The One-Reel Film Festival is part of Seattle’s renowned Bumbershoot music and arts festival. I attended on Saturday and Sunday (this time with press credentials, so no will call delays like last year!), and had the opportunity to see short films from all over the world, ranging from brilliant to bafflingly terrible, 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.
A note on NSFW… Suffice to say, I saw a lot of films this weekend. The ones that I specifically remember containing adult content, I’ve marked as Not Safe For Work. However, outside of the “Films4Families” block, I can’t guarantee that the others will be entirely appropriate. Viewer discretion is advised.
- Temple Rider (Director: Miles Cheng & Joe Kwun, Hong Kong, 12 minutes)
A fascinating mix of 3D animation and watercolor/pencil textures. A lonely, bullied girl rides her bike through the park before getting spirited away into a labyrinth of madness. It reminded me of several films (some of which I obliquely referenced in the last sentence), but strongly evokes Henry Selick’s Coraline (albeit with a completely different visual style) as the girl descends into a nightmarish monkey circus ruled over by a horrifying and chaotically pencil-drawn baboon. The ensuing chase takes us through several impressive action setpieces, retaining the gorgeous handpainted textures even as the simplistic 3D animation becomes more elaborate. A clever and imaginative journey. Watch it in HD here.
- Trevor (Director: Matthieu Saghezchi, France, 4 minutes)
Bright and colorful existential crisis of a boy trying to fall asleep at night amid a strange, echoing adult voiceover. Explores some interesting ideas, but they ultimately seem more like the concerns of a grownup than a child (does a kid really worry about CCTV cameras?). Forcibly quirky, kinda boring. Rent it here ($2) or watch the trailer (free).
- Walkin’ On Snow Grass (Director: Makiko Sukikara, Japan, 7 minutes)
squirreldormouse wakes up from hibernation and heads warily out into the winter snow. The main character is as adorable as he is seizure-inducing, with his constantly oscillating watercolor texture. It’s unfortunate, because the twinkling stars and sparkling snow create utterly gorgeous backdrops that feel like illustrations in a children’s book. Combined with some slightly improved sound design – the slightest wind and echo, perhaps – these environments could have been truly immersive and inviting, but we never quite see them as anything beyond pretty paintings. Watch it here.
- Loser Leg* (Director: Francesco Filippi, Italy, 9 minutes)
A well-executed high concept about a boy born with no bones in his legs who is constantly getting them tied to things (by bullies). The animation is simple and/or low-budget, but effective nonetheless. Its low frame rate (which sometimes drops to still images) is balanced nicely by the narration, staying as hilarious and engaging as a well-drawn comic strip. More info and trailer here.
- Mobile (Director: Verena Fels, Germany, 7 minutes)
A manic cartoon-physics puzzle involving adorable cloth barnyard animals hanging from either side of a mobile. They slide back and forth as a lonely cow tries desperately to get to the mouse hanging on the other side- his only friend in the world. The character design is top notch, and this film has a manic energy worthy of “Looney Tunes”. Watch it here.
- Precise Peter (Director: Martin Schmidt, Germany, 6 minutes)
An amusing 2.5D rough polygon-y animation about a family sitting down to dinner in utter lockstep with the precise beat set by their patriarch, Peter. His metronome of audible grunts controls every one of their actions, right down to cutting and eating each bite of their fish in unison. All except for the youngest child, that is. The more he tries to conform, the more everything goes wrong, and the angrier Papa Peter gets. If this weren’t so amusing, it might be horrifying and abusive – but suffice to say, the moral of the story doesn’t end well for Peter. Watch it here, and play an awesome interactive game by the same director here.
- Kevin (Director: Jay Duplass, USA, 35 minutes)
A very personal musical biopic by Jay Duplass (of the Duplass brothers) about Kevin Gant, a singer/songwriter who enjoyed modest LA success in the early 90s with his unique blend of Spanish guitar and imaginative, New-Agey lyrics delivered in a very talky (almost Bob Dylan) style. In 1995, he disappeared from the music scene. Fast forward to 2009, when filmmaker Jay Duplass tracks Gant down working for UPS in Dallas, and asks him why he stopped playing. The answer, like Gant himself, is complicated (and long-winded). Much of this film is Gant monologuing as he drives through Dallas, so it understandably lives or dies based on how well Gant can perform, whether musically or vocally. Luckily, Gant is quite the character, and his wide-eyed enthusiasm and quixotic imagination doesn’t seem to have abated in the ensuing decade. To hear him talk about his creative process, it’s clear that he has an impressive visual mind and a flare for poetic lyrics. This film takes him on a bit of a journey, owing a great deal to Jay Duplass, who freely admits that he overstepped his bounds as a journalist and documentarian in his involvement in Gant’s potential comeback. But despite this ethical quandry, the film might have seemed a bit of a waste if it had ended with Gant finishing his sad recollection and staying put in Dallas with his delivery job. In the end, this is a triumphant tale, and feels like it deserves to be. More info and featurette here.
- Who is Duffy Bishop? And Why is She Not World Famous?* (Director: Bryan Johnston, USA, 28 minutes)
“I’ll take a voice rich with character over a perfect voice, every time.”
So says and embodies Duffy Bishop, a little-known Seattle blues singer with an intensely powerful voice and a brilliant eye for performing. My shameful admission is this: I preferred this film to Kevin simply because I enjoyed the musician’s performances far more. The director, Brian Johnston, informed us at the screening that this film was made for $150, via equipment and students borrowed from Ballard High School. But even absent this information, the film is still fairly impressive on a technical level. It relies heavily on a smattering of archival concert footage, and despite the highly variable quality of the image, the sound came through remarkably well, and conveyed all the richness and power of Duffy’s performances that could possibly shine through without seeing and hearing them in person. It’s not only clear that Duffy has a towering vocal presence, but she is also an enthusiastic stage performer, shimmying through the audience with a wireless mic and unabashed enthusiasm. The rest of the film is an exploration of the elusive nature of widespread fame, via interviews and phone calls to record stores around the world to see if they have any Duffy Bishop CDs in stock (this venture doesn’t go well). The editing between the interviews and concert footage is tight, overlapping the performance soundtracks nicely whenever appropriate, without letting them wear out their welcome.
If there’s one criticism I can raise about this film, it’s that it feels like a relic of the pre-MySpace era. While phoning record stores around the world is an amusing stunt, it doesn’t feel nearly as effective when I consider that I haven’t purchased an album in a record store in ages. I would have liked to see this film address the questions of digital distribution. If a 27-year-old pulp vampire romance writer can make millions on the Kindle Marketplace, surely the parameters of fame have shifted a bit. A quick perusal of Amazon shows five Duffy albums for sale and in stock, with 4/5 available as MP3 downloads. Duffy’s own website lists them for sale as well.
But you know what? My first inclination leaving this film was to run right out and buy a Duffy album – so if the true message of this film is “Duffy Bishop is an amazing musician”, then it conveyed it quite nicely. More info and featurette.
48 Hour Film Project
The 48 Hour Film Project has a simple premise – write, shoot, edit, and score a movie in two days. To ensure that filmmakers are complying with the timeframe, they are given certain common elements to include in their films. For this year’s Seattle 48HFP, the elements were a paint can, a character (a wedding planner named Stephen/Stephanie), and a line of dialogue (“When are you gonna get it together?”), as well as a genre (different for each film).
- Painted Love (Director: John Polnick, USA, 8 minutes)
A love story between a paint can and a paintbrush, torn apart when a cheap old man buys the paintbrush and a different can from the store. Shot with brilliant color and a nice, bright atmosphere, mostly with shallow depth of field. Great musical score. More info, including how to watch it online for free here.
- Battle: Seattle (Director: Aaron Sutherland, USA, 5 minutes)
A fun little alien invasion romp that riffs as much on Seattleite iPhone users as aliens. As these three gents stand within view of flying saucers demolishing downtown Seattle, but prefer to watch the footage on “Yootoob” and make sarcastic quips, it was more of a crackup than I expected. Goofy as all getup, but fun for a few minutes. Watch it here.
- Humpty (Director: Dmitriy Levanchuk, USA, 5 minutes)
An argument between a drunken, paint-huffing, anthropomorphic egg on a wall and a poorly acted strumpet/wedding planner below. But really, I was sold on just the egg. He’s got the self-hating pre-wedding jitters something fierce, and he conveys it quite nicely as a human face overlaid (Steve Oedekerk style) on an egg held in a hand. He bitches most elegantly. Watch it here.
- Mein Cupcake* (Director: Deirdre Timmons, USA, 7 minutes)
Easily the most polished of the 48-hour films. A little girl is denied cupcakes by her fascist, S&M-loving parents, and heads to the attic to play out this violent feud with her dolls. As we descend into her fantasy world, twisted versions of her mother and father appear with a vengeance, all determined to deny her that sweet, frosty goodness. The costume design is impeccable, and this film has both the best fight choreography and largest number of Hitlers of any film I saw today. Watch it here (NSFW).
- So Many Options (Director: Jeremy Cavner, USA, 6 minutes)
This film owes a great deal to actor Steven Gerard, as well as the writing of his gleeful serial killer. This character is so vocally and physically pitch-perfect, it makes this film a dark comedy delight. Also, given the short timeframe, the cinematography and lighting are top-notch. Watch it here.
- Séance Anything (Director: David Jolosky, USA, 5 minutes)
The bearded, slurpee-sucking séance artist was entertaining… The rest fell prey to a decent sketch concept played out by actors who really didn’t play to any sort of reality. Whether you’re happy or sad that your fiancée is dead on the eve of your wedding, at least make me believe it matters to you on some level. Watch it here.
- The Dungeon Master (Director: Rider Strong & Shiloh Strong, USA, 14 minutes)
A group of skeptical hipsters play D&D for the first time in years. One of them makes a rookie mistake of pointlessly murdering an innocent goblin, then transforms into a ridiculous villain in real life, chastising their thoroughly capable dungeon master for his commitment to his [thoroughly nerdy] craft. The film’s tone (and indeed, its attitude about role-playing games) is a bit inconsistent, but the Evil Hipster is certainly meant to be the bad guy. And the film takes a bit of a magical turn at the end with some unexpectedly strong production values. And hey, it’s co-directed by this guy. More info, trailer, and featurette here.
- Monster Flu (Director: Brian Wiebe, USA, 7 minutes)
A germaphobe shut-in (Vincent) and his best friend, an unlicensed Muppet named Toby, are forced to venture outside the apartment for the first time in 4 years. This film is strange, but semi-enjoyable – although it cuts off before making much of a point about either character. But at least we get to see Vincent masturbate with rubber gloves. So there’s that. More info here.
- A Comic Author X-Ray (Director: Marcos Nine, Spain, 20 minutes)
David Rubin is no good in front of the camera. Or with people. As a camera-shy comic book artist, he seems a risky choice for a documentary film subject. The film ultimately becomes a mix of live camera footage in which Rubin comes off as a bit of a self-important douche, and comic book cells (drawn by Rubin) in which he freely admits as much, and comments on the film being made. Like Adaptation before it, this film becomes an elegant, making-of-itself documentary. It goes on a bit too long, and there’s far too much overwrought meta-text literally written across the screen, but I came away more fascinated by Rubin than I thought I would be. And whether or not I liked the documentary, there’s no denying that Rubin is a talented artist. Watch the trailer.
- King Chicken* (Director: Nicolas Bolduc, Canada/Québec, 7 minutes)
King Chicken is a socially awkward man who walks around with headphones on, introduces himself with a business card (that says King Chicken), and gets romantic advice from a language-learning tape that schools him in real-time how to win the girl of his dreams, who’s sitting directly behind him. This was a delightful film with a rousing soundtrack, and Patrice Beauchesne gives a hilarious physical performance as the title character. Trailer here.
Best of SIFF 2011 Jury Winners
- The Eagleman Stag* (Director: Mikey Please, UK, 9 minutes)
The visual style of this BAFTA-award-winning film is colorless stop-motion animation, using materials made of paper, plaster, and/or styrofoam – like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Our narrator begins as a fetus in the womb, and proceeds to walk us through his entire life, family, and career as a naturalist, as well as his evolving perceptions of time. If time is perceived as a fraction of your total lifespan, he explains, that’s why a moment seems much longer when you’re a child than when you’re an adult. This film spells out its high-minded point by way of a sardonic voiceover narration- something that could have seemed didactic and annoying – but it did so with a brilliant, sharp wit. Trailer and official site here.
- Library of Dust (Director: Robert James/Ondi Timoner, USA, 15 minutes)
From director Ondi Timoner (We Live In Public) comes a documentary about unclaimed “cremains” (cremated ashes) of deceased patients from Oregon State Hospital (formerly Oregon State Insane Asylum). This film attempts to raise some points regarding the conditions of the mentally ill, but really only succeeds in saying that things used to be pretty bad. The only present-day patients we see are in clean, vibrant, brightly-lit surroundings, and are the fresh recipients of a brand new $500 million facility, courtesy of the State Legislature.
The film spends far too much time talking about the “terrible” conditions of these ash canisters. These carefully catalogued and differentiated canisters. These canisters which were sealed and stored using the best methods available at the time. These canisters which were only damaged when the area was hit with a natural disaster. Frankly, given the number of unmarked and mass graves that have existed throughout history, I’d say these unclaimed ashes were in remarkably good condition. The film attempts to attribute metallurgical decay to spiritual turbulence [read: angry ghosts] rather than time and unintended moisture, but the only real “villain” it manages to latch onto is the families who haven’t claimed these ashes – the families who almost certainly don’t know they exist.
I’m not entirely sure why this film was made. It definitely has a point to make, but I found it utterly self-deluding and unconvincing. Yes, it’s sad to be forgotten. But it’s the fate that awaits us all. Rather than obsess about our own mortality and legacy, it’s better to make the world a nicer place for the ones who are still here. And by the time this film was made, this had already occurred for the mentally ill of Oregon. More info and trailer here.
- Deeper Than Yesterday (Director: Ariel Kleiman, Australia, 20 minutes)
A harrowing tale of men left to their own devices aboard a Russian submarine for 3 months. I don’t envy the parents of the little girl to the front left of me who will have to explain to her what interest these sailors might have in a waterlogged female corpse. And this is not the only untoward tendency we see indulged during this film. These men are lonely, angry, and on the brink of losing their humanity. This film makes its point well, albeit disturbingly. More info and trailer here.
- Time Freak (Director: Andrew Bowler, USA, 11 minutes)
An amusing twist on a Groundhog Day-like concept, wherein the inventor of a time machine goes back in time one day to correct every little mistake he made…on that day. Forget Ancient Rome; he hasn’t even made it to the afternoon yet. Despite the presence of Primer-like timeline charts and equations, this film isn’t striving for a mind-bending time travel story, but rather a simple buddy comedy in an elegant sci-fi wrapper. Very well executed. More info and trailer here.
- Loom (Director: Jan Bitzer/Ilija Brunck/Csaba Letay, Germany, 7 minutes)
Astonishing macro view of a moth caught in a spider’s web, attacked, and devoured. The scene then slows way down and zooms to the molecular level, as we see venom and silk forming within the spider’s body. This is an utterly terrifying film – depicting a spider as a perfect, mechanized killing machine. Watch it in HD here.
- Vicenta (Director: Samuel Orti Marti, Spain, 23 minutes)
This is a very, very adult claymation film, and that appears to be all it set out to be. It’s chock full of explicit language, sex, violence, no less than three Matrix references, and an abundance of juvenile humor. I can now remove “doggy-style sex” from my dwindling list of things I’ve never seen stop-motion animated. That said, what starts as a man mistreating his wife takes a turn for the macabre halfway through, as he dies before revealing the whereabouts of his lottery winnings. It’s all a bit lurid, but undeniably fun. And the subtitles are hilariously, inexcusably bad. Surely there are enough Spanish/English translators available that something like this should never see the light of day, but it only adds to the film’s pulp appeal. More info, trailer.
- flesh color (Director: Masahiko Adachi, Japan, 5 minutes)
Combination of Japanese animated koi (and other pond imagery) swimming turbulently around the skin of still or stop animated nude models. An elegant piece of mixed media. Watch it here (NSFW).
- Paths of Hate* (Director: Damian Nenow, Poland, 10 minutes)
Two prop planes dogfight through a gorgeous skyscape of monstrous clouds and towering mountains. They are the well-sketched comic-book face of rage – determined at any cost to do each other harm. This is glorious and kinetic violence, appropriately jarring to behold. More info and trailer here.
- Stanley Pickle* (Director: Vicky Mather, UK, 12 minutes)
I love, love, love stop motion that makes use of real live humans. It’s not just the jerky, unsettling motion that sells it- it’s the visual tricks and flourishes that would be impossible in any other medium. Among the multitude of brilliant shots is a girl seemingly ice-skating around a forest floor, and the title character’s parents recreated as malfunctioning windup toys. The time-lapse nature of these shots is apparent at times, as we see Stanley watching the girl dance through a meadow from his window, as clouds and trees alike show that hours are actually passing as these shots are culled. It’s all terribly gorgeous, and its simple theme – about life, death, and letting go – is conveyed nicely. More info and trailer here. (UPDATE: Watch it online here)
- Visitation (Director: Suzan Pitt, USA, 9 minutes)
There has been at least one world of grotesque, non-narrative madness in every festival, and this year is no exception. I suppose it was just a matter of time before one came along that I enjoyed. The imagery in this film is disturbing, but well-conceived – evoking the Platonic “Allegory of the Cave” among other things. I can’t say it was a pleasant experience, but it was a fascinating one. More info here.
- Eye of the Storm (Director: Christopher Alender, USA, 6 minutes)
This would seem to be a music video from the Zack Snyder school of heightened reality. The animation of this lone airship pilot drifting through an endless sky is utterly gorgeous and nearly photorealistic (in that video-gamey, HDR sorta way). That said, I think Zack Snyder did this film a disservice, since I’ve seen animation this true-to-life before, which, by itself, is no longer sufficient to impress. The film has no dialogue and almost no narrative, and the only thing I remember distinctly about it is an oddly simplistic-looking dragon (which flew in the face of every other piece of animation). For a purely technical exercise, 6 minutes was a bit too long, but perhaps fans of the band would disagree. Watch it here.
- Rosa (Director: Jesús Orellana, Spain, 9 minutes)
I felt at several points like I was going to vomit while watching this. As a cyborg girl awakens and runs for her life, a series of violent clashes ensue, each more horrific and pointless than the last. The entire thing felt like an unadulterated mashup of every video game cutscene I’ve ever been unable to skip through. The girls all look like buxom, pouty-lipped dominatrixes, the blood-splatter is worthy of a bukkake film, and the dingy, grey-brown world is vomited forth in a sickening soft glow and jarring, schizophrenic cuts. As if this world wasn’t unpleasant enough, we also get a relentless series of interstitial POV shots of the girl’s blurry, green-hued cyborg-vision. None of this is to say the film looked cheap (with the exception of some dubious motion whenever the characters jumped through the air and landed). On the contrary, a great deal of money, artistry, and animation man-hours were clearly spent on this derivative monstrosity. What a waste. More info and trailer here.
Quick List: All of the films that are available online
A note on “NSFW”… Suffice to say, I saw a lot of films this weekend. The ones that I specifically remember containing adult content, I’ve marked as Not Safe For Work. However, outside of the “Films4Families” block (the first three below), I can’t guarantee that the others will be entirely appropriate. Viewer discretion is advised.