Short films aren’t the kind of movies that just fall into your lap. Works of tight and taut storytelling, short films often elude mainstream consumption and tend to serve only the select bevy of viewers who seek them. In 2021, the South by Southwest, or SXSW, Film Festival demonstrated the short film’s versatility by highlighting filmmakers who enhance and advance the short form. The festival’s selection spans several categories: narrative shorts, documentary shorts, animated shorts, midnight shorts, Texas shorts and Texas high school shorts — films of five minutes or less created by high schoolers in the Lone Star state. Within this wealth of stories and styles, SXSW’s program clearly demonstrates that the short film’s potential cannot be exhausted, underestimated or undervalued. Here are some standouts from this year’s lineup.
“Our Bed is Green”
Loneliness emerged as a recurrent theme in the short film categories. “Our Bed is Green” enlivens this emotion in a unique and colorful psychedelic world from the imagination of director Maggie Brennan. The film follows a young woman named Cecily’s (Caitlin Duffy) visit to Realm, a virtual reality facility able to satisfy her unspoken erotic desires. Brennan’s creative worldbuilding makes “Our Bed is Green” immersive to the point that the characters’ dialogue feels superfluous. The film’s soundscape, as well, thrives as a faithful and clever companion to a story about unrequited desire and repression.
“Marvin’s Never Had Coffee Before”
SXSW shared a number of films that tackled the current pandemic’s grim realities, but few movies were able to offer a refreshing take about our current way of living. “Marvin’s Never Had Coffee Before” is a gentle comedy directed by Andrew Carter that highlights a young man, played by Charles Rogers, who struggles to connect with his coworkers over Zoom. The anecdote? Coffee. With an endearingly awkward lead, the short film is simple and unassuming, with levity that’s delightful to the last drop.
Amassing well-deserved critical acclaim, “Opera” won its category’s SXSW Audience Award and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short. Directed by Erick Oh, “Opera” is a work of thematic and visual mastery, unfolding as an epic 8K size animation installation project that’s able to be played and replayed on an infinite loop. “Opera” fashions an expansive tapestry of human history in nine minutes, brilliantly encapsulating its cyclical procession. The short’s hypnotic details manage to mesmerize even after the inevitable fourth or fifth viewing.
“Ten Leaves Dilated”
What if the lore of the Cabbage Patch Kids allegorized society’s inability to candidly discuss childbirth? Directed by Kate Hinshaw and Ebony Blanding, “Ten Leaves Dilated” gives a clever answer to a question almost too absurd to ask. This trippy documentary explores various birthing myths, focusing on the collection of famous dolls said to be born from the head of a cabbage. “Ten Leaves Dilated” is commendable for its unique premise and bold direction, but the story feels jagged and incomplete when the credits finally roll.
“A Tale Best Forgotten”
Based on a poem by Helen Adam, “A Tale Best Forgotten” tells a simple story in five minutes, yet exalts it through rigorous and impressive camerawork. Tomas Stark directs this avant-garde murder-ballad, which chronicles the fate of a father (Ola Wallinder), his daughter (Julia Sporre), her lover (Adam Stålhammar) and a dog-headed man (Jerker Beckman). The camera builds suspense through mind-bending and haunting unbroken tracking shots depicting a shadowed house and its bleary reflection. Mystery shrouds the short film as disturbing events take place beyond the frame, and their aftershocks begin to creep into our vision. Stark cleverly finds beauty in the grotesque, which makes “A Tale Best Forgotten” a memorable entry in the midnight shorts category.
The art of stop-motion animation demands rigor and discipline, which makes the dreamy quality in Kim Kang-min’s “KKUM” deeply impressive. The film is a personal and visually stunning exploration of a mother’s premonitions through the eyes of her caring son. It offers a touching love letter to an openly treasured relationship. The black-and-white film uses Styrofoam, molding the material with liquid smoothness as if it were clay. Every moment, every movement — even the excretion of a bug — is visually exciting, crafted with care, respect and a sense of humor.