Sundance Film Festival 2015 Award-Winning Shorts

A- Selection of shorts

A dystopian future, war-torn screen tests, scuba diving under ice, and a sexually-frustrated single mom all turn up in this selection of six short subjects that won awards at the 2015 Sundance film festival. I loved five out of the six.

World of Tomorrow, Short Film Jury Award

a little girl, scarcely more than a toddler, receives a visit from a full-grown, multi-generational clone of herself living centuries in the future. In the clone’s monologue, we learn of a world of isolation, sadness, and empty lives. Starting out as a satire of technology, World of Tomorrow turns into a comment on the human condition. The animation is extremely simplistic, as befits such a morality tale.

SMILF, Short Film Jury Prize: US Fiction

Few things are as funny as extremely awkward sex–as long as it’s only a movie. A single mother who hasn’t had any since her son was born (I’d guess two years) invites an old boyfriend over for a quick bonk while the toddler naps. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Beyond the laughs, it offers a real taste of one of the major frustrations of young parenthood.

Oh Lucy, Short Film Jury Prize: International Fiction

Touching, funny, sad, and totally unpredictable, this Japanese comic drama starts out almost as an anti-smoking commercial. An unhappy, chain-smoking middle-aged women coughs a lot. Then her niece talks her into taking English lessons. It’s best if you don’t know what happens after that, but it swings from hilarious absurdity to quiet sadness.

The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, Short Film Jury Prize: Non-Fiction

Basically a collection of screen tests, where several young girls–all in identical outfits and makeup–audition for the part of a famous Ukrainian ice skater. For much of the film’s seven minutes, it’s little more than kids being cute. But every so often, the tragedy of today’s Ukraine breaks through, and you see the horrors of war on the young faces.

Storm Hits Jacket, Short Film Jury Prize: Animation

The weakest in the batch. This badly animated fable from France seems to be about something, but I’m not sure what. Two inept guys with some sort of invention get caught in a storm. A woman comes into the picture. There’s a bad guy, and some sexual innuendo. I think it was supposed to be funny.

Object, Short Film Special Jury Prize for Poetic Vision

In this wordless Polish short, a group of men walk to a spot on a frozen lake, and cut a hole in the ice. Then one man in scuba gear goes through the hole to look for something while his friends make sure he’s safe. We never find out who these men are or what “Object” they’re looking for. But it doesn’t really matter. Beautiful images, strong atmosphere, and a sense of dread (this work looks real dangerous) are enough to make this a powerful short.

Bill Plympton’s absurd love story: Cheatin’ (my review)

A Adult animation

  • Written and directed by Bill Plympton

If Bill Plympton isn’t the strangest, most iconoclastic, bizarre, and brilliant animator of all time, we live in a very weird world. His instantly recognizable style takes caricature—the heart of all animation—to an extreme beyond anyone else working in features.

Consider Jake—the irresistible hunk in Cheatin’. He appears to have a 60-inch chest and a six-inch waist. He looks as if the upper and lower parts of his body are connected by a thick rope. The love of his life, Ella, has lips so swollen you can’t imagine how she can talk.


Not that we ever hear either of them talk. As with Plympton’s last feature, the brilliant Idiots and Angels, this is basically a silent film, told entirely in visuals, music, and occasional sound effects and grunts.

The story is simple. Jake and Ella meet when he saves her life in a carnival bumper car ride. They fall in love, get married, and are so deeply in love that they can barely keep their clothes on. Other women throw themselves at Jake, but he’s not interested. Then one of these would-be seductresses tricks him into believing that Ella is cheating on him. He starts sleeping around, so Ella…at this point I should stop.

But with Plympton, story is secondary. The real joy is in the surreal wit of his hand-drawn animation—drawn, I might add, with Plympton’s own hands. In the Plympton universe, everyone is ugly and misshapen–even characters whom the story paints as attractive. And Plympton shows his work, with visible pencil lines everywhere.

The visuals reflect emotional states, not real ones. When Ella wonders why Jake seems angry and remote–they’re as far apart as they can be in the same bed–she reaches her hand out to him. And it keeps extending, many feet, as she tries to bridge the widening gap in the widening bed. Before the scene is over, the bed splits apart and his half floats away. It’s absurd, but it’s sad and touching.


Often Plympton uses absurdity simply to get laughs, and he gets them. A hired assassin loads himself up with so many weapons that he can’t get through the door. A cop with both hands and both feet cuffed together, so that he can’t move any of them, still manages to chase his prey by hopping.

The music, much of it familiar classical pieces, adds to the frivolity. When the soundtrack breaks into Verdi’s Libiamo Ne’lieti Calici aria (from La Traviata), Jake and Ella dance and move their lips to the Italian lyrics.

An all-around wonderful film.

SFIFF: Animated Shorts

This afternoon, I dropped in at the New People Cinema for a show of animated shorts. This series will not screen again at the festival.

You'll inevitably find wonderful and disappointing works in any such collections. I'll just tell you about my favorites.

Tram: A commuter tram filled with businessmen heads off into the world of the woman driver's sexual fantasies. The story and imagery gets more obscene, and funnier, every minute.

Bite of the Tail: This moody mini-drama explores a married couple in crisis. She's having health problems. He appears to be shirking his work. Snakes are involved.

Eyes on the Stars: The true story (or anecdotes from the true story) of Ronald McNair, an African-American astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion.

Lumerence: I'm not sure what this one was about, but it sure was beautiful to look at.

Friday Night Report: Rare Hitchcock and New Studio Ghibli

I caught two very different movies at two very different theaters, Friday night. Both films were very much worth catching.

The Wrong Man

The Pacific Film Archive has been running its Alfred Hitchcock series since January, but it took me until Friday to actually get to one of the screenings. I’m really glad I went.

Hitchcock made The Wrong Man at the height of his powers. His next three films would be Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Like Vertigo, The Wrong Man was a critical and commercial flop on it’s original release. Unlike Vertigo, it has remained obscure. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I know that it deserves a better reputation.

Although it uses one of Hitchcock’s favorite plots–the innocent citizen imagewrongly accused of a crime–it’s unlike anything he ever made. Based on a true story and apparently following it quite closely, it realistically shows you the reality of that situation. Manny, a professional musician with a steady, modest-paying gig (Henry Fonda), doesn’t escape from life-threatening adventures, track down evil spies, or meet and romance a glamorous blonde. He gets fingerprinted and put in jail. He gets out on bail, and hires a lawyer he probably can’t afford. His wife (Vera Miles–who is a gorgeous blonde) has a nervous breakdown.

Even Hitchcock’s cameo is different than any other. The film opens with him, in long shot and shadow, directly addressing the audience, and telling them this is unlike any of his other thrillers.

And yet, in many ways, this is very much an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Right from the start, as Manny leaves work in the wee hours of the morning, takes the subway home, and talks about money with his wife, Hitchcock’s sense of camera angles, editing, and sound provides an overwhelming sense of dread.

In many ways, this is one of his scariest movies. We know that we will never be mistaken for a spy, or discover that a favorite uncle is a serial killer, or be attacked by huge flocks of crows. But if we’re sufficiently unlucky, we might actually someday be arrested for someone else’s felony. And even if we’re eventually proven innocent, the experience could have lasting emotional and financial effects.

Warner Brothers provided the PFA with a seriously scratched print that has seen better days. Good thing this was a black and white movie; at least the print wasn’t faded.

From Up on Poppy Hill

From the PFA on the UC Berkeley campus, I walked west to downtown Berkeley’s California Theater, where I caught the latest animated feature from Japan’s fabled Studio Ghibli. It was a very special screening.

Like all Ghibli films, From Up on Poppy Hill has been dubbed into English for its wide American release. But for this week, the California and Embarcadero are showing the original Japanese version–with English subtitles–for the last screening of the day.

That’s well worth catching.

Set in the early 1960s, From Up on Poppy Hill can best be described as whimsical. A dramatic comedy about first love, it focuses on a teenage girl falling on love for the first time, against a backdrop of students trying to save an old, rundown clubhouse.

This is a warm, sweet, nostalgic, and mild movie without villains or real disasters. Frightening things have happened in the past, and the scars of war–although no longer on the buildings–are still in everyone’s hearts and family histories.

Of course first love never runs smooth. This young couple run into obstacles, one of them serious enough to derail a romance.

imageThis is the rare animated feature without talking animals, fantasy creatures, magic, or broadly caricatured human beings.

Which brings up an interesting question: Why bother with animation? Why not tell the story with live action?

Two reasons:

First, because hand-drawn, 2D animation is with Studio Ghibli does, and does better than anyone else these days.

And second, because they can do so much with it. With astonishingly simple brushstrokes, the Ghibli artists can evoke a place, a community, and a human face’s emotion. It’s a joy to watch.

Catch this picture–preferably in the subtitled version.

Unfortunately, the California is screening From Up on Poppy Hill on one of their upstairs theaters–once part of this aging palace’s balcony. The screen is small, and the sightlines off. Worse, when something loud happens in the big downstairs auditorium, you hear it upstairs.

Other than these problems–which existed when the theater screened film–I had no complaints about the digital projection.

SF Silent Film Festival, Day 3

The Irrepressible Felix the Cat
This may have been the first theatrical, 35mm presentation of multiple Felix the Cat cartoons ever. The shorts were wild, crazy, bizarre, surreal, and hilarious. The accompaniment added much to the festivities. Donald Soosan and a drummer who's name I didn't get accompanied some of the shorts. Toychestra–a sextet playing toy instruments and a synthesizer–did the rest. They took turns, with Sosin and the drummer doing one cartoon, and Toychestra doing the next. Everyone joined in for the last one, involving a trip to Mars. There was singing from Toychestra, snoring sounds from Sosin, and monkey sounds, clapping, and laughter from the audience. The only disappointment was that it ended.

The Spanish Dancer
I've never been a fan of Pola Negri, the star of The Spanish Dancer. Her acting strikes me as stilted, and she usually played a annoyingly sexless seductress. But she's somewhat more acceptable here, as a gypsy dancer ingenue. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this swashbuckler.

That had everything to do with the leading man, Antonio Moreno. He plays the joyful, devil-may-care swashbuckling hereo with the optimism of Fairbanks and the energy of Flynn. I'll have to find out more about him.

Donald Sosin once again supplied the music. This time, in addition to the grand piano, he was accompanied by two guitarists, and used a synthisizer as well as his usual grand piano. He had a laptop open, as well.

The Canadian
Not everything is a pleasant surprise. This drama about an Englishwomen who moves to her brother's farm in Alberta and marries a farmhand is only moderately interesting. Mona Palma at first plays the Englishwoman with so much snobbery that she fails to be either believable or sympathetic. She wins some sympathy as her problems build up–especially in one effective, shocking scene–but after that moment the movie slides into predictability. Thomas Meighan gets top billing as the new husband.

Stephen Horne's accompaniment, on piano and accordian, was better than the movie.

The good:

  • The whole Shackleton story of spectacular failure turning into spectacular success, is just so amazing and incredible.
  • The fact that there is a cinemagraphic record of this voyage is even more amazing.
  • Stephen Horne's musical score on piano and other instruments.
  • Actor Paul McGann's dramatic readings from Shackleton's diary.

The bad:

  • Nowhere near enough of McGann's dramatic readings from Shackleton's diary.
  • The movie is horribly padded with “cute” animal photography.
  • It was projected off a very bad digital source. My guess: A heavily-compressed DVD.
  • Although the screening started on time, it ended very late. That contributed to the biggest problem of he day. Read on:

Pandora's Box
We had to wait. South ended, with a pretty full house, only half an hour before Pandora's Box (which was sold out) was scheduled to open. Other delays inside (I don't know the details) delayed things further. The show finally started at 8:00.

I've loved this film for 20 or more years, but I've never experienced it like I did tonight.

First, there's the restoration: Previous screenings showed a film that was literally in black and white, without shades of gray. The new Pandora's Box showed the full monochrome range, and a great deal more detail. I could appreciate the lighting, the photography, and the acting better than ever. The bridal bedroom scene felt like the dark corners of the soul. And I wasn't so sure of Louise Brook's Lulu's naive innocence. There were times when I felt that she understood the destructive consequences of her behavior…maybe. That made her all the more interesting and, oddly, her tragedy all the sadder.

Then there was the music by Matti Bye Ensemble. Heavy on drums and strings, it created a sense of relentless motion and doom. This was, thanks to Matti Bye, the darkest Pandora's Box I've ever experienced. I loved it.

Because of the delay, I didn't stay for The Overcoat.



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