Sundance Recap 2: The Shorts Edition
A Ranking of My Favorite Shorts from the Festival
Every year, I try to watch 35-40 feature films out of Sundance. Unfortunately, due to writing and other time constraints I rarely get to any of the short programs. It’s always a shame, and I always feels like a waste because some of the most adventurous filmmaking you’ll find are often offered shorts filmmakers. By virtue of getting half of my writing done before the festival, thereby pre-screening about 20 features before the festival even started, once I returned home from Park City, Utah, this time around I had much more freedom to take in the shorts programs.
I managed to fit in 45 of them, in fact. I got in every programs except program 2 and the animated shorts bloc. The rare opportunity granted me more than a few great films (some of the best at the festival). If you want to see all of the shorts I watched, you can find my unranked list on Letterboxd. But for the purposes of this post, here are my favorite watches.
Claudio’s Song (dir Andreas Nilsson)
A mob movie turning into a futuristic musical on the banality of what legacies, particularly those of the digital variety, survive? Sign me up. This is a kooky vision by a director working in the same sandbox as Triangle of Sadness but in 90% less of the run time. Fun and vibrant, the film’s primary song about the titular Claudio, is a total earworm that rises above mere silliness to being a tune that transcends time.
Help Me Understand (Aemilia Scott)
Some shorts exist solely as a premise, other play like a dry run for a feature, and others are just well constructed examples of the form. Help Me Understand is the latter. In it, as part of a focus survey, a group of women smell two different detergent fragrances. They all agree that one is better than the other. All except one. What begins as a trading of comedic barbs soon evolves into a different emotional register, one that pierces the heart for a surprisingly aching conclusion about the tiny parts of life that give us the most comfort at our lowest.
In the Big Yard Inside the Teeny-Weeny Pocket (dir Yoko Yuki)
Looking like a Tom Tom Club music video, this spastic swirl of color and shapes is exactly what the title describes: It’s a picture of what the things in your pocket do when you’re not looking. Yuki’s vision is playful, sweet and energetic, a burst of perspective shifting graphics that felt like a balm in a downbeat short program.
Nocturnal Burger (dir Reema Maya)
Taking place in a single night at a Mumbai police station, Nocturnal Burger sees a mother arriving to report the sexual assault of her 13-year old daughter. A dimly lit wellspring of emotion, Maya’s empathetic lens tracks how society preys upon the autonomy and freedom of women, no matter their age or identity (a shot of transexual sex workers paints a full picture). While we never see the attack perpetrated against the girl, we do see the impact of the confrontation, and how it undoes all involved. Buoyed by a network of deeply felt performances, you arrive at the ending of Nocturnal Burger desperately hoping Maya will make a feature, if not about this story, then soon.
Sèt Lam (dir Vincent Fontano)
A tiny island off the coast of Madagascar, Réunion serves as the setting for a narrative spin on The Seventh Seal. In it, a grandmother tells her young granddaughter about the first man in their family to fight death, and through her oral history we get a sense of the area’s beliefs, fashions, and culture. Captured in gorgeous black and white cinematography, the fight between this man and death, however, isn’t hand-to-hand combat. Instead, it’s a fervent dance-off recalling Night of the Kings in its execution and magical realistic impact.
Sunflower Siege Engine (dir Sky Hopinka)
In a festival lineup brimming with indigenous talent—with shorts like Headdress and features like Fancy Dance—I found myself enraptured by a familiar favorite. Hopinka’s films typically deal with political resistance through an impressionistic, political lens. His latest is a collection of activist movements by the indigenous community—from the occupation of Alcatraz to the reclamation of Cahokia (burial mounds in Southern Illinois)—rendered through a sensorial voice which gives us an accounting of the land and its cultural heritage, and the people who fight for it on its behalf.
Sweatshop Girl (dir Selma Cervantes Aguilar)
We have failed Yalitza Aparicio. Nominated for Best Actress for Roma, the talented performer hasn’t received the choice roles you’d expect for someone of her caliber. Sweatshop Girl, which follows a woman trying to hide her pregnancy for fear she will lose her job, is as transfixing of a turn as the actress gave in Cuarón’s personal epic.
Take Me Home (Liz Sargent)
This light, yet touching drama carries a few similarities with Andrew Ahn’s Driveways. In it, the mother of a young autistic girl dies. When her older sister returns, the pair must clean out the house and learn to accept each other. Simple and empathic, it’s a story about loss and family. shouldered by two charged performances, that I could easily see being extended into a feature.
Under G-d (Paula Eiselt)
From the co-director of Aftershock, comes another documentary taking a keen interest in the ongoing anti-abortion crisis. While many states have tried to ban this personal choice through legislation under the religious freedom component of the First Amendment, Eiselt takes interest in a group of Jewish lawyers and Rabbis who are instituting their religious rights to challenge the new anti-abortion laws. An intriguing slice in an ongoing battle, Under G-d reveals how often, when America wants to protect the right to worship, what it’s really fighting for is the Christian variety.
The Vacation (dir Jarreau Carrillo)
A Black man tries to take a vacation to the beach, but his car won’t start. As much as he tries, the engine just won’t turn over. As he turns the key, his odd mix of friends stop by the car, hoping to provide him with some positive reinforcement by smoking a couple of blunts. Playing like the best episode Atlanta never made, this deeply hilarious story takes pleasure in the colorful people in this neighborhood and the unlikely dreams that fuel them.