• James Kunovski

Best Shorts of 2020

Short films are an interesting beast. One could make the argument that cinema grew through them, but that tidbit doesn’t acknowledge the skill at play in the crowded contemporary world of shorts. They are often festival darlings and a gateway for global filmmakers. The best shorts don’t need feature runtimes to tell their story and exponentially expand on meaning, ideas and style, usually through a singular subject. The works below, divided into three categories, (documentary, live-action and animated), have graced the model feed of Short of the Week, and enjoyed both “Vimeo staff picks” and festival adulation. These eighteen films, peppered with stories of quilters, lost ghosts and an ageing population, consequently amplify our human condition through their ubiquitous backdrops, idiosyncratic characters and whip-smart sensibility.



DOCUMENTARY


Still Here

directed by Sean Wang


A small village in Kaohsiung, Taiwan is crumbling. Around six residents, plus maybe a dog or two, remain. Determined to stay close to the homes in which their lives and memories have been shaped, and naturally, their own roots, they have ignored government orders to move out. Sean Wang follows their lives with great sensitivity; his grounded composition of decaying frames and walls create potent emotional punches. Wang brews colour into quiet streets through each villagers’ testimonials while reminiscing on their past and present. Still Here carries a peaceful spirit, paying tribute to an ageing village in a country with an ageing population while defining the treasure trove of memories in the word “home.”



Quilt Fever

directed by Olivia Loomis Merrion



Documentaries are often great for living and learning, and so when I came across a piece about the “Academy Awards of quilting,” well, you could say I was absolutely intrigued. Centring on QuiltWeek, an annual celebration of the best quilting and its enthusiasts have to offer, Olivia Loomis Merrion’s documentary is funny, heartfelt and uplifting. A testament to the strength of community, the communal sense of art and sprinkled with offbeat and sweet humour, Quilt Fever, unlike the name would suggest, feels like a warm hug.



To Draw a Horse

directed by Brenton Fosner and Stephen Stinson



Every frame in Brenton Fosner and Stephen Stinson’s portrait of a self-taught home designer and his musings on life and success, is textured, autumnal and cinematic. That’s a given, when you look at the work of its subject, Bob Butler. He has weaved in and out of creative pursuits, namely photography, enabling satisfaction to inform over monetary success. Some might view this behaviour as a bit ostentatious but the noted “life lessons,” on allowing ourselves to be present, unhurried and the articles from which we draw meaning felt like a few successive deep breathes and a reassuring nod. Butler’s ability to consummate my own half-thoughts and the directorial duo’s knack for crafting their frame was something that I felt greatly. Hopefully more people have that same experience.



Blood Rider

directed by Jon Kasbe



In short, Jon Kasbe’s minute appraisal of blood delivery motorcyclists in Nigeria is gripping. Literally racing against the clock, in the height of a blood shortage crisis and the gridlocked streets of Lagos, Blood Rider administers its anxiety through its premise but Kasbe’s intimate and sometimes perilous approach elevates its form. By bringing attention to these heroic riders, and alerting viewers to the situation of LifeBanks, Blood Rider mixes desperation with the heights of courage and hope.



The Speed Cubers

directed by Sue Kim


Competition sports make great content. By setting her eyes on competition speed cubing and the benevolent rivalry between two of that world’s best players, Max Park and Feliks Zemdegs, director Sue Kim materialises a good-natured approach from the sports documentary genre. Her film will accommodate a wide-ranging audience, (especially when some of these shorts tend to be alienating in their outlook), who will each find something to appreciate. For me, each competitors’ bliss at finding their passion, and the support of both Max and Feliks’ parents stood out.



The Grass is Always Greener on TV

directed by Matt Pizzano


Escapism by way of fiction is supposed to be rewarding, right? But for some, there are deeper reasons as to why they feel the need to shy away from reality, an hour at a time. I’m definitely guilty of this. To an extent most film/television buffs are. Matt Pizzano illustrates the life behind Mark Bennett, who found fame from blueprinting childhood sitcom homes. Using these shows to find solace and soothe trauma, Bennett eventually broke down when the pressures of his real-world caught up to him. In a moment that reflects fiction’s happy endings, he does find his truth and things turn out well, but here it feels more sincere, and a chance to reflect on ourselves, the people in our lives, and by extension, those on-screen.


 

LIVE-ACTION


Hot Dog

directed by Patrick Muhlberger



Chaos quickly erupts during a sweltering day when a quartet of late employees come across a trapped dog in a parking lot. Don’t fear, this short is a cool respite from the darker entries on this list. The characters in Patrick Muhlberger’s one-take farce swiftly break down into deliciously entertaining caricatures. Kudos to the actors for not holding back considering mounting a short like this is no easy feat. Hot Dog’s premise is straightforward but its meticulous execution of the one-take trope and the output that those two components bring forth is well-earned and highly entertaining to boot.



Eagle

directed by Jose Acevedo



Tension is palpable and consequences take form in Jose Acevedo’s three-act study of Edgar, a high schooler in Brooklyn over the course of a fateful event. A blood spattering on Edgar’s shirt serves as Chekhov’s Gun in this scrutiny of generational trauma and the lateral motion of racial oppression. With that, Eagle conveys more in six minutes than most feature films can, and lingers long after the implications of the cyclical plot come to light.



Wish You Were There

directed by Kieran Thompson



Throughout Kieran Thompson’s sincere study of an older couple on a first date there is an air of still unease that reveals itself as a narrative pivot (even if it is expected) that enhances their storyline and magnifies its humanity. The beautiful, naturalistic performances of Christine Kellogg-Darrin and Elester Latham, and the simplistic setting of the Phoenix Art Museum, bolster a polished and unhurried feeling to Thompson’s proceedings. What begins as an inquiry into art as a bonding experience becomes a rumination on the pain and inevitably of ageing; of memory lost and peace gained.



Union County

directed by Adam Meeks


Patience is rewarded in Adam Meeks’ slice-of-life exploration of Cody, resident of rural Ohio, who's enrolled in a drug recovery program and whose ex-girlfriend returns after an absence. Though the time we spend with Cody is fleeting, his actions and his courage to stay sober feel painfully real; like we’ve witnessed a fundamental stepping stone in someone’s life. That authenticity is enabled by Meeks’ deliberately raw composition; sometimes it feels like a documentary, perhaps, it’s a hybrid. The way in which opioids are mentioned is almost slight-of-hand but that reference underpins the director’s quest to remain as truthful to this crisis as possible.



Run/On

directed by Daniel Newell Kaufman


Add me to the myriad of people comparing Daniel Newell Kaufman’s feverish look at a mother and her son waiting for a delayed bus to the heightened and equally frantic style of the Safdie Brothers. That premise sounds innocent enough, but as soon as you realise which way Kaufman is going, the short explodes into a cacophony of anxiety. “Puzzling pieces together” loosely establishes the short’s logline but over time, through the young boy’s point-of-view, things become clearer. His mother gets irrationally angry about the bus’ arrival time then drunkenly reacts to its arrival. She riles at her son peeking inside a purse, then we see a gun inside. Run/On is not light entertainment, in fact Short of the Week labels it a part of the “survival” genre, but its pulse-pounding attitude is the sign of a director’s tight grasp on a vision and their keen eye for sharing this ugly subject matter.



Qadin (A Woman)

directed by Tahmina Rafaella

There’s enough substance in Tahmina Rafaella’s unvarnished Azerbaijani short, about a woman’s routine over one day in Baku, to propel it to feature status. Her work grounds itself without a discernible climax and relies on a simple “thank you” to carve its meaning. For the protagonist, things just happen, and then more things happen but she continues to juggle them like she always has. She doesn’t snap under the pressure and her stance as the family’s rock is cemented. By stripping away sentiment and cinematic flourishes, Rafaella offers a forthright perspective and an ode to the work of her central protagonist.


 

ANIMATED


If Anything Happens I Love You

directed by Will McCormack & Michael Govier


The black-and-white void of reflection and grief is all-encompassing in Will McCormack and Michael Govier’s Netflix short about two disconnecting parents mourning the loss of their daughter. Their film starts simple and with a guiding allure but soon grows, sketch by sketch, into something much larger; damning and full of dread. Timely, piercing and poetic, the flurry of emotions, both painful and cathartic, expand to volumes courageous for a twelve minute short; encapsulating how these films can make the most of their subject. McCormack and Govier have artfully woven a profound film that invites viewers into an unimaginable situation, and in the process, combined art with humanity.



Mon Ami Qui Brille Dans La Nuit (My Friend Who Shines in the Night)

directed by Grégoire de Bernouis, Jawed Boudaoud, Simon Cadilhac & Hélène Ledevin



The poignancy of a ghost’s journey to eternity being interrupted by a lightning strike is given the tender, lighthearted and cozy treatment in this short courtesy of French animation school Gobelins. The amnesiac ghost tries to continue that passage with the help of amicable Arthur, a maintenance worker who does plenty in advising professional opinion. Move aside Casper the Friendly Ghost because the white-sheeted protagonist here is a soft-spoken counterweight to hair-raising folklore. Perfectly timed around Halloween, this short reveals another side to those spooky spirits and the friendships we gain and lose along the way.



Senseless

directed by David Zamorano


Labelling a film about war “senseless” is revealing much of your story to the audience. David Zamorano’s exemplary study of loneliness and the emotional repercussions of war transcends the implications of that title. Told in minimalist strokes of mainly blue and orange and to a booming synthesiser soundscape, Senseless follows a soldier, a fox, and a prisoner-of-war holed up during a nuclear war. Surreal and complex, though often deceivingly simple and steady, Zamorano has conjured up a representation of war as an aesthetic but one that still reverberates the quiet horrors of fighting with the enemy, and ourselves.



Isle of Chair

directed by Ivyy Chen


In 1957’s A Chairy Tale, a man struggles to sit on a chair that doesn’t want his recipiency, and in Ivyy Chen’s meditative and experimental Isle of Chair, that piece of furniture doubles as an expression of mental health and its state in society. Quiet, non-linear and unassuming, the film was made to comfort Chen’s friends and family who struggle with their mental health. On top of that, the piece is beautiful as it evokes peaceful nighttime imagery, and although perhaps a bit aloof in meaning, is generous and warm with what it shares.



Mom

directed by Kajika Aki



The likes of The Truman Show, Battle Royale and the intrinsic flair of Satoshi Kon combine in Kajika Aki’s surveillance of a young girl running for her life while cameras broadcast the action. Animated science-fiction, especially once dystopia is involved, is overlooked, and Aki fills any shortcomings of that genre. Oozing with Japanese sensibility, Mom is moulded by its influences but stands well on its own thanks to strong world-building and an intoxicating palette. While the world in Mom does not literally mirror our own, it has a lot to say about it, and through that, the short gains an extra leg.



Patty Are You Bringing Weed In From Jamaica?

directed by Matthew Salton


Perhaps calling this animated documentary “psychedelic” is a bit cliched, considering the title spells itself out, however, the visual prowess of Matthew Salton’s work elevates a fairly simple and unstrung-out story to the next level. Patty…’s screenplay and final outcome are two separate beasts, and like all the animated shorts included, it takes the concept of storyboarding and illustrating to an original state where these works truly come into their own.