Heavy would be the word that best describes the majority of shorts playing the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The 60 shorts selected from 8,061 submissions tend toward longish running times and meaty subject matter. Consequently, there isn’t an overabundance of light-hearted audience pleasers or flat-out comedies to be found among the festival’s eight short film programs.
Here (in alphabetical order) is a preview of five shorts most likely to generate positive buzz among Park City ticket holders — plus a bonus sixth film available for online viewing right now.
These films might not be weighted down with enough gravitas to walk away with awards at the festival’s conclusion, but the filmmakers display so much talent and verve that you can bet they’re going to be making truly excellent films for years to come.
"A.D. 1363, The End of Chivalry"
New Zealand-based American filmmaker Jake Mahaffy clearly had fun creating this two-and-a-half minute adventure story about a knight in shining armor. While a great many of this year’s Sundance shorts have bloated running times, "A.D. 1363" doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s a textbook example of how to do a concise short – and get laughs.
The first recipient of the Sundance Auerbach Screenwriting Fellowship, Mahaffy has already gained a following for his micro-budget shorts and features. "As a kid, I wanted to create other worlds and have control over them. That’s what attracted me to movies in the first place," Mahaffy told Indiewire back in 2008 when he was on the festival circuit with his award-winning feature "Wellness." Mahaffy’s mastery of world-creation shines in "A.D. 1363."
"It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise"
Documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf ("Teenage") has crafted a wonderfully quirky 36-minute portrait of Hilary Knight, the 87-year-old artist best known for illustrating the adventures of a six-year-old fictional troublemaker named Eloise. The film is packed with amazing footage provided by Knight, who has personality to spare. Among the highlights: Knight’s home movies of the first illustrations he made of Eloise the night after he met author Kay Thompson at the Persian Room in the Plaza.
The HBO doc is the first project produced by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s new production company A Casual Romance Productions. Wolf credits Dunham as the project’s instigator. "It was really Lena Dunham’s idea at first," he said. "She is a huge Eloise fan, and actually has an Eloise illustration tattooed on her back. When Hilary learned about Lena’s tattoo, he wrote her a letter and invited her over for dinner." That’s when things really clicked. "I remember Lena texted me a photo of Hilary’s bathroom, which is ‘underwater themed,’ and has plastic barnacle, shrimp, and glass sculptures everywhere," Wolf recalled. "Hilary’s apartment is covered from floor to ceiling with artwork and all sorts of artifacts from his life. Initially, Lena thought it would be interesting to make a short video about his apartment. But I did a little digging and found some great archival material on Eloise, and we soon learned that Hilary had captured thousands of hours of home videos for decades. It became clear that there was a bigger story to be told about his relationship to Eloise."
A Guggenheim Fellow, Wolf has also made documentaries about avant-garde cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell ("Wild Combination") and the birth of youth culture ("Teenage").
Good news for those unable to catch this short doc at Sundance: It will air on HBO in March.
"Symphony no. 42"
Director and screenwriter Réka Bucsi’s quirky 10 minute animated delight was shortlisted for the Academy Awards. The film, which consists of 47 scenes in which a series of strange and wonderful things occur, was animated frame by frame in TVPaint with backgrounds painted digitally.
"I started to sketch and write for the film about two to three years ago," Bucsi emailed Indiewire. "I remember that my main inspiration was my sketchbook. In the beginning it was a very organic, intuitive process. I just had fun with drawing and writing. I involved the sound designer – Péter Benjámin Lukács – from the very beginning, and asked him to think the same way I do, but transfer it into sound."
The animated short in all its sonic splendor played Berlin in 2014 and will next be shown at the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, Spokane International Film Festival, and the Tokyo Anime Award Festival.
Writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s gripping nine-minute drama, shot in two nights on location in Red Hook, Brooklyn, centers around a student athlete who is stopped by the police for no other reason than the color of his skin. Displaying real filmmaking finesse, "Stop" is a timely tale well told.
"Shorts are a wonderful medium because they force you to strip out anything unnecessary in order to tell the story," Green wrote in an email to Indiewire. "For ‘Stop,’ simplicity was key because we were covering one isolated event in the course of someone’s entire life, but the event could have impacted his life forever."
NYU-trained Green, who is partnered in a production company with his brother Rashaad Ernesto Green, will be writing and directing his first feature film, "Monday Wednesday Friday," this year.
"World of Tomorrow"
Animator Don Hertzfeldt, a previous Sundance jury prizewinner ("Everything Will Be Okay") and Oscar nominee ("Rejected"), returns to Park City with his latest highly anticipated short, "World of Tomorrow." Trippy and highly enjoyable, the 17-minute digitally animated saga spirals around a little girl’s guided look into the future.
Hertzfeldt emailed Indiewire in his trademark lowercase writing style to share the inspiration behind this newest short: "i’ve been in preproduction on a new feature film for a while, a big thing that’s going to require a team of artists and new digital tools. i’ve been using paper and film for almost twenty years, i had never animated digitally before, so i wanted to teach myself some basics here at home. so ‘world of tomorrow’ was a sort of learning experiment, and it grew."
Asked if the film would be online anytime in the near future, Hertzfeldt wrote that "plans are in the works, i want people to see it sooner than our usual too-slow release schedule, but i’m not sure about the timing just yet. i am only approving our final DCP for sundance just this afternoon."
Bonus Short: "Russian Roulette"
"Russian Roulette" is one of the few Sundance selections currently viewable online.
Director Ben Aston and screenwriter Oli Fenton created this five-minute audience pleaser about a lonely London-based woman and a sex-starved orbiting cosmonaut who meet via Chatroulette. The U.K. production, made for less than 50 pounds while the filmmaker was in pre-production for another film, previously won the jury prize at Sundance’s London fest in 2014.