Sundance 2017: 10 Must-See Shorts At This Year’s Festival

IndieWire reached out to some of this year's filmmakers, including Kristen Stewart, Jim Cummings and Laura Poitras, to ask about their inspiration, production challenges and future projects.
Sundance 2017: 10 Must-See Short Films to See At This Year's Festival

If you’re wondering where the next Damien Chazelle will come from, look no further than the 2017 Sundance Film Festival short film lineup.

Sundance has a long history of discovering the next generation of acclaimed filmmakers by first championing their short films. Chazelle made his first big splash by winning the 2013 Grand Jury Prize for “Whiplash” (the short). Last year, Jim Cummings won that prize for “Thunder Road,” and he’s back this year with a new short. Also generating a lot of pre-festival buzz is Kristen Stewart, making her writing/directing debut with the short “Come Swim.”

Before the Sundance Film Festival commences on January 19, 2017, here’s a briefing on Cummings’ “The Robbery,” Stewart’s “Come Swim” and eight other buzzworthy shorts (two of which are viewable online).

IndieWire reached out to the filmmakers to ask about their inspiration, production challenges and future projects. Check out our list below, in alphabetical order.

READ MORE: Sundance 2017: Check Out the Full Lineup, Including Competition Titles, Premieres and Shorts

“American Paradise”

“American Paradise”

Director/screenwriter: Joe Talbot

Joe Talbot’s “American Paradise” brings attention to itself by referencing Trump’s America in its official synopsis: “A desperate man in Trump’s America tries to shift his luck with the perfect crime in this story inspired by true events.”

“I think the film feels especially relevant because of what Trump’s election has brought to the forefront for people,” said Talbot. “But in truth, the actual events took place over five years ago. And what the film deals with is as old as the country itself. Even as a story, when I stumbled upon it, I felt like I had discovered some great lost folk tale. It’s drenched in all of this American symbolism, but it just feels like a bizarre campfire story. That’s part of why we chose to tell it the way we did, as a myth of sorts told by a grandfather to his grandchildren.”

James Brooks plays the weekend fisherman idly narrating the tale of an amateur criminal who is more than clueless. Talbot’s writing talent is this short’s secret weapon, and the narration Brooks provides is practically Coen Brothers-esque.

One of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film 2015, San Francisco-native Talbot attended the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab with his soon-to-be-produced debut feature, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” in 2016. “To be returning to Sundance the following year with a movie feels like a dream,” said Talbot.

“Black Holes”

“Black Holes”

Directors/screenwriters: David Nicolas & Laurent Nicolas

An animated short that seems a shoo-in for Oscar consideration, this quirky CGI comedy about a beleaguered Mars-bound astronaut could be shorthanded as “punk-rock Pixar.”

Brothers David and Laurent Nicolas are cult animators from France, best known for “Lascars”/”Rascals,” an animated series about the tribulations urban youth in Paris.

“Black Holes” is based on a decade-old 2D animated short by the Nicolases entitled “Pierre Le Cosmonaute.” Considered avant-garde and ahead of its time, the short wasn’t publicly shown yet has amassed a substantial cult following. Upon seeing publicity images of the new short, which is a proof of concept for a TV series, animation fans all over in the internet immediately began hyperventilating in anticipation.

“With the help of computer nerds, we set up an innovative pipeline to be able to produce 12 minutes of stunning CGI with only 4 animators, in 4 months, mixing a lot of tools including motion capture, 3D scans, real time engineering, GPU rendering, etc…,” said producer and co-director Kevin Van Der Meiren of Noodles Studio. “Our plan now is to show the film at Sundance, launch a Kickstarter campaign to reach out to the audience and meet potential partners to finance the TV series.”

“Come Swim”

“Come Swim”

Director/screenwriter: Kristen Stewart

One of the most anticipated and buzzed about shorts at this year’s festival is a17 minute experimental film with an impressionistic aesthetic. Unavailable for pre-festival screening, it’s described as a diptych of one man’s day; half impressionist and half realist portraits. It also happens to be the directorial debut of Kristen Stewart. St. Vincent makes her debut film as a film composer with this short as well.

Stewart explained the origins of this short in her official director’s statement: “This film all started with an image. The idea of how pleasant a nap on the ocean floor might be. The lovely isolation from anything else that breathes, or any compulsive thought process. I painted it. I wrote poetry about why I painted it. I wanted to capture this image as obsessively as the recurring thoughts that conjured the image in the first place. What started with one picture in my mind became something much more expansive. I wrote an outline and reviewed poems written over the past few years. I found a through line. The painting. The words. Everything was connected. I had finally found my first piece.”

Stewart’s short and Anu Valia’s “Lucia, Before and After,” which is also playing Sundance, are part of Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology, a short film series formed with creative support from Women at Sundance.

“Dear Mr. Shakespeare”

Director: Shola Amoo, screenwriter: Phoebe Boswell

Made as part of the Shakespeare Lives in 2016 project and initially released on The Guardian’s website, this smart, highly cinematic, and very of-the-moment spoken word piece will forever change the way you think of Othello.

Artist Phoebe Boswell was commissioned to write about her feelings on Shakespeare’s Othello, given no restrictions except that it had to be a response to the play. “For me, her writing was asking all the right questions, touching thematically on otherness, blackness and immigration in a historical and contemporary context,” said director Shola Amoo. “This particularly chimed with me in the days pre- and post-Brexit. Visually, I felt I could create a world that could expand on the themes embedded in her words.”

Amoo shot for two and a half days. “Most of the exterior scenes were shot in Peckham in South London, which is a place with a high concentration of immigrant communities, particularly from the African diaspora. We shot the Theatre scenes in the spiritual home of Shakespeare — The Globe Theatre.”

Having made his feature debut with a multimedia film called “A Moving Image,” Amoo is currently developing more feature projects, including a drama called “The Last Tree” with BFI and a sci-fi script called “Dome.”

“Hold On”

“Hold On”

Director/screenwriter: Christine Turner

There are certain subjects that are so overused in short films that they become a de facto genre, e.g., the zombie short, the cancer short, and the Alzheimer’s short. “Hold On” is an Alzheimer’s short about a busy young man reluctantly taking care of his grandmother for a day. What makes it rise above its genre limitations is the breakout performance filmmaker Christine Turner got from her male star, Jimmie Jeter.

Turner explained how she cast Jeter, who is making his film acting debut. “My producer and I reached out to our circle of friends looking for recommendations, and Jimmie was the very first person we auditioned for Troy. This was back in May, just two weeks before he graduated from Juilliard. Jimmie was a joy to work with and brought many ideas to rehearsal including the song, ‘Hold On Just a Little While Longer,’ an African American spiritual, which closes the film. Right now he’s playing the role of Cory in August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ at the Pioneer Theater in Salt Lake City. He’s a very special talent and I can’t wait for others to discover him.”

“Hold On” was shot in one day. “I’m a believer in working within one’s means,” said Turner. “In my case, that meant making something that I thought would be possible to film in a day. I set the story in a single location and chose to focus on the relationship between two characters.”

Turner, who came to know an elderly woman with dementia while serving as a hospice volunteer in New York, was recently admitted to Sony Pictures Television’s Diverse Directors Program. She previously directed a documentary about a renowned funeral director in Harlem called “Homegoings,” which opened the 26th season of PBS’s “POV.” She also made a short drama about a school administrator who talks down an armed student, “You Can Go,” which played the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and will be on PBS in 2017.



Director/screenwriter: Charlotte Wells

A prime example of how powerful highly visual filmmaking can be, Charlotte Wells’ NYU student film “Laps” begins with shots of a woman (Thea Duncan Brooks) swimming laps, then depicts a faceless sexual assault during her subsequent subway commute. The six-minute short is practically dialogue-free.

“NYU definitely prioritizes action over dialogue and that has certainly influenced the way I go about writing and directing,” said Wells, noting that her film “is an extreme version of that. But more generally, being drawn to characters’ internal lives has engendered a very intimate style with specific, subjective visuals. For me, ideas also tend to originate as images. I was inspired by my own and others’ experiences of sexual assault on the subway for ‘Laps,’ but also by the image of a man behind pressed firmly behind a woman with his face framed out. Most of our references were photographs, especially the ‘Tokyo Compression’ series by Michael Wolf.”

Wells added, “I live in New York and spend an hour a day commuting on one of the busiest lines in the city. I have had more than one experience akin to that in the film, and I was disturbed by my ability to disassociate in the moment, by my capacity for self-doubt. I’ve discovered that I’m most interested in making films about internal reckonings of various sorts and this was one I wanted to grapple with. Why did I endure it? How did I rationalize it in the moment and then afterward?”

Wells is in her final year of the MBA/MFA program at NYU and is currently shooting another short with her same filmmaking team from “Laps.”

“Project X”

Directors: Laura Poitras & Henrik Moltke

Laura Poitras follows up her 2015 Academy Award-winning feature doc “Citizenfour” with a visually mesmerizing short doc she directed with Henrik Moltke. Shot by Moltke and Jarred Alterman, “Project X” is a visual portrait of the exterior of a sinister windowless skyscraper in Manhattan. The accompanying narration, read by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, is excerpted from secret NSA documents and travel instructions, Christopher Holmes’ hypnotic score ties the whole package together.

Available online after it screened at IFC Center in NYC, the short is approaching half a million views to date. Moltke believes online accessibility is essential. “I think doing it this way helped the story reach a larger audience,” he said. “A New York Times piece and a great Artforum review also helped. As a Dane previously based in Berlin, I should add that it can be very frustrating not to be able to see films that relate to current events unless you are physically, say, in NYC or one of the big markets.”

Poitras added, “We are very interested in innovative approaches to non-fiction storytelling and distribution. ‘Project X’ was conceived as a joint film and written project. When we discovered the building at 33 Thomas Street was featured in the ‘Mr. Robot’ finale, we asked them to share the link with their followers. We also projected the film on the building itself.”

Moltke and Poitras have been collaborating since 2013. Their work has appeared in The New York Times, The Intercept and the Whitney Museum. Moltke is making his first trip to Sundance with “Project X.”

“I’m obviously curious and excited to see how the audience reacts to it,” he said. “There will be a lot of people who are not part of the echo chambers, and that’s always interesting and desirable.”

“The Robbery”

“The Robbery”

Director: Jim Cummings, screenwriters: Jim Cummings & Dustin Hahn

Jim Cummings’ previous short “Thunder Road” was a single-take film following a cop (played by Cummings) delivering an unhinged eulogy at his mother’s funeral. While awarding it the Sundance grand jury prize in 2016, jury member Keegan-Michael Key praised it as mini-masterpiece of writing, directing and acting.

One year later, Cummings returns with another one-shot short, this time co-written with Dustin Hahn and starring the amazing Rae Gray as an extraordinarily casual convenience store robber. “Something similar to this happened to one of Dustin’s childhood friends,” said Cummings about the inspiration for the film. “He took a cab to rob a liquor store and it went south. I said, ‘Jesus, what does that even look like?’ Dustin said, ‘Drugs… New Jersey.’”

Shot in a Southern California strip mall, the one-shot film was completely scripted and took 17 takes. Actress Rae Gray went through 19 bloody tank tops over the course of the day. “We made poor Rae crawl around the linoleum for hours and hours and she didn’t complain once,” said Cummings, who has high praise for his star. “Rae is unreal. She was one of the only actresses to send in an audition tape, and it was all one shot. She had us. She’s so much fun to watch, but was really focused in each rehearsal and every shot.”

Cummings made “The Robbery” for Fullscreen and reports that the short is going online sometime in January, along with five other single-take shorts.

“Victor & Isolina”

“Victor & Isolina”

Director: William Caballero

With “Victor & Isolina,” William Caballero made a tribute to his grandparents and their unusual relationship with the help of a 3D printer. The resulting animated short is a terrific example of how a very specific individual story can be so universal in its appeal.

“A few years back, my grandmother kicked my grandfather out of the house, due to his brash demeanor and ‘know-it-all’ attitude,” said Caballero. “To this day, they still live separate lives. However, they still care for each other, and in a way, are a much better couple now than they were when they were together. As their Americanized grandson, I knew that I was the only one who could tell their story in a creative way, encapsulating who they are in miniature.”

Asked how the 3D characters came to be, Caballero explained: “My grandparents are 3D printed in over 30 poses each. The process is complex, but basically, a 3D modeler models the characters (in their image) on computer, which are then 3D printed in polymer resin, and painted by hand using acrylic paints. Each pose takes about 15 hours from start to finish.”

Caballero has also made the web-series “Gran’pa Knows Best” using the 3-D printed miniatures of grandfather, and it can be seen on HBO GO and HBO NOW. He’s also developing a web-series called “Storybored USA,” which will air on PBS in 2017.

“Victor & Isolina” played IFC Theaters earlier this month as part of Sundance Shorts in NYC.

READ MORE: Kristen Stewart Talks Directing Her First Film: ‘I’ve Never Been Happier Doing Anything’

“What Tears Us Apart”

“What Tears Us Apart”

Director/ screenwriter: Hu Wei

Also known by its French title, “Ce qui nous éloigne,” Hu Wei’s short has already proven itself a hit on the festival circuit after turning heads at the 2016 Venice Film Festival.

While Isabelle Huppert’s presence certainly makes this short notable, the heart of this highly emotional film belongs to the Chinese mother (Nai An) who long ago gave up her daughter to Huppert to raise in France and now desperately tries to reconnect.

The filmmaker, who lives and works in both Beijing and Paris, has always been interested in examining nationality and identity. He told IndieWire back in 2015, “After I finished university in China I went to France in 2008, and I was a foreign student there. During the years I lived in France I thought a lot about the issue of identity. Being there made me rethink this. I’m originally from China, but how much of my Chinese cultural tradition did I carry with me while I was there? I feel that when I was in France I was in an isolated island. I was neither French nor Chinese at that moment.”

Wei, whose earlier short “Butter Lamp” was nominated for an Academy Award in 2015, may well again have Oscar recognition in his future with this new 18-minute short.

The Sundance Film Festival, which is showing 68 short films, runs from January 19 – 29, 2017 in Park City, Utah.

Kim Adelman has covered Must See Sundance short films for IndieWire since 2007. The new third edition of her book “Making It Big in Shorts: The Ultimate Filmmaker’s Guide to Short Films” is released this month.

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