What Is The Best Short Film Ever Made? — Critics Survey

From Chris Marker to a haunting German Oscar-winner, this week's survey finds that big things come in small packages.
Chris Marker's La Jetee
"La Jetee"

Every week, the CriticWire Survey asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: This past weekend saw the release of  “Lights Out,” which is based on a horrifying short film. Shorts can have tremendous value, though even the best of them tend to fly under the radar. What is your favorite short film, and why?

Miriam Bale (@mimbale), freelance

I count this Resnais film about plastics, “La chant de la styrene,” and an industrial film by Les Blank about factory farm chickens, “Chicken Real,” among the best films, and certainly best docs, I’ve seen. And the Safdies’ short “John’s Gone” is probably my favorite of their movies, if not their best.

The most exciting American indie filmmakers I can think of have so far been mostly working in short form: Zia Anger, Dustin Guy Defa, Gillian Horvat, and Frances Bodomo.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) Nonfics/Film School Rejects

As one of the people who separates best from favorite, I’d like to first note that the best short film ever made is “Night and Fog.” But I’d feel weird saying it’s my favorite. As if I enjoy it. My favorite, and one I will forever enjoy more than anything else, is “Un Chien Andalou.” Since I first saw it during my film school orientation week and going on 20 years, I haven’t experienced a greater feeling of not knowing what the hell I’m watching and also knowing totally what I’m watching at the same time. Slicing up eye balls, ha ha ha ho.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), Indiewire

As tempting as it is always is for me to go with Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow” (regardless of the question, really), I’m sticking with Chris Marker’s 1962 masterwork “La Jétee,” if only because it has always been my favorite short, and — no matter what I do to change things — it will always be my favorite short (if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what I mean). Note that the clip above is just an excerpt. For the full thing, check out Criterion’s essential edition.

Jordan Hoffman (@Jhoffman), The Guardian

Shorts tend to lend themselves to full-throated formalist experimentation a little bit better for me than at feature length. Peter Kubelka’s “Arnulf Rainer”  is cinema in a pure subatomic higher-dimensional form _ and it’s absolutely perfect. But if it lasted longer than six minutes and forty-five seconds? I’m reminded of Diane Keaton’s quote from Manhattan: “I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but I mean … all right …”

So the shorts that stick with me, or at least offer the most value to me, are non-traditional narratives that, with a few key exceptions, aren’t tenable at feature length. This can range from psychedelic head-scramblers like Michael Snow’s “Wavelength” to the more playful, “Mythbusters”-esque Fischli and Weiss project “The Way Things Go.” Not all of this is in amber, though: Bill Morrison is doing non-narrative work as groundbreaking as anyone that’s gone before him.

I still need to pick one, though, don’t I? So I pick “Power of Ten” by the Eameses as a nice example of all of this, but if and only if you watch it with the sound off while Pink Floyd’s Echoes is playing over it.

Eric Kohn (@erickohn), IndieWire

Before Emily Carmichael landed a gig directing the upcoming Steven Spielberg-produced film “Powerhouse,” she made her mark with a series of short films, but “RPG OKC” is her crowning accomplishment to date: the cutesy tale of an animated fantasy character in a nineties-era video game who falls in love with a woman he meets online, only to discover that she lives in a different realm. This deceptively silly framing device builds to surprising high stakes and an emotionally satisfying climax, proving that it’s not the medium but the message that makes great storytelling soar. Just try watching the above saga and not get drawn into its touching romance, pixels and all.

Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Film Journal International, Film School Rejects

I’ll give you two.

I’ve always loved the 1985 animated short “The Big Snit”. This story of a couple so worked up with a game of scrabble that they don’t notice a nuclear war erupting outside perfectly captures the daily battle and adventure of growing old with someone you love so dearly.

And Chaplin’s “A Dog’s Life” never fails to warm my heart with a story of a stray dog that makes his best friend/rescuer’s life better. And (spoiler): those puppies in the end!! Yes, there are puppies, so now you have to watch it.

Amy Nicholson (@TheAmyNicholson), MTV

Thunder Road from Jim Cummings on Vimeo.

Perfect timing for this question. This Sundance, I was on the short film jury and our Grand Prize winner, “Thunder Road,” just debuted on Vimeo. Writer/director/star Jim Cummings’ single-take tragicomedy about a cop melting down during his mother’s funeral had us on the muddy floor. Fellow juror Keegan-Michael Key nearly choked laughing. As soon as the screening was over, we ran for the car to look up this Jim guy on IMDb and were like, “Who the hell is this dude who’s never acted before?” He pulls off two near-impossibles: stop-and-start stream of consciousness dialogue and 20 emotions in 12 unbroken minutes. Maybe I’m embarrassing him, but after the ceremony, we heard that Jim pawned his wedding ring to make the film and when he got the call he’d made it into Sundance, he thought it was a prank. No prank — he’s the real deal.

Matt Patches (@misterpatches), Thrillist

Mitchell Block's No Lies
“No Lies”

You could mistake the opening of Mitchell Block’s 1973 short “No Lies” for a SnapChat star’s daily dispatch. A cameraman, rolling 16mm film like Kodak gave it away, follows a primping young woman as she expounds on her plans for the night. It’s all casual and carefree until the interviewer digs a little too deep. “No Lies” (Block’s student film!) is renowned for examining sexual assault victims, and the perception of rape narratives by outsiders, through a frank and shattering lens. The faux-vérité style disarms the viewer. The acting remains invisible to end. The cataclysmic memories flood Block’s small New York apartment set without suffocating the point. “No Lies” leaves no grey area to the definition of victimhood — it’s fiction forged from absolute truth.

Tasha Robinson (@TashaRobinson), The Verge

This is the hardest question you’ve ever asked, and possibly the one most likely to send critics into an Internet spiral of watching and comparing their favorite Pixar shorts, their favorite classic silent shorts, and their favorite “big-time directors doing early experiments” shorts. I’m just going with my knee-jerk answer, the short that’s haunted me since I saw it in an Oscar-contender program back in 1990. It won that Oscar, as well it should have. “Balance” is a haunting little stop-motion fantasy short by German animators Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein, about five silent men on a mysterious plinth in an empty space, trying to co-exist even though they pretty clearly all hate each other. I love everything about this short — its minimalist but creepy soundscape, its stark visual design, the way its characters’ pride and resentment of each other come through in their posture even though they barely have faces. And I love where it goes metaphorically, which couldn’t be clearer. It’s a study in clarity of story without exposition or even dialogue, and I never get tired of watching it.

Q: What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?

A: “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”

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