Winning a festival's audience award is getting to be old hat for Guido Thys' "Tanghi Argentini," which followed up its amazing success at this year's Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival with a similar triumph at the 16th Aspen Shortsfest, which took place April 3 - 8 in Aspen, Colorado. Another highly buzzed about Clermont-Ferrand short, Michael Dreher's "Fair Trade," also won big at Aspen, generating predictions from industry insiders that "Fair Trade" and "Tanghi Argentini" should be considered front-runners for next year's Academy Awards.
"Tanghi Argentini," which made its U.S. debut at Aspen, features a middle-aged office drone who begs a co-worker to teach him to tango in anticipation of a blind date. At Clermont-Ferrand, the delightfully plotted Belgium short nabbed the Audience Award, the Award for Laughter, and the Mediatheques Prize. At Aspen, the thirteen-minute film collected the Audience Favorite Award, The Ellen Award Certificate of Distinctive Achievement, a Special Jury Recognition, and the BAFTA Award for Excellence.
The German short "Fair Trade" came away with Aspen's Best Drama distinction and the Youth Jury Prize. The fifteen-minute gritty drama, which previously screened at the AFI Festival in Los Angeles, centers on an illegal baby adoption that goes terribly wrong. The unflinching storyline haunts viewers long after the credits roll.
As an Academy Award qualifying festival, Aspen Shortsfest has long been acknowledged as a launch pad for future Oscar-winners. Last year, the animated short "The Danish Poet" won three awards at the fest and then went on to take home the gold on Oscar night. This year, Aspen's Animation Award was split between two shorts: Jonas Odell's "Never Like the First Time!," a confessional fifteen-minute film from Sweden, and Osbert Parker's "Yours Truly," a six-minute follow-up to his hugely successful U.K. short "Film Noir." Amazingly, Parker's newest cinematic mash-up of iconic private eyes and killer dames, which made its North American premiere at Aspen, surpasses his previous benchmark.
The Best Student Short Award also resulted in a tie, with Vineet Dewan's Iraq war story "Clear Cut, Simple" (shot at Santa Clarita's increasingly popular Middle Eastern set) and Fellipe Barbosa's Brazilian bachelor manifesto "Salt Kiss" sharing the honors.
Other jury-award winners include Andrea Jublin's "The Substitute" (Best Comedy), Topaz Adizes's "City" (Best Short Short), and Mariam Jobrani's "The Fighting Cholitas" (Best Documentary).
The festival also instituted two new awards this year: the Napapijri-sponsored Cultural Discovery Award which went to Dyana Gaye's "Ousmane," a charming adventure story of an enterprising kid's quest to write a letter to Santa Claus; and the Hard C-sponsored Lo-Fi comedy award, which went to Keio and Dag Astein's "Scyzoryk," a deadpan black-and-white comedy about a hapless bystander who becomes increasingly involved in a beautiful girl's ineffectual suicide attempts.
Aspen Shortsfest's four-person jury consisted of three filmmakers (Adrian Belic, Cecilia Peck, and Lewis Teague) and Clermont-Ferrand program director Roger Gonin, who also presented a selection of the best of his fest in a special program entitled "Planet Cinema: New French Shorts."
Festivalgoers noted that the European shorts were remarkably strong this year at Aspen, with Germany accounting for seven out of the 59 films in the international competition. Even one of the American comedies, Philip Van's nine-minute "High Maintenance," was actually funded out of Germany as part of the Berlinale Talent Campus.
Among the world premieres at the festival, two American live-action narrative shorts proved noteworthy. Screenwriter Maurice Chauvet's nine-minute comedy, "$3.50," takes video-rental late-fee negotiations to a whole new level, while Karen Dee Carpenter's twenty-minute female buddy adventure, "Sarah & Dee," is a satisfying "Thelma & Louise" for the Avril Lavigne generation.
Australia also made a good showing, contributing two pop culture documentaries that made their U.S. debuts at Aspen. Shelly Matulick's "Our Brilliant Second Life" is a five-minute look at a real-life couple who have found happiness creating alternative versions of themselves online, while Anthony Mullins's "Elvis Lives in Parkes" is an elaborate 25-minute piece examining how a festival celebrating the King of Rock and Roll came to be so essential to an Australian outback town.
With Aspen Shortsfest's reputation for having been a bellwether for such Oscar contenders as "God Sleeps in Rwanda," "Wasp," "Two Cars, One Night," and too many others to count, it's a safe bet that several shorts that debuted this month in Aspen will end up on next year's Academy ballot. Although it's just too early to start making Oscar predictions, smart money's on "Tanghi Argentini."
[Kim Adelman is the author of "The Ultimate Filmmaker's Guide to Short Films."]