Let me start by recognizing how silly it would be to say a specific movie is “the best film ever made.” Studios made tons of classics every year for a hundred years, independents have been churning out work and breaking expectations for fifty years at least. And that’s just feature films.
With shorts it’s even more difficult. There are so many you haven’t seen. Or more importantly, didn’t see the right way. So let’s talk about “essential” short films. If you haven’t seen many shorts, here is a roller-coaster sample of incredible work. More importantly, if you love short films, you need to see these. With little to lose and even less to spend, shorts can take risks.
Think of all your favorite short stories or anecdotes from life—those can be just as insightful, powerful or as funny as a novel. Add invigorating style, whether its pushing expectations, or revitalizing a time-honored method.
In chronological order:
Workers Leaving the Factory (1895)
The most action-packed, existential, epic, the first film ever made… No, it’s actually really short and sweet. It has become one of the most overhyped and overstudied film of all time. If you don’t know the history, it’s some old home movie. And if you know its history, it might just be a academic footnote on a test. But the film’s magic is how simple it is. The undeniable innocence of catching people walking on a camera, for the first time. Each generation could watch this and apply it to themselves, whether its the beauty of everyday life or a metaphor for a recent political event.
La jetée (1962)
Another classic that has been quite hyped, influences tons of later films, and worth every minute of the praise. Chris Marker blended notions of the sci-fi, political thriller and romance genres to make a unique epic in just twenty-eight minutes. We follow a man through time, enabled because of a radical political group, motivated by a lost moment in childhood. Will he save the world or just himself? We can picture ourselves in the role quite easily. Marker used an inventive device in making the film that I will not name here, because I’m sick of the second line in every explanation of the film being about a technical device. It is a stroke of genius, but you should see it for the incredible story and characters, dammit.
Meet Marlon Brando (1965)
The Maysles Brothers—Albert and David—are known for their incredible feature documentaries, like Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975). All along they made incredible shorts as well. One day they documented actor Marlon Brando doing a press junket for two new films he made. At this point in his career Brando was already a legend, winning awards, creating unique performances and influencing multiple generations of rebellious teenagers. But Brando was much more cultured than the average actor, then and definitely now. What should have been a look at a typical day in the entertainment business turned into a strange, funny and deeper portrait of a man. Unwilling to play the promotion game, Brando does everything he can to wipe clean his popular image. The short is a fascinating ride with a man fighting against a world with a million eyes pushing him to be something simple. While attaining fame by portraying moody, tough guy characters, Brando speaks foreign languages at the drop of hat, explores the social issues of the day, and questions the entire need of the pop movies he just made. All while flirting it up whenever possible.
Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966)
I wish I could describe the magic of George Kuchar properly. But its only possible when you see his films. You feel like you’ve know George all your life, the perfect eccentric uncle who buys you candy and always has a way to entertain a room. George made literally hundreds of films, on super-8 film 16mm and then video. Drawing from the lurid melodrama of his youth, a la Douglas Sirk films of the era, George made his own versions, using friends and local actors, handmade sets, and extreme characters, dialogue and plots. More fun than a soap opera on acid. Should be no surprise that George and his twin brother Mike made films that influenced John Waters. Maybe it was George who knew all of us.
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)
Known for his ecstatic truth in both narrative and non-fiction features, Werner Herzog has never stopped making shorts. One of his earliest is about a ski jumper—the ones that literally fly—and the skier’s off-the-slopes pursuit of woodcarving. Every moment that you think you know what this film is it morphs effortlessly, from thrilling sports doc to artist profile to a work of art itself. The shots of Steiner in the air are some of the most poetic things you will ever see, at least if you are a human being who has dreamt of flying. It’s terrifying in that he must land, but the slowest slo-mo combined with a soundtrack by Popol Vuh (a collaborator more important to Herzog than Klaus Kinski) makes the film so beautiful. You also have Herzog giving a super intense commentary to Steiner’s talent and the danger involved while Herzog is wearing a Dallas Cowboys jacket. Perfection. In what seems improbable but just a matter of time, Herzog did not want to be onscreen. The West German TV producers of the doc forced him to speak on camera, thus giving us one of the most enjoyable film personalities of our time.
La chambre (1972) and Hotel Monterey (1972)
With these two shorts, Chantal Akerman arrived in New York from Belgium and established a great career to come. Slowly observing various rooms and objects with careful camera moves, the two films give viewers time to sit and see, to think about parts of your life you don’t get to sit and contemplate. You realize how much beauty surrounds us if you just stop and look. Then Akerman plays with your expectations, adding people to the film, adjusting how the camera sees things, changing perspective with edits. Her brilliance in these shorts led to her epic feature Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and many more.
In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution (1976)
Long before music videos, there were bands making short films. One of the best and still one of the strangest is the short that filmmaker Chuck Statler made with Devo, the band that understood the power of putting image to their music as well as anyone. The film consists of two incredible songs in different versions than what was on their first album. Those music videos are surrounded by scenes making a weird narrative about humans becoming de-evolved, turning their hometown Akron, Ohio into an anti-utopia that basically came true. Images of the band in their trademark uniforms and some creepy cool masks bleed from a remake of the silent Workers Leaving the Factory into a shock and awe performance of “Secret Agent Man,” making a warning tale of how the working class is being watched. For “Jocko Homo” they destroy the notion of higher learning as professor Mark Mothersbaugh shows how the human race is reducing itself as time goes on. Devo went from Kent State students to art heroes, as this short won the Ann Arbor Film Festival and got noticed by Neil Young and Brian Eno, recognizing their genius for satire.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)
Though not his first short, Todd Haynes introduced himself to the world with a one-of-a-kind film that is still completely unique. The life story of Karen Carpenter, from her start in obscurity to the intense fame which consumed her, is told through an inventive device—all the actors are animated Barbie dolls. The result is somber but with a special kind of beauty as the dolls really reflect as much human emotion and change as the characters do. Its surreal and amazing. Its also very poignant. Superstar is a distinctive, heartfelt portrait of a crippling disease that gives more insight than a TV docudrama ever could.
The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 (1997)
An amazing subject: someone so ubiquitous yet no one knows who the guy really is. The story is unusual but a sign of the times. Rollen Stewart was a man who would go to huge sporting events around the country from the late 1970s into the 1980s with handwritten “John 3:16” signs. Even in a giant, packed stadium, he would make sure he popped up on television throughout the game, essentially showing his signage to millions of people. As the years went on, he also started wearing rainbow afro wigs. How could he be at every game in every city? Even non-sports fans started to talk about him. If they only knew what was going on beyond the cameras. The true story is full of intrigue and shocking plot twists, but director Sam Green never gets lurid. Green wants to explore the real person and found The Rainbow Man in prison to hear it all. Green’s journalistic concerns matches well with a lo-fi documentary approach, inquisitive with a humanist insight. Green also has the perfect attitude that most viewers will—“Holy shit, did this all really happen?”
One of the best things about a short film is the possibility to create a universal world and characters in a brief amount of time. The limits of a short can be enhancing. One of the best directors to do a lot with a little is Lynne Ramsay. Before her masterpiece first feature Ratcatcher (1999) she made three short films that gained her acclaim. In Gasman we follow a father and his two kids on their way to a christmas party, when he encounters a woman and her two children and the plot completely flips around. But its not the adults that are the main characters as much as the children. We experience the story through them, and its not a cartoon world but a real one. As with all her films, Ramsay creates fully rounded characters and communities with nuanced acting and unique casting. She understands the poetry of a face. As easy as it sounds, it is surprising to see subtle moments tell so much. The characters in Gasman have motivated movement, not just pretty film shots. Gestures do the work of dialogue, looks tell more than narration ever could. You feel as much emotion in this short as many features. You connect easily and forever to Ramsay’s vision.
The Amateurist (1998)
One word that is used a lot in describing shorts: exploring. And no one does it the way Miranda July does. Using gestures and various words, a scientist talks about a woman in a small room (both played by July) being filmed on secret camera and what her movements mean. Compared to a fiction short, its disjunct and weird. But its not confusing, its fun. Visually engaging, The Amateurist captures our desire to make everything, the way you sit, what you wear, what you do subconsciously—to carry so much weight that we can figure out what life means.
It also shows why the word “experimental video” has become kind of useless, casting too wide of a net in order to describe a type of filmmaking that does want to be ordinary. Nothing in this film is made by chance or an accidental discovery like a experiment. It works because its completely controlled and thought out, edited cleanly, performed as intended.
It sounds simple—Naomi Uman physically took a film print of an old porn sex scene and hand-painted over every frame of the woman. It gets complex. The soundtrack happens to be an amazing dubbed-in-English one, so the usual fuck-me porn lines are even more surreal. Academics love it for the sexual politics that explode onscreen. Everyone loves it for the out and out insane mindspace you are put in. Is it sexy? What makes you turned on, the idea or the actual image? Do you feel used?
Iranian filmmaker and artist Shirin Neshat has made many installations dealing with gender and politics, often with two-screen projections. In all her work, there is stunning cinematography leading the way. Neshat tells a story with images, finding invent ways to use movement of the characters and the camera, plus illustrating the underlying story with literal contrast in the image and clothing, what’s in the frame and what isn’t. You are never told in words what to think, you are taken on a journey to meaning. All of her shorts are powerful but this is a good place to start.
Beaver Trilogy (2000)
Possibly the most unique trilogy ever made, The Beaver Trilogy is three shorts about the exact same events, told in completely different ways. The first short, The Beaver Kid, is a straight documentary, almost diary film. Trent Harris was working as a cameraman for a local TV station in Salt Lake City and happened to be standing outside of the station when he saw a strange looking young guy taking photos. Turning his camera on, Harris then got to know Groovin’ Gary, an amazing local guy who was interested in becoming famous as a celebrity impressionist. Harris goes on a strange journey as Gary tries to put on a talent show in the small town of Beaver, UT, doing a performance as Olivia Newton-John. The short (from 1979) is fun and weird, foreseeing the glory of outsider art by a couple of decades.
The second short in the trilogy is a retelling of Beaver Kid but as a fictional short starring, yes, Sean Penn as Gary. Pre-Fast Times, Penn is fascinating as the Kid, playing with a young excitement and innocence that is special. We experience the magic of seeing an actor portray someone we just grew to love. Slowly in the film, Harris starts to reveal the more shocking facts behind the doc, as Gary was so ostracized in real life that things got dire.
The third short, The Orkly Kid, is even stranger, another fictional retelling of the entire story, this time with the irreplaceable Crispin Glover as Gary. The story gets really dark and into the shadows of what happened in the true story with yet another level of professional look to the short, growing from how we see real life to how we want it to look on a movie screen.
The three together are so entertaining, probing through the notions of fiction and documentary, that Groovin’ Gary becomes a modern hero stuck in the wrong era, and definitely in the wrong town.
Four stories about one man in four different bodies. The first time I saw it was as a random festival submission. As it started it was a traditional doc with strong narration, telling the story of a man who created fake trees for the army during the war. It didn’t take long to realize it wasn’t quite right, with a strange vibe in a Monty Python way, or if Terry Gilliam was working for PBS. Suddenly the film switched gears and the main character became the man’s son in modern times, reminiscing about his Dad’s past. And then it gets really weird, eventually becoming an even more modern self-help video. At times a soft fake doc, a sharp satire on self-help, and a complete slapstick comedy, Openminds features a tight, jumpy style with tons of older character actors pumping out dialogue so fast and precise you are stunned into laughter. The style is unique but was so familiar…
Because the filmmaker is Joe Sedelmaier, who had made tons of famous commercials from Where’s The Beef to the Fast Talking FedEx Guy. Imagine that style but with a fun and smart satirical plot and characters in an actual film. It ends up that Sedelmaier made two great shorts in the late ’60s, one of which actually won best short at a European film festival where John Huston and King Vidor were two of the jury members. He started Openminds in 1970, and then launched into a historic, successful commercial career for the next thirty years. Once he retired in 2000, he went back and finished the short in 2001. So those parts that look like 1970? That’s why. Yet it goes beyond a time capsule into a timeless, smart comedy.
In Order Not To Be Here (2002)
Everybody feels weird being in a desolate environment all alone—parking lots, malls, the woods, the desert. Does it help to watch through the lens of a film? Deborah Stratman explores these spaces and by default our fears and expectations. With clever locations and eerie long takes, the film is doing more than recreating surveillance, but sinking the viewer into the place. There is a beauty of course from how Stratman frames everything, even as she makes the atmosphere get to you. Fake landscapes and designed-for-security architecture have the opposite effect than intended. On the surface the short registers as avant-garde, a doc about Americans without people in it. Its also a horror film.
This is John (2003)
Oh man, we’ve all been there.
Shot on handheld mini-DV tape, which looked as homemade then as it does now, we watch as a man comes home and realizes he need to re-record his answering machine tape (still a big part of life in 2003). What follows is a everyman story of trying to take your life under your control. Hilarious and humanist, we loved it right away. The Duplass Brothers—Jay and Mark—were off and running, making two more shorts and then their first feature, The Puffy Chair, and became one of the tentpoles of the new generation of indie filmmakers from the 2000s.
Behind the scenes it wasn’t a couple of young guys blossoming as much as two guys reinventing themselves. The brothers had already made two features they hate so much that they didn’t even edit the second one and still refuse to show anyone scenes from it. Despaired, they decided to break the whole process down. Jay and Mark came up with an idea, Jay grabbed a camera and Mark grabbed a bottle of wine and started acting. Through shorts they found their real style and identity.
Let the Good Times Roll (2005)
A man with a video camera, serving as the audience’s POV, walks through a desert and finds a woman who looks kinda out of it. The film bounces back and forth between hanging out in the desert and hanging out in a desolate motel room. In the next 15 minutes the woman explaining how amazing it is that they both showed up to the concert early, and then goes off on a wild stream of consciousness about the finer points of life and what she has learned about love and people, drugs and enemas. Behind the camera is Harriet “Harry” Dodge, in front is Stanya Kahn. If the film is scripted, its amazing, flowing, hilarious and completely realistic portrait of crazy outsiders finding each other. And if its improv its total genius. Everything that is weird and interesting about Americans is here—especially the need to connect in an endless awkward struggle. All of their films work in any environment, its impressive. In the art world they are understood as amazing performance artists. In a film festival its deadpan stand up comedy, better than an SNL skit. And if you found this on the Internet without any context, you may believe its completely real, and watch over and over again.
A staple of film genre is the coming-of-age story. But now its up to date with photographer-turned-filmmaker Carter Smith’s first film, this thirty-min short that won Sundance. A young cool kid is an outsider in high school, so naturally he wants to be accepted—by even weirder kids. What he gets in to fulfills your genre expectations while still feeling fresh and exciting. A simple shot of a car driving becomes something haunting. Smith has a great style, moody but slick. With natural performances and dialogue, you sink in to the film’s world easily. What’s strongest are the characters, the faces are unique, we feel like we know them but there is still the allure of something “bad” going on that we all love to explore safely through movies.
Light Work I (2006)
Jennifer Reeves has the touch for 16mm. After decades of making shorts (and the great feature The Time We Killed) she embarked on “Light Work Mood Disorder,” a live performance with multiple projectors of footage she shot or hand-painted, alongside live music composed by Anthony Burr. One of the results was this short, Light Work I. Objects and colors melt together, patterns formed and reformed, mixing in harmony with the soundtrack. Like so many avant-garde filmmakers in history who work with film stock as a physical material, not to mention actuall