, mumbling and stumbling down the street. At first he’s completely incomprehensible, making noises to himself and occasionally hollering at someone passing him by. Then things start to clear up. Is he reciting letters to himself? As he turns into the Motor Vehicle Bureau, we can tell something is up. The punch line hits, we laugh, and we’re out in just over three minutes. Old Man, 2000 contest winner, is emblematic of what makes the festival so special: microbudgets and simply told stories that run not a second too long.
The Date, by Will Usic and Damon Herriman
The maximum length for Tropfest shorts is seven minutes, which is an excellent policy. Filmmakers are forced down to quick exposition and narrative thrust, sometimes leaping through a story with such ease that time passes completely unnoticed. The Date is one of the most effortlessly swift, quickly setting up characters before sending its teen protagonist off on a wild goose chase for exactly the right brand of condom. There are even a few seconds left over to let the conclusion breathe, opening up a perfect opportunity for one more wry joke. Bonus: the female lead in this 1999 finalist is none other than Rose Byrne, then 20 years old and completely unknown.
Deadline, by Nash Edgerton
Speaking of subsequently successful Australians, Nash Edgerton got his start making shorts for Tropfest. Deadline won the big prize in 1997, bringing a delightfully reflexive sense of humor to the program. Fast-paced and excellently edited, actor/writer/editor/director/stuntman Edgerton flies through the streets of Sydney on a race against the clock. With a cameo by festival founder John Polson, this might be the best of an early crop of Tropfest comedies about making shorts for the festival.
Yin, by Costa Avgoustinos
Animation doesn’t usually have a huge presence in the festival, but the few shorts that do find themselves on the program are usually excellent. This gorgeous tale from Costa Avgoustinos combines the wordless magic of Pixar with the charm of a rougher visual style. The deep blue night sky lures our emotions into this surprisingly melancholy tale of two Yins looking for a Yang. Yet nothing is so simple, and our growing sense of empathetic longing only makes the conclusion to this dream all the more cathartic.
Marry Me, by Michelle Lehman
It’s a classic story: girl likes boy, boy likes bike (with training wheels). So how does this earnest flower girl get her mullet-ed crush to look up from his wheels and fall in love? In the space of just under seven minutes our heroine learns about frustration, perseverance and eventually plainly stated self-respect. Director Michelle Lehman colors it all with a lovely sense of bounce, both in the art direction and the music. Marry Me has all the style of a Jamie Travis short, but without any of the dread. It picked up the well-deserved first place trophy in 2008.
Finally, let’s watch one more compact cinematic gag. Slightly tilted to darker side of comedy, The Lighter has a bit of that sudden sense of fear that characterizes Nash Edgerton’s Spider. The mundane task of lighting a cigarette while driving turns first dangerous and then perhaps fatal. Can you still laugh at the end? I’m willing to bet yes.