In a normal Sundance year, short films often don’t feel as big a draw as the star-studded titles premiering in feature film competition. But virtual film festivals have upended the short film landscape, and with the current influx of virtual lineups so easily available online, emerging filmmakers can take advantage of having a digestible calling card so readily accessible to a discerning (and wide) audience. Filmmakers are taking bigger risks, pushing the limits of the short form, and stretching themselves in an effort to stand out amongst the bunch.
While Sundance never programs for specific themes they nonetheless emerge, creating a useful snapshot of the zeitgeist and the next wave of storytelling styles and techniques. This year offers more positive fare and a few more comedies than is typical, perhaps signaling a desire to lighten up during dark and uncertain times. Sexuality, sex work, and gender identity also emerged as a recurring theme. As the most prestigious film festival in the U.S., Sundance attracts a wide array of excellent films from around the world, and programmers are always doing their best to court more international filmmakers.
This year also includes an impressive anniversary shorts program which offer rare access to influential films, some of which may have been previously unavailable. Titled “From the Collection,” the program is a way to bring renewed attention to important indie filmmakers whose work deserves revisiting, such as Jenni Olsen’s “575 Castro Street,” a moving documentary which utilizes audio Harvey Milk recorded in 1977 in the event of “my death by assassination.”
The festival also gets to show off its early discoveries of filmmakers who have gone on to make celebrated features, such as Garrett Bradley’s “Alone” or Destin Daniel Cretton’s original “Short Term 12,” featuring a young LaKeith Stanfield, who would later go on to star in the lauded feature version. Also worth checking out are Luis De Filippis’ poignant “For Nonna Anna” and the Oscar-winning gay youth drama “Trevor,” from which The Trevor Project took its name.
Curious about how to re-create the magic of Sundance at home? Public tickets and passes are on sale now, and our handy guide as to how to buy them (and which ones will suit your needs) is available right here. The festival kicks off next week and runs January 20 through January 30, 2022.
After you ruminate on the good old days with the anniversary pieces, dive into the the short film competition, which will be fierce this year. Here are ten short films not to be missed at Sundance.
Zachary Quinto returns to his creepy “Heroes” roots as a chilling empath in this provocative little mystery. The film opens with a leather-gloved Quinto picking up a younger guy in a dark car (Russell Kahn), who promptly hands him a bag full of cash. The sexy setup gives way to something far more nefarious, though surprisingly tender, as the film subverts expectations at every turn.
“The Fourth Wall”
This ten-minute short from Iranian animator Mahboobeh Kalaee surrounds the viewer with the imaginative musings of a stuttering boy. Themes of home and family, relationships, desires, and wishes float around a kitchen in Kalaee’s whimsical and beautiful world. The film is her graduation project from Tehran University of Art, where she recently completed her Masters in animation directing.
“F^¢K ‘€M R!GHT B@¢K”
This colorful comedy follows a queer aspiring rapper in Baltimore who must outwit his boss in order to keep his job after accidentally eating an edible. Written and directed by Harris Doran, the films stars Doran’s co-writer, the rapper and performer Emmanuel “DDm” Williams, whose original music scores the fanciful proceedings. With supporting performances from Kara Young (“hair Wolf”) and Catherine Curtin (“Stranger Things”).
“Makassar Is a City for Football Fans”
Set in the Indonesian city of Makassar, this 20-minute short tells the story of a young teenager named Akbar who must feign loving football in order to be accepted by his new college friends. But as he gets closer to the inner circle, he discovers something that makes him question his identity. Deeply rooted in the place and culture it depicts and probes, the film takes aim at the universal theme of toxic masculinity and havoc it wreaks.
“The Martha Mitchell Effect”
Not soon forgotten by those who lived through the Watergate scandal, Martha Mitchell was once the most controversial woman in America. As the wife of Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, “Martha the Mouth” became an unwitting critic of the administration and an important whistleblower during Watergate. Prolific documentary editor Anne Alvergue and former Oscilloscope creative Debra McClutchy make their directing debut to give Mitchell’s story the contemporary feminist slant it deserves.
“My Trip to Spain”
John Early produces and co-stars in this pilot from musician and comedian Theda Hammel, Early’s longtime stage companion and sidekick in his legendary live stand-up shows. Written by Hammel, the pilot tells the story of a trans woman who is heading to Spain for cosmetic surgery when her best friend tries to talk her out of it while shamelessly hitting on her beefy gardener.
This audacious erotic thriller that takes a turn for the abstract, “Starfuckers” takes direct aim at Hollywood itself, following a gay man who abuses his power by promising the world to aspiring young actors. Sweet-faced Cole Doman (star of Stephen Cone’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”) plays a faux-innocent escort who conspires with a friend, played by the film’s writer and director Antonio Marziale. Queer audiences will recognize Marziale from the cult web series “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo” and “Alex Strangelove,” though his own foray into filmmaking is decidedly darker.
“Stranger Than Rotterdam with Sara Driver”
Filmed using handmade paper puppets and cardboard sets, brotherly filmmaking duo Lewie and Noah Kloster animate a brief but pivotal chapter in cinema history. The short tells the story of Sara Driver, producer of Jim Jarmusch’s seminal 1984 film “Stranger Than Paradise,” and the high stakes international film smuggling she had to perform in order for it to be completed.
Reeling from the emotional fallout of the dreaded queer breakup, film editor Gabi decides to revisit her old profession, dropping into the high-end brothel she once frequented. After sending an unhinged voice memo to her ex’s new girlfriend, she feels sparks with an old work friend during a lucrative double. Her yearning for connection practically jumps off the screen in April Maxey’s economical telling, bolstered by an impressive performance by lead Marisela Zumbado.
“You Go Girl!”
Prominent theater director Shariffa Ali dives into filmmaking with an upbeat short about a New York comedian struggling to find her footing in the mountains of Oregon. The film was written by Ali with fellow theatermakers Kamilah Long and Courtney Williams, and stars actress and singer Tiffany Mann.