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Critic’s Notebook: Notes from a Florida Film Festival Juror

Critic's Notebook: Notes from a Florida Film Festival Juror

To my mind, the most important criteria for an effective short film is an avoidance of the easy route. That outlook was central to this past week at the Florida Film Festival in Orlando, where I sat with my fellow jurors through five short film programs in three days. Eventually, we settled on awards for three of the 38 shorts and despite so many possibilities, we reached a consensus without much difficulty. Deserving candidates stood out from the pack.

A few shorts ran under five minutes, while others neared the 20-minute mark. Working under those temporal constraints, filmmakers — many of whom are in early stages of their careers — usually go for the easy gags, ending with a clever punchline. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but when viewed several times over, it comes across as overly simplistic and portrays the short form as incapable of attaining the mature narrative possibilities available to features.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A good short might do something clever in a brief period of time, but a great movie can take any shape or form, labels be damned.

This line of thinking was crucial for our jury’s choices. (I was joined by Neal Block, head of distribution at Magnolia Pictures, and former Arthouse Films vice president Erin Owens.) For the first time in its 20-year history, the Florida Film Festival gained Oscar-qualifying status for its shorts. The animated and live-action shorts that received top can now make the short list for the 2012 Academy Awards. To paraphrase a line from “Spider-Man”: With great power comes great possibilities.

That brings me to “Bottle,” Kristen Lepore’s lovely romantic fantasy, which we selected as the best animated short. With delicate craftsmanship, Lepore constructs a sweeping intercontinental romance between a creature made of sand and another made of snow. The two exchange messages in a bottle before they both decide to cross the sea. The heartbreaking result of that act — what happens when sand and snow enter the water — leads to the mesmerizing, poetic finale, rendered particularly moving by the clarity of this wordless love story between two natural objects. (Watch “Bottle” on YouTube.)

Another visual feast, Brent Bonacorso’s “West of the Moon” wowed us with its phenomenally absurd portrait of child’s dream. Littered with elegant layers of green-screen images and other trickery, the sepia-toned saga involves an old man recalling a wide range of surreal experiences, from playing poker with a robot to hanging with a pack of bespectacled walruses. You can’t make this stuff up, but Bonacorso, a promising new visionary clearly inspired by the likes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, somehow did.

Not content with simply honoring two shorts, we squeezed a special jury prize into the mix in order to highlight the memorably dark, thoughtful “After the Snow,” director Brooke Sebold’s short about a despondent young woman (Jeannine Kaspar) at a party who confronts the obnoxious slob who knocked her up. Intended as the outline for a feature, “After the Snow” conveys its unnerving scenario with two committed performances, tightly executed suspense and a provocative final shot that leaves much room for interpretation. Written by Matthew Tyler, the short is currently being expanded into a feature called “Gone June,” according to a website for the production. It’s hard not to imagine that the wintry setting and equally chilly demeanor of the characters in “After the Snow” will expand nicely into the feature-length format.

But short films don’t need to contain the inkling of a feature in order to succeed. We chose movies that we liked; the prizes’ larger ramifications were secondary considerations. I only realized later that “Bottle” and “West of the Moon” may have already qualified for Oscar consideration since both won awards at other festivals earlier this year, rendering moot that entire aspect of our jury’s agenda.

And that’s fine. We were more concerned with consensus than advocacy. As we engaged in our final deliberation on Friday evening, sitting across from a moonlit lake in the expansive backyard of Enzian Theater owners Philip and Sigrid Tiedtke, we just talked about the movies we liked and the opportunity we had to spread the word.

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