The One-Reel Film Festival is part of Seattle’s renowned Bumbershoot music and arts festival. Throughout the weekend, I’ve had the opportunity to see short films from all over the world, some of which can be viewed online (I’ve included links below where applicable). The films were arranged into blocks of around an hour apiece, which I’ve arranged in presentation order below. Bold text means I enjoyed the film, and an asterisk (*) means it was my favorite film of that block. Skip to the bottom for a list of all the films that can be viewed online.
- Snap (Director: Thomas G. Murphy, Belgium, 6 minutes)
There’s nothing new under the sea, but this is enjoyable nonetheless. The film is equal parts Kung Fu Panda and Looney Tunes. An underwater gremlin learns to hunt in a different way with the help of…an underwater frog. It’s zany, and a bit forgettable, but fun for a moment.
- The Mole at the Sea (Director: Anna Kadykova, Russia, 5 minutes)
Crowded beaches are not fun. This is the point the film ably makes, and it does so with a sea of grotesque humanity (or at least human-looking animals). The animation is unique, and quite a throwback – it falls somewhere between 1960s Charlie Brown specials and JoeCartoon. The mole is frankly adorable, and watching him “swim” around through the sand to find an enjoyable spot on the beach is most entertaining.
- Hedgehogs and the City* (Director: Evalds Lacis, Latvia, 10 minutes)
This delightfully subversive stuffed animal stop-motion begins as Over the Hedge, wherein an animal habitat is taken over by human development. Then it becomes…something else entirely. According to the film’s environmental and consumerist satire, the best recourse for an eclectic collection of animals (including a drunken moose) is to rise to the top of the food chain in a new way. Great fun.
More info and teaser here.
- Hannah and the Moon (Director: Kate Charter, UK, 6 minutes)
Now that’s more like it. Like yesterday’s “The Window”, this film takes place inside the pages of a children’s book – but the pencil-drawn animation is gorgeous and elaborate, and the simple story is nonetheless deeply affecting. This is the tale of a lonely girl whose mother is too busy to talk, so she talks to the moon instead. The book’s narration is revealed one word at a time (making this almost a “Reading Rainbow” exercise for younger audience members) as Hannah navigates the world. Sometimes words follow her climbing the stairs, or fly through the air – and sometimes, they literally leap off the page.
- The Goat Herder and His Lots and Lots and Lots of Goats (Director: Will Rose, UK, 7 minutes)
If Nintendo’s Mario character were reimagined as a goatherder, rendered in silhouette at magic hour, it might look something like this. This beautiful 2D platformer short is very video-gamey (seemingly on purpose), and even contains a twist that will be familiar to modern gamers, wherein the player’s efforts are rendered unnecessary. Quite fun – and the goats rhythmic chomping was very catchy.
- Blue (Director: Asia Lancaster/Katelyn Bianchini/Rena Cheng, USA, 8 minutes)
A bright blue balloon is terrified of being popped by humans. This film gets occasionally elaborate with the limited visual tools at its disposal, but the animation is incredibly simplistic, and its human characters look downright grotesque. Given the balloons’ quite reasonable fears during the first half of this film, this uncanny valley look makes sense, but given the emotional connection the film attempts to cultivate with a young boy by the end, I can’t help but think that it was not deliberate. The film’s end credits sequence contained a jarringly upbeat song – easily one of the most obnoxious sunshine pop ballads this side of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Not a wise choice for tonal consistency when the film’s last scene takes place in a cemetery full of mourners.
More info here.
- Ballet (Director: Sajid Dilawar/Gunja Bose, India, 2 minutes)
It’s hard to impress me with “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies”, if only because I’ve seen it so many different ways. But this elegant and simplistic animation managed to do so once again. The faux film-grain and sepia tones evoke a prototypical film projection, and the effect is a captivating study in movement.
- Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty* (Director: Jeffrey Ruoff, USA, 38 minutes)
A creative endeavor – particularly one that began as a collaborative project between college students – is lucky to last a few years, much less four decades. This modern dance company’s story is remarkable, and yet familiar to me personally, as the company’s history, ideology, and public classes feel very much like an improvised theatre company that I’m involved with. The medium is unique, but the message is quite similar.
The company’s style features choreographed dance routines with human bodies initially walking in unison, but then meshing and wrapping together into unique shapes and transformations – often with limited clothing. All in all, the company’s longevity seems best attributed to its extreme adaptability. The film features a 2010 collaborative mixed media performance with a comic book artist, wherein the dancers perform in silhouette behind a rear projection screen, interacting with the changing graphics in real time. For a ragtag band of 1970s Dartmouth students, this seems a significant evolution of the company’s style.
The only thing that gives me pause about this film is that it is functionally an advertisement for the company, as well as a memorial piece for the company’s late co-founder (who is featured in the film, and has passed away recently as of the film’s release). On the face of it, it is unlikely that this is an unbiased, “warts and all” portrayal of the company’s history. Several of the company’s founders have also left since its inception, and it was clearly in a period of transition and uncertainty when the film was made. But what I can’t argue with is the unique and valuable artistic endeavor that is on display here. Pilobolus is a thriving arts company, and on that level they have my respect. The film acknowledges that losing one of its co-founders will be the next great challenge to the organization’s survival – surely to be followed by other departures as the years go on. But like the bovine dungborne fungus for which it is named (I bullshit you not), this company seems adaptable. And messy.
- Side Effects* (Director: Traven Rice, USA, 20 minutes)
This film is quite riveting, even if it’s a bit difficult to discern its intention. It functions as a dark and somewhat demented version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, wherein the film’s central love story may be little more than a construction in the main character’s mind. Alena (Carla Quevedo, The Secret in Their Eyes) is part of a drug trial whose side effects include a series of lucid (and narratively connected) dreams, complete with a Hot Dream Guy on the beach. Her love interest (Robert Beitzel) is a bit of a cypher, mainly because we never see him speak. Their communication in the dream is solely in the form of voiceover dialogue (some of which was made while pretending to breathe underwater, which must’ve been a bitch of an acting challenge). This doesn’t especially diminish the effectiveness of their romance, but it does make it almost entirely dependent on Quevedo’s performance.
Alena spends the majority of the film in the Saw-like environment of a windowless hospital room as frigid medical personnel administer dose after dose of unknown medications. It’s all very unpleasant, and Quevedo does an admirable job of both conveying Alena’s inner plight and eliciting audience sympathy. I almost wish the film had not relied on Alena’s letters home to expose her inner turmoil – the actress was doing a fine job on her own, and the letters (which receive no response) do little but add to the film’s already ever-present paranoia.
All in all, the ending is a little obvious, but it reveals just enough about the intended purpose of the drug trial without making every detail clear. This may well just be mad science at work, or it could just as easily be a deleted scene from the first act of Inception. Whatever is going on here, it brings more than enough intrigue to the table, and one bravura performance.
More info here.
- Taboulé (Director: Richard Garcia, Spain, 4 minutes)
Modern technology has done a wonderful job of creating “trust opportunities” for couples – this film tackles the conversation that ensues when a man asks his boyfriend (for no reason whatsoever) to share his mobile PIN. They hang out on a rooftop together, and debate the ever-changing definition of trust. Simple and sweet.
- A Little Something on the Side (Director: Stephen Tobolowsky, USA, 14 minutes)
Stephen Tobolowsky had a triple heart bypass last year (something he has been quite open about on his storytelling podcast). I don’t know whether knowing that in advance made me enjoy this film more, but it certainly didn’t hurt. The film plays a delightful bait-and-switch with a very obvious joke, taking “this isn’t what it looks like” to absurd new heights, and having a great deal of fun with its bad behavior. Most enjoyable.
- Dream Girl (Director: Tulica Singh, USA, 6 minutes)
It’s become easier for my mind to drift further away from heteronormativity the more of these tales of something-other-than-straight romance I see. On the face of it, this isn’t merely a low-budget, reasonably well produced tale of unrequited love – primarily, it just made me ponder the social engineering task that is recognizing viable romantic partners who happen to share your sexual orientation. As a straight male (recalling my single days), it was easy for me to take for granted that if a lady doesn’t respond to my advances, it was likely because she didn’t find me specifically attractive, not my entire sex. Laura, the dreamer, is forced to contend with the possibility that the girl of her dreams not only doesn’t know she exists (or at least doesn’t know her name), but that she might never be interested in her romantically. If that situation is half as difficult to parse as my gendered pronoun use in the previous sentence, I don’t envy her task.
More info here.
- Spooners (Director: Bryan Horch, USA, 14 minutes)
This film’s thesis seems to be that progressive acceptance of same-sex marriage has reached the point where it can be hilariously grating to the actual couples. In a world where same-sex marriage (as of this writing) is still illegal in 37 states, this filmmaker still manages to find comedy in the suspiciously well-timed corporate acceptance of former social taboos. The majority of the film takes place inside a mattress store called “Drowzy’s”, featuring a “smart bed” that is just a little too happy to see its first gay couple shopping for a mattress. Corporations are amoral entities, and calling attention to their propensity for becoming socially liberal as soon as the market dictates is spot-on satire. The crowd of white liberals crowing about how they’ve heard terms like “bear” and “otter” on NPR is just the icing on the cake. That’s tolerance in a nutshell. Most people are well-meaning, nice, and just a little bit full of shit. Well done, sirs.
- Malaria (Director: Edson Shundl Oda, Brazil, 6 minutes)
A well-executed gimmick requires a story that would be compelling even without it. This story, of a man hiring a mercenary to kill Death, certainly qualifies. The story is told in what I can vaguely refer to as a motion comic, but featuring human hands turning over each gorgeous pencil-drawn and shaded frame, and a knife-blade sliding in to reveal each line of dialogue. This technique is augmented with physical effects as we hear the scene play out in [Portugese] voiceover. It’s a clever premise, and the technique makes it visually captivating.
- Fora (Director: Ayuub Kasasa Mago, Rwanda, 7 minutes)
A conundrum for an American film critic: How do I judge an up-and-coming third-world film production without being patronizing or mean, or tolerating mediocrity? If you have an answer, you’re a better person than me. This is the only Rwandan film I’ve ever seen, so I have no qualitative basis for comparison. But on the face of it, the story is not terribly compelling and the filmmaking technique is pretty rudimentary. But while these are not trained actors (and it shows), they are decent filmmakers with the tools at their disposal. The lighting and cinematography are solid in both the indoor (fairly dim) home, as well as the Kigali city overlooks. This is a simple tale of brotherly love and forgiveness featuring what might be an actual father and son pairing (two of them have the same last name). It’s an old, simple story, which resonates a bit. But is it good? Hell if I know.
More info here.
- Good Karma $1 (Director: Jason Berger/Amy Laslett, USA, 15 minutes)
In this documentary, a pair of ad executives attempt to find the most successful slogans for the homeless to use on cardboard panhandling signs. These guys are no Don Draper, but they are slick and chock full of wistful, vaguely inspiring, mildly pretentious ideas. The client to whom they must present their ideas is a homeless man with dreadlocks (a wonderful character unto himself) who rightfully thrashes them, saying the men have clearly never been homeless. And if this film were merely pretentious and well-meaning, it might have been grating. But it carries a sense of optimism about the spirit of generosity that is genuinely contagious. If you give a homeless man a dollar, sure- he might buy a beer with it. But you’ve still made him happy, and were you really guaranteed anything more than that once the money changed hands?
- Noodle Fish* (Director: Jin-man Kim, South Korea, 10 minutes)
Noodle Fish features the fruitless existential musings of fish in the sea speculating about the air-world above the waterline. In its own rite, this would be a smart piece of existential satire- but this film takes it a step further with some of the most brilliant and unconventional stop motion animation this side of Don Hertzfeldt. The entire story is rendered in noodle flour. Depressions and sculptures, fish, seaweed, sand, and waves…made of noodle flour. The film is 10 minutes long, and it boggles the mind to think how long it must have taken to produce. The technique is absolutely flawless, and is every bit as brilliant a piece of film craftsmanship that a smart script like this deserves. And man is it funny.
Update: Watch it in full here!
Films4Adults: Neither Here Nor There
- Presence Required (Director: Maria Gordillon, Spain, 12 minutes)
A couple experiences empty nest syndrome when their household ghost Sebastian goes missing. What this film brilliantly captures is the magical realism of everyone having the same skewed sense of morality. In this world, death is not the least bit tragic, and no house is complete without a ghoul to call its own. The actors convey this warped reality brilliantly as they painstakingly interview potential replacements.
- No Beers for Bradley (Director: Julian Doan, USA, 10 minutes)
Speaking of a skewed sense of morality, here’s a demented fairy tale about a drunken rampage, told as a bedtime storybook to a precocious little boy dying of ebola. This film is a mean drunk. It is definitely being offensive and gory just for the sake of it (much like one of last year’s selections), which works just fine as long as everyone is entirely committed to the bit. And everyone is – even the little nosebleeding kid.
- Dosa Hunt (Director: Amrit Singh, USA, 22 minutes)
Seven friends – six Indians and one Mexican – hunt around New York City for a South Indian crepe dish called dosa, set to an enjoyable soundtrack from their various bands (they are all members of the indie music scene, including Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, Das Racist, and others).
I could utter some very pretentious phrases about this film. “Primer on Indian-American culture” definitely came to mind. The film does a solid job of making the point that what we call “Indian food” in the US (ditto Chinese food, Mexican food, etc.) is really from one small area of India, and there is plenty of other food from elsewhere in such a huge country that individual countrymen might have never tried. It’s a point that seems pretty obvious (how many regional dishes are there in the US?), but the film makes it well.
Unfortunately, the other pretentious phrase that came to mind was “Meandering foodie tour”. I was mildly entertained by this (and felt like tracking down some dosa afterward), but the pacing and structure felt entirely too loose. Certain threads led nowhere – we see them shop at an Indian grocery for ingredients and a pan to make their own dosa. They buy the stuff, but they never actually go through with the cooking. The myriad detours and delays on the hunt seemed to be more entertaining to the group themselves than anyone watching. And don’t get me wrong; that sense of fun was mildly infectious. If you watch a group having fun, you can’t help but feel like you’re having fun as well. But it probably could’ve been done in half the time.
More info and trailer here.
- Five Years* (Director: Durier Ryan, USA, 14 minutes)
Pop quiz, hotshot. Is it racist for me to find it jarring to see a teenage Justin Bieber-looking kid getting out of jail on probation? Is there any combination of appearance-based adjectives that I can string together which won’t normatively imply that an attractive, white delinquent is somehow…unusual? Whatever combination of prejudices led me to this conclusion, I did not find this character intimidating in the least, and I think that might be what makes him so effective. We never find out his crime (although he does tell us it’s none of our fucking business), but we do know he is wearing an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet, he’s not allowed to drive, and he’s not allowed to leave Brooklyn. And naturally, the very day that he gets out of jail, every one of these constraints is challenged, and he is forced to make some very grown-up (and possibly very stupid) decisions about what’s right and wrong in his life.
This is a solid dramatic film. Like The Wire before it, it sets up a captivating world on the streets in a short space of time, and makes you feel the weight of the characters’ histories in every interaction before you really get to know any of them. The casting of this film was spot-on, especially that of the lead.
- Magma (Director: Pawel Masiona, Poland, 30 minutes)
This film made me twitchy with anticipation, and not in a good way. It chronicles the existential dread and creeping insanity of a furniture salesman at the dawn of middle age. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on here. From the way the sets get rearranged and the music gets extra plunky at the end, there may have been a twist ending so subtle that I completely missed it. At all times, this film seems to be building to something. The main character seems deeply tortured by his existence, and there seems to be a distinct reason why. That reason is never revealed. If conveying the neverending chore that is this man’s existence was the sole objective of this film, then I say to the filmmaker, bravo.
More info here.