8 Must-Watch Short Films With BIG Impact
I’m going to make a pretty bold statement: Nobody watches short films, NOBODY. Or at least, not enough people realize the gargantuan heart a short film pulsates – from the very first frame to the last.
Case in point, it was almost impossible to get my parents to watch my own short films when I was in film school. And trust me when I say, during the few occasions when they finally did, my own mom and dad painfully uttered, “I don’t get it.”
That’s the life of a short filmmaker, making passionate pieces of art that aren’t recognized nearly enough for their tremendous artistic merits.
Luckily, with the boom in streaming services (and my addiction to short films), you’re going to find out why and how short films can turn you from novice to master-class storyteller.
I found it inspiring that several high-profile Hollywood directors launched their careers with, you guessed it, short films. The upcoming supernatural horror movie Lights Out is just one more example of a highly anticipated feature that started out as a short film before getting green-lit for expansion.
Short films rival feature-length films with their superior acting and writing, which can be masterfully displayed in their condensed but densely told execution.
When you factor in small-scale budgets, short films provide a more attainable means to jumpstart your career in Hollywood.
So, binge-watchers, this one’s for you: Here are eight short films that made a BIGGER impact on me than most feature films. Best of all, ALL EIGHT of these gems will only take you a FEW hours to watch, but they’ll most definitely leave you inspired long after the credits roll.
8 Short Films That Showcase Master Class Story-Telling
Film: Aya (2012 – 40 Minutes)
Director: Oded Binnun, Mihal Brezis
Writer: Oded Binnun, Mihal Brezis, Tom Shoval
Premise: As one of the more provocative short films, Aya portrays a married woman posing as an airport driver, setting her on a collision course toward an extramarital affair with her passenger.
Impact: This film was an Academy Award nominee for Best Live Action Short Film in 2014, and after I was first exposed to this French-Israeli drama as a film student, I can see why. Just as how protagonist Aya (Sarah Adler) falls for her “uninformed” passenger Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), I too fell in love with the short film’s simple premise, subtle turning points and long stretch of road that could upend their personal lives at any moment. Aya plays a woman who makes a knee jerk reaction to pose as a driver and spends the entire day with a complete stranger that she simply finds attractive. Nearly the entire film takes place in Aya’s car and the movie is essentially a drive from point A to B. However, as the journey and conversation unfold, Aya’s infatuation turns obsession, after she discovers her passenger is a music professor on his way to judge a piano competition. As day is engulfed by night, both find each other seduced by the power of music and the temptation of forbidden fruit.
Film: Mr. Happy (2015 – 24 Minutes)
Premise: A depressed young man signs up for a service that will end his life for him.
Impact: Vice Media, known for its hot commodity cable and news content, ventures into short film terrain and the results are awe-inspiring. What drew me to the film was lead actor, Chicago recording artist Chance The Rapper. But the longer I watched, the faster his stage persona evaporated, and I was hooked. From the frenetic editing and voyeuristic camera shots to tackling the very dark and often taboo subject matter of suicide, Mr. Happy is about a depressed young man (Chance) who discovers a website called MRHAPPY.COM, where anyone can hire a hitman to end their life. The short form vehicle allows Chance to exhibit an extremely complex character, who on the surface seems impenetrable to the disappointments that surround him until the unscrupulous narrative cuts away to a backlog of misery and disappointments that play over and over again, driving the dagger further into his heart. Chance told Billboard that he was “all the way in” after reading the script and you’ll see why if you haven’t already. His character’s misguided happiness and futile attempts at redemption reveal the psychology of why a seemingly “happy” guy secretly cries out for a self-imposed death sentence…and more importantly, reminds us of how a smile can double as a bandage for hemorrhaging inner turmoil. Mr. Happy is a contrasting palette of light and dark, and both contemporary and timely. The short film not only draws attention to the epidemic of depression and suicide but the VICE platform serves as a bi-weekly showcase for aspiring filmmakers.
Film: Vincent (1982 – 6 Minutes)
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Tim Burton
Premise: A seven-year-old boy pretends that he’s horror icon Vincent Price. His obsession with the macabre causes him to detach from reality and spiral into madness.
Impact: The late Vincent Price narrates this spookiest of short films, and until I saw it, I thought that his haunting narration of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was his best work on the creep-factor scale. I love Tim Burton films, because I felt as though *I* was Tim Burton as a child, with my own wild, vivid imagination. (Like this short film’s protagonist, my imagination was darker than most.) Vincent gives us one of our first glimpses into the gothic psyche of Tim Burton and shows familiar hallmarks of the filmmaker’s storytelling techniques and tonality that pops up in his later work. It’s also one of my “must-see” shorts because it humorlessly and effectively burrows into the mind of a precocious child, as only Tim Burton could tell it.
Film: Session Man (1991 – 31 Minutes)
Director: Seth Winston
Writer: Seth Winston
Premise: An aging guitarist is called into a studio session to play for a popular band, where he is given the offer of a lifetime.
Impact: This film made – what many consider – one of the biggest impressions in the world of short films. It won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, but I came across this jewel because I had the pleasure and sincere honor of having the film’s director, Seth Winston, as my mentor and professor. No, I’m not praising this piece out of admiration for Seth, but rather how Seth authentically captured the daunting ordeal of being a creative tour-du-force, then suffering rejection that hits out of left field with the force of a truck. The film centers around the popular, hard rock group The Raging Kings and an aging, but talented session guitarist named McQueen, who is asked to polish an album track for the band. But McQueen’s talents clash with the lead guitarist, who quits the band, leaving McQueen as a very capable replacement. 90 percent of the story takes place inside the battleground of a recording studio, and you can sink your teeth into the tension with visuals that reel you into every knob turn, session take, and ego flare up. With music as its backbone, the studio becomes its own electrifying, layered character, blaring the many highs and lows that have become synonymous with performance art and escaping the pit of obscurity. The film is a compelling if not sobering reminder of the promises of fame and fortune, and within the blink of an eye, how it can all easily disintegrate. Will McQueen save the world’s greatest rock band and his own career? You’ll have to find out for yourself.
Film: A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) (1902 – 16 Minutes)
Director: George Melies
Writer: George Melies
Premise: A group of men are shot out of a cannon and become the first to travel to the Moon.
Impact: Every filmmaker should see this silent short that is considered the first science fiction film ever. It doesn’t get any more old school in the special effects department, but the sheer scale of imagination in making a big idea come to life during the early 1900s is the takeaway in A Trip to the Moon. Both filmmaking and technology were in their infancy, but Melies was light years ahead and perhaps the first to visualize other worlds (i.e. Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.). Melies’ lunar landing jolted audiences with the film’s fantastical landscape, including its elaborate production design, costumes, and over-the-top characters. To me, the movie almost reads like a 3D pop-up storybook, but just like any riveting story, you may not be able to escape the marvel of the film’s many layers.
Film: Paperman (2012 – 7 Minutes)
Impact: Love is definitely in the air in this film, because it’s a universal emotion that we’ve all been elevated or crushed by. Paperman won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and deservedly so. It sparked nostalgia, reminding me of my own pursuit of love. And the film does so with its black and white, Pixar-like animated backdrop of a bustling big city, and a lonely single guy who just wants to get the girl. Where his own will falls short, his fleet of paper airplanes carries him the distance. We often think animated films are strictly for children, but the heart that flies on the wings of this short film reminded me of why I fell in love with movies as a child. The biggest lesson though, is perhaps the barrier that separates our feelings for one another, should truly be paper-thin.
Film: The Red Balloon (1957 – 35 Minutes)
Director: Albert Lamorisse
Writer: Albert Lamorisse
Premise: A relationship between a young boy and a magical red balloon that he finds in the streets of Paris.
Impact: Nabbing an Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay, The Red Balloon is the only short film to ever win an Oscar in a non-short film category. I first caught this film in the third grade. I had just enrolled in a new school, and I didn’t have a single friend. When you’re eight and feel trapped in a sea of loneliness, your imagination becomes your best friend. With very little dialogue, the short takes hold of this very simple concept; and only minutes in, “the red balloon” takes on a life of its own. I’d say this is one of the best “children’s stories” every told, but the comedy drama tugs at the hearts of every age and with great empathy. Try not walking away from this film without a tear in your eye.
Film: Whiplash (2013 – 18 Minutes)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Premise: A merciless, mean-spirited yet revered music teacher at an elite conservatory bullies a young, talented drummer, in hopes of pushing him to perfection…and as a result, the brink of insanity.
Impact: Most people know this feature film of the same name, which won J.K Simmons an Oscar in 2015, but the impetus was actually this short film, in which J.K. also starred. I chose this film because it directly speaks to the Oscar-worthy power of short films and how – when given the chance – both the short film and feature length incarnations nearly stand equally side-by-side in comparison. I encourage you to watch both and you’ll realize why short films are such captivating experiences from both the production side and viewing experience. The film’s writer and director Damien Chazelle was just shy of 30 years-old when he made his “big” Hollywood debut with this critically acclaimed short film. Whiplash is brutal and sadistic yet finely crafted, as it explores the methods of madness in pushing talent to their absolute limits, while also grinding down its audiences to pure pulp. We can all identify with the pursuit of a dream and believe hard work can lead to success, but what happens when that dream hits back? Whiplash asks, or rather screams this very question.
I hope after watching these short films, the experience leaves you asking: Did either of these films leave a profound impact that I couldn’t shake the rest of the day? If the answer is ‘yes’, then it’s time to start telling your own story. Whether it’s five minutes or ninety, these short films prove that brilliance knows no boundaries.