FEATURE: School's Out: The Best Shorts from the Big Schools
by Tim LaTorre
(indieWIRE: 07.29.02) -- New York University, Columbia University, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Southern California, American Film Institute ... The Big Five. Many an aspiring filmmaker has dreamt of walking the hallowed halls of the big film schools ... to sit where Marty sat, to hear Francis wax poetic about a little fat girl making a masterpiece, or to shoot and post your film at the new Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts.
Shorts coming out of film schools are mostly raw. They're documents of the learning process -- a reminder of how filmmakers learn their craft. You'll often get a glimpse of brilliance buried in chaos and roughly patched together. It's the rare film in which all the crafts -- cinematography, performance, editing, sound, score -- come together to form a masterstroke. As a rule, this year's film school crop had one or two standouts from each school and several honorable mentions.
The best film from this year's pack is also the one that won the gold medal in the dramatic narrative category at the Student Academy Awards, NYU alum Jessica Sharzer's "The Wormhole." Focusing on a young boy's desire to rescue his kidnapped brother and heal his family, Sharzer has created a streamlined story with great pacing. The fantastic sun-drenched photography by fellow NYU alum Andrij Parekh and dreary-dreamy original score by Christopher Libertino add to the creative prowess of the piece. Strong performances by TJ Sullivan, Claire Beckman, and Suzanne Shepherd also show that Sharzer has a good eye for casting, one of the most important attributes of a good director.
NYU's other stand-out is John Krokidas' "Slo-mo," a humorous urban romp that focuses on a young unpublished writer who, finding the world around him moving too fast, accidentally falls into the world of the slo-mo, a time shift where people literally slow down and become invisible. With a great lead comedic performance by Jimmi Simpson, fun fast-motion camera tricks, and solid photography by Andrij Parekh, Krokidas has crafted a film that flows smoothly and effortlessly.
Other NYU films of note include Liat Dahan's "Climbing Miss Sophie," which showcases fantastic photography by Ben Kutchins, and undergraduate Jared Micah Herman's stirring black-and-white WWII period piece "Empty."
Moving uptown, Patrick Downs' "Broken" highlighted Columbia University's slate of student work. The film follows a small town cop who, after stopping a domestic squabble and trying to help the victim, progressively finds himself powerless and continually frustrated by his own rescue fantasy. Jerry Della Salla's lead performance as Tom Sykousky ultimately carries the piece, with Predrag Dubravcic's verite camerawork and sullen visuals contributing to the main character's psychological meltdown.
Although Ellen-Alinda Verhoeff's "Abbie Down East" was a bit rough around the edges, the tale of a 14-year-old girl in 1856 trying to save her ailing mother during a storm created an impressive period tone of loneliness and suspense. Patricia Riggen's "La Milpa" (the cornfield) used the bright, saturated colors of Checco Varese's photography to paint a rich Mexican landscape. The guilty pleasure of this year's crop was Susanne Oberbeck's "Desperate -- Not Desperate", a humorous DV romp that reverses the stereotype of prostitution by having a non-actor women in London's East End pimping young male blokes.
Switching to the West Coast, UCLA's roster is topped by the winner of the silver medal in the dramatic narrative category at the Student Academy Awards, Grace Lee's "Barrier Device." A deft mix of comedy and drama, the film follows a researcher of a condom study who gets too close to one of her subjects when the researcher discovers that her subject is dating her ex. Strong performances from Sandra Oh (of HBO's "Arli$$") and Suzy Nakamura combine with Lee's excellent pacing to create a seamless dramatic package.
Other notable films from UCLA include Joel Juarez Sanchez's harrowing "SinAzul," which follows a woman's voyage to her grandmother's Mexican town after suffering a miscarriage, and Alina Hiu-Fan Chau's dreamy origin-of-the-universe animation "E=MC2".
Across town, USC's slate can be generally characterized by an increase in production quality (their techno-savvy is also evident in their press materials, which include a semi-annual DVD of their entire film slate -- other film schools please take notice!). Selena Chang's "Three Exits" is a solid coming-of-age drama that focuses on a girl who begins to assert her independence on a road trip with her parents. The strength here is in the simplicity of the story. Chang has crafted an elegant, understated tale about how small gestures of defiance are the baby steps of uniqueness and personality.
Anne Misawa's "Waking Mele" uses subtle performances to tell a story of a teenage sister dealing with her brother's mortality. Mikael R. Kreuzriegler and Alexia Marcoux's eerie blue-green photography combine with dream-like editing flourishes to create a visual style that is murky and foreboding.
Also in Los Angeles, AFI's production program produced a gem in the form of Marc Beneria's "King Returns," a flavorful tale of a flamenco guitarist who loses his muse when his lifelong love passes away. Oscar Duran's black-and-white photography is some of the most beautiful, textural, and moody work found anywhere, reminiscent of the photography of Anton Corbijn. Combined with a fantastic flamenco score, great pacing and solid performances by Raul Gonzalez and Maria Benjumeda, "King Returns" is a short that one should definitely seek out.
Photography seems to be the common strength of AFI's production program. Director/DP Diego Quemada-Diez's "A Table is a Table" uses strong visual composition to tell the story of an old man descending into loneliness. While Juliette Carrillo's "Spiral" and Marina Gonzalez Palmier's "White Like the Moon" demonstrate that the visual quality of the Digital Betacam medium is on par with film for telling moving, personal stories.
With a list of contacts in one hand and a short in the other, every year a new crop of fresh-faced artists emerge from these esteemed institutions looking for a chance to break into the industry. As an example of the impact a solid short can have on the start of one's career, the success of "The Wormhole" has helped Jessica Sharzer secure representation by L.A. talent agency Endeavor, get a deal with a studio, and have her first feature (a low-budget independent) on the horizon. With hard work, patience, and a little bit of schmoozing, more members of the class of '02 should follow suit. Good luck!