Colin Firth playing a pesky neighbor in Rupert Friend’s “Steve” is just one of the many unexpected scenarios to be found among the 80-plus short films screening at Aspen Shortsfest, which opens today and runs through April 10. With a heavy emphasis on international filmmaking, the prestigious Colorado festival culled 2,500 submissions to find shorts that are exciting to watch, often weird and always surprising.
Here’s a preview for nearly a quarter of the festival’s competition films, many of which are making their North American debut. To indicate the strength of the festival’s international focus, only four of the 19 narrative shorts that were made available to indieWIRE for preview originated in the USA.
* Deb Shoval’s “AWOL” is a very dramatic and real-feeling film about a young female soldier on leave for the holidays. This Columbia University student film garnered a lot of attention when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year.
* Andrew Bowler’s “Time Freak” is a wonderfully neurotic comedy in which the hapless hero makes his own “Groundhog Day”-style hell via ineffective use of his homemade time machine. Kudos to Bowler for packing so much humor into 10 minutes. Hollywood, take note!
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* In “Animal Love,” Mollie Jones directs Selma Blair and Jeremy Davies in a futuristic brief encounter. Terrific performances, excellent production and costume design, and a satisfying ending makes Jones’ film, which previously played Slamdance, a real standout.
* “Hector Is Gonna Kill Nate” by Ari Issler is a tense drama about a dedicated high school basketball coach and his emotionally charged students. Judging from the dedication in the end credits, the compelling main character appears to be a tribute to the filmmaker’s father. This short world premieres at Aspen.
The United Kingdom also contributed four of the 19 films available for preview.
* Helmed by actor-turned-writer/director Rupert Friend, “Steve” focuses on a bickering young couple (played by Keira Knightley and Tom Mison) who get repeated visits from a pushy neighbor, played by an unhinged Colin Firth. Friend first wrote the scenario as a short story, sent it to Firth, who then suggested it be turned into a film in which he would star.
* Victoria Mather’s “Stanley Pickle” is a live-action/stop-motion twisted tale about a man-child living in a world of his own making. It’s the kind of macabre yet uplifting film that Tim Burton would be first in line to buy a ticket to see.
* An interesting companion piece to “Stanley Pickle” is directing team Karni & Saul’s “Turning.” This flight of fantasy is another strange yet satisfying piece involving creatures that are not what they seem.
* The final UK short is “Birthday Circle,” an effective five-minute piece by Philip Lepherd that would be ruined by too much plot description. Suffice it to say that the ending makes this birthday celebration mean so much more than expected.
* From Romania comes Alexandru Mavrodineanu’s “Music in the Blood” in its North American premiere. This well-told story of a little boy with dreams of becoming a recording star culminates in an energetic public-transportation sing-along.
* The Czech Republic contributes an animated short in its North American premiere: “Swimming Pool,” by Alexandra Hetmerova. What seems like a straightforward encounter involving a couple of strangers’ illicit late-night skinny-dipping turns out to be something completely unexpected and delightful.
* Another North American premiere, “The Mirror” by the directing team Ramon & Pedro, comes from Switzerland. This mesmerizing portrait of a man standing in front of his bathroom mirror is a poetic illustration of time’s relentless toll.
* Kristian Ussing Andersen’s “The First Anders” centers around a well-meaning dad telling his bullied son a fable that encourages bravery.
* Also from Denmark is René Frelle Petersen’s “Going Nowhere,” a relationship drama centering around two adult brothers coming to terms with the younger’s physical debilitation. Both Danish films boast excellent acting and top-notch filmmaking.
* From Norway comes Maria Bock’s exuberant musical “Baldguy,” in which a young man and his entire small town join together for a toe-tapping number celebrating the joys of kissing a bald guy.
* Morocco’s contribution is Adil El Fadili’s “Short Life,” a fictional autobiography of a man born in Casablanca. The narration and the acting are so welcoming that the viewer is left unprepared for the unexpected turns in the narrator’s saga. “Short Life” makes its North American premiere at Aspen.
* A Germany/Switzerland co-production, “Yuri Lennon’s Landing on Alpha 46” from filmmaker Anthony Vouardoux is a visual wonder. What happens during the course of the film’s fifteen minutes surprises cosmonaut Yuri and viewers alike.
* New Zealand contributes Tammy Davis’s heartwarming Christmas-set “Ebony Society,” in which two troublemaking Maori boys wearing Santa hats discover their hearts aren’t as black as they thought.
* Australia offers up Raphael Elisha’s “Chocolate Cake” in which the seductive lead character (writer Romi Trower) looks straight into the camera and narrates her adventures in love.
* Also from Australia is Susan Danta & Wendy Chandler’s “Heirlooms.” A chaptered, animated documentary, the narrators are often off-screen as they tell the history of their most treasured family heirlooms.
“Shortsfest is our celebration of new ﬁlmmakers who approach their craft with spirit, soul, irreverence, and visual flair,” said Aspen’s artistic director Laura Thielen in her welcome notes. “A curious mind, a sense of adventure, and an open heart are all you’ll need to navigate the imaginative waters of Shortsfest’s eclectic line-up.”