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Abracadabra, Danny McBride: A Look Back at Summer’s Best Short Films

Abracadabra, Danny McBride: A Look Back at Summer's Best Short Films

Every Summer Los Angeles hosts a multitude of film festivals and special screenings devoted to short films. This year the Sundance Film Festival jumped into the fray with a free screening on August 21, 2009 entitled “Downtown and Dirty Shorts.” The lineup, which featured new and old student shorts by James Franco, David Gordon Green, and Danny McBride, turned out to be so popular that a second screening had to be hastily arranged to accommodate the block-long standby line. A week earlier, the HollyShorts Film Festival closing night program was standing-room-only as shorts directed by Scarlett Johansson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Courteney Cox unspooled. Factoring in Filmmaker’s Alliance’s VisionFest 2009 showcase on August 19, the 280 films that played the LA Shorts Fest in July, and the 70 shorts shown during the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, this summer offered an unparalleled crop of spectacular shorts.

The summer season started off strong with the Los Angeles Film Festival, which ran from June 18 – June 28, 2009. The festival’s short film competition jury, which consisted of art director KK Barrett, producer Tracey Bing, and filmmaker Alex Rivera, selected “Time and Again” as the best narrative short, praising Antonio Mendez Esparza’s 27-minute film Columbia University thesis film about an immigrant living in New Jersey “for its raw and atmospheric visual palette, bold use of real and rarely seen locations, and cast which brought a refreshing realism.”

Audiences at LAFF picked the Swedish “Instead of Abracadabra” as their favorite. Patrick Eklund’s crowd-pleasing 22-minute comedy centers on an inept but enthusiastic magician who has invented his own catchphrase.

The last nine days in July were devoted to the LA Shorts Fest, which headquartered at the Laemmle’s Sunset 5. Opening night featured the Los Angeles premiere of a Demi Moore-helmed short, “Streak,” based on a story by a Glamour Magazine reader and starring Moore’s daughter, Rumer Willis.

Justin Ambrosino’s 28-minute AFI thesis film, “The 8th Samuri,” was crowned LA Shorts Fest’s best film, while the Derek Jacobi-starrer “Sidney Turtlebaum,” handsomely directed by Tristram Shapeero, won best foreign film. Jim Rothman’s “I’m Not Matt Damon,” a popular comedy about a man cursed by his resemblance to the movie star, was honored with the indie filmmaker award.

The busy month of August kicked off with the 5th Annual HollyShorts Film Festival, which ran August 6 – 13 in Hollywood. Among the celebrity shorts showcased: Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut, “These Vagabond Shoes,” starring Kevin Bacon; the arson mystery, “Sparks,” helmed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and starring Eric Stolz and Carla Gugino, Courteney Cox’s Glamour Magazine short, “The Monday Before Thanksgiving,” and Bob Odenkirk’s “The Pity Card,” with Simon Helberg, Derek Waters, Bill Hader, and Zach Galifianakis.

Director Tony West took home HollyShorts’ best drama award for his impressive 30-minute short “Skylight.” Additionally, West shared the audience award for his program with Jarrett Conaway’s USC-thesis short, “Turbo,” which also won best student film. Alicia Conway was honored for her screenwriting talents displayed in her surprising ritual short, “Rite.”

Filmmaker’s Alliance scheduled their annual VisionFest event on August 19 at the DGA theater in Hollywood. In addition to honoring producer Ted Hope with the Vision Award, the best shorts produced through FA in the previous year were screened. The evening began with a special screening of a Make A Film Foundation project, “Put It In a Book,” a heartfelt message film written by teenager Rodrigo Garcia and produced by Tamika Lamison. FA execs Amanda Sweikow and Jacques Thelemaque each debuted artistically ambitious shorts, the playground horror story “The Cycle” and the fairground romance “My Last Day On Earth,” respectively. Sundance short film programmer/filmmaker Todd Luoto mesmerized the packed auditorium with his 13-minute relationship drama “Oil Change,” which hangs on a terrific performance from lead actor Pat Healy.

Two nights later, Luoto and his fellow Sundance programmers were out in full force at the Downtown Independent movie theater for a special screening dubbed “Downtown and Dirty Shorts.” Headliners James Franco, David Gordon Green, and Danny McBride were unable to attend in person. Instead they sent a video message taped on the set of their current production, “Your Highness.”

Danny McBride good-naturedly announced that his University of North Carolina School of the Arts student film was so terrible that the audience should take a bathroom break instead of watching it. Indeed, “Eddie Noble and the Heroes” isn’t a tight film, but it has a definite McBride touch that makes it well worth watching. David Gordon Green’s UNC student film, “A Biography of Barrels,” was also fascinating to watch, displaying hints of the filmmaker’s future voice. Todd Rohal’s 2001 short, “Hillbilly Robot,” was notable for it’s remarkable sense of time and place, but the most impressive film of the evening was James Franco’s new short, “Herbert White,” which had audience members buzzing in the lobby afterward.

Luckily for anyone unable to attend the August 19 screening, three of the most entertaining shorts on the Downtown and Dirty roster are available online. The animation that tickled the audience’s funny bone, Homestar Runner’s “Independent,” helpfully defines the difference between independent films and “indie” films (viewable on the company’s website.

Jody Hill’s contribution to the evening was a cell phone/online piece commissioned by the Sundance Institute entitled “Learning to Skateboard” (also starring Danny McBride and available for viewing on the Sundance site.

And finally, the short that had the audience rolling in the aisles was Episode 3 of “Drunk History,” Jen Kirkman’s inebriated retelling of a historical event, reenacted by man-of-the-evening Danny McBride (online at Funny or Die.

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