By Gary M. Kramer.
The New York Film Festival is a terrific showcase for shorts, and this year, there are four short film programs with international, genre, animation, and New York themes that feature many worthwhile films. Here is a sampling of the best shorts from each anthology.
In the international shorts collection, the standout is La novia de Frankenstein, Agostina Gálvez and Francisco Lezama’s tart, satisfying character study. Ivana (Miel Bargman) is a young woman who translates for English-speaking guests renting apartments in Buenos Aires. While she seems incredibly pleasant, it is soon revealed that she lies to and steals from her clients. The film presents a series of engaging, loosely connected scenes that show her negotiating a place in society. Bargman gives an ingratiating performance that has viewers rooting for her, despite Ivana’s bad behavior. Another Latin American short, Marea de Tierra, from Chile, elliptically chronicles the emotions of a young woman coping with the end of her relationship, as she is given advice and solace from a group of women in Chiloe, with not dissimilar experiences. In contrast, Monaco by Australian filmmaker David Easteal, has a man (Benjamin Taylor) trying to find work at garages, and spending his spare time driving around in circles with friends—an apt metaphor for his life. It’s a slight short, but certainly intriguing.
The genre shorts program, consisting of five international films, is particularly strong. Territoire is a gripping short by Vincent Paronnaud about Pierre (Jean-Marc Desmond) a shepherd in the Pyrenees in 1957 who communicates by whistling. He is concerned about seeing wolf tracks, but more disturbed by a group of soldiers who have arrived in the valley for purposes of war. At night, sinister things happen, and a man who is camping with his girlfriend (Lucie Debay), is attacked by a group of strange creatures. When Pierre tries to save the surviving young woman, things get increasingly more violent. Paronnaud ratchets up the tension until the final moments keeping viewers as on edge as the characters. The creepy We Wanted More by Canadian writer/director Stephen Dunn, has Hannah (Christine Horne), a singer, losing her voice just before her world tour. It is revealed that she has made a difficult decision that comes back, literally, to haunt her. Only after she comes to terms with things, can she move on.
Sânge, from Mexican filmmaker Percival Argüero Mendoza, has Nicolás (Jorge León) at odds with his horror movie-loving lover Cassandra (Andrea Portal), who is drawn to a screening of an exclusive thriller by Petru Beklea (Constantino Morán). Her life—and his—will never be the same afterwards, as the couple find themselves in a real-life horror movie, filmed by Beklea himself. If this bloody entry has a not-unsurprising denouement, it provides a nice lead-in to How To Be A Villain, Helen O’Hanlon’s fabulous funhouse of horror film tropes that features a Supervillain (Terence Harvey) narrating lessons on being evil. He describes costumes and careers, to choices of housing and henchmen. This inventive short, an homage to James Whale and Boris Karloff, includes shadowy clips that reference classic films along with a cheeky commentary.
The animated shorts program open strongly with Laura Harrison’s fantastic debut, The Lingerie Show, which is far more seedy than sexy. A narrative written and delivered by Beth Raymer, recounts a gathering that leads to why the protagonist Lorraine ended up in Adena, Ohio. The images, a vibrant mélange of overlapping color and movement, depict the events, and pulse with excitement. It is a compelling, at times disturbing short about sex, drugs, and death, but it signals a tremendous new talent in Harrison. Food, by Siqi Song, is another strong short in this collection. In under four minutes, a handful of stop-motion animated foods describe and discuss the foods people eat—or don’t—and why. A pair of pretzels explains that they became vegetarian after seeing a TV program on factory farm chickens, while a cheeseburger talks about how kids are forced to eat vegetables, which they hate, and wonders who doesn’t find a cheeseburger delicious? Meanwhile, a crab describes his travels through Africa, where eating strange meat was his only option. Food is a clever and fun short with a point about the decisions we make for health and morality, and there is no resisting the talking plate of strawberries.
Other shorts in the program use animation to tell stories that can’t be depicted in traditional filmmaking. Hot Bod, by Claire van Ryzin, shows what happens when a man swallows an inflatable doll that expands to 800 times its actual size. He becomes enlarged, and curiously attractive to a stranger he might have feared. Sanjay’s Super Team is a highly personal film by writer/director Sanjay Patel that presents the gulf that is bridged between a son who wants to watch TV and his father who wants to practice his religion. As young Sanjay tries to understand the practice of Hinduism, he embarks on an imaginative flight of fancy, with various Gods acting as superheroes. Rounding out the collection is Rolling, a visually delightful short by Matt Christensen, about a squirrel who encounters logs, flowers, vegetables, and technology, among other things, as he spins around and around and around.
The New York shorts is a new anthology for the New York Film Festival, and it may be the festival’s most audacious program. The nine entries in this collection consider desperate characters, and/or elements of filmmaking and storytelling to comprise a provocative program. Hernia, by Jason Giampietro, features Rudy (Stephen Gurewitz), an annoying young man with palpable anxiety about a possible hernia. As he shuffles through his days in pain, he tries connecting with various friends who want little or nothing to do with him. Hernia is darkly comic as Rudy experiences longing, loneliness, and isolation in New York City. Another film featuring an irritating character, is Bad at Dancing, which opens with Joanna (director Joanna Arnow) walking in on her roommate Isabel (Eleanor Pienta) and Matt (Keith Poulson) having sex. This is one in a series of exasperating things Joanna does throughout the course of the film. As a woman who has lost her creative and sexual energy, Joanna clings to Isabel (and Matt) until her inappropriate behavior forces a confrontation.
Speaking of inappropriate, Sundae, by Sonya Goddy, features a distressed woman (Finnerty Steeves) who uses her son as a pawn in her quest for revenge. While the film’s punchline is obvious, the acting by Steeves in this short is still impressive. Six Cents in the Pocket is Ricky D’Ambrose’s elegant, offbeat entry about a man (Michael Wetherbee) who takes care of some errands for a friend he is apartment-sitting for in Brooklyn. Over the course of several weeks, he contemplates the city, relationships, and other things.
Shifting gears, Dragstrip, by Pacho Velez and Daniel Claridge, monitors patrons of a New Lebanon, New York speedway as an announcer chatters away and drivers prepare to race. This shrewd film, a compelling slide show of responses, never shows any of the action, which makes it all the more interesting. Likewise, Special Features, by James N. Kienitz Wilkins, also eschews conventional narrative as three African American men are interviewed and filmed individually, as their monologues have different interpretations before a curious reveal. Monologues are a part of another strong entry, My Last Film by Zia Anger. Here an actress in New York expresses—and experiences—a crisis, before another sequence, shot in Los Angeles, includes a potent narrative by actress Rosanna Arquette. Both episodes, which consider the abuse female performers suffer in the film industry, eventually fold in on themselves in creative ways.
The other shorts in his program that concern film and filmmaking include Riot, by Nathan Silver, which intercuts scenes from the 1992 Los Angeles Riots with Silvers’ home movie footage of him and his friends reenacting the riots at his birthday party, and Review, by Dustin Guy Defa, a simple, 4-minute, black and white short about a woman recounting a particular film she saw to her friends. It’s brilliant, but to say any more would spoil it’s many pleasures.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.