OPINION: 8 Short Films Made by A-List Directors
It would be an understatement to say that there is a divide between how we view Short Films and Feature Films. Tent-pole movies worth $300 million in estimated budgets are hard to associate with humble 10-20 minute micro-budget YouTube videos. However, when ignoring the restrictions of extended run-times and studio mandates, short films can achieve some really powerful stuff, and deserve a lot more love than they are currently given. Almost every working director owes their success to short films, but given their lack of marketability, these works get over looked in favor of the beast that is the feature film. Short films are largely delegated to YouTube/Dailymotion or even less popular, the dreaded blu-ray extras. It might be presumptuous but hopefully with the recent Coen Brothers film: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs there may be hope for the future of shorter, more poignant narratives becoming increasingly accepted into the mainstream. In any case here are some of the most effective and underappreciated works of short-form storytelling made by some of the most well known and prolific filmmakers.
Doodlebug (1997) dir. Christopher Nolan
Of all the directors and their respective short films on this list, Christopher Nolan’s (Dunkirk, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Memento, Insomnia) is likely the most surprising. Watching this grungy, surreal, low budget short film, it’s hard to believe it comes from Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker famous for his grandiose and epic stories. In DoodleBug we see a man jumping around, driven mad by a desire to squash a bug skittering around his apartment. Before Nolan was using IMAX 4k 1080p cameras, he was shooting in Black and White with what appears to be a camera from 1936, and his epic in scale settings, such as Gotham City, Dunkirk, The Cosmos and even the infinite space of a dream, were all preceded by one claustrophobic apartment. However what does remain significantly Nolan-esque, is the theme found in his Pre-Dark Knight work such as Memento and The Prestige, his stylistic portrayal of nihilism.
Nolan’s stylish and often surreal vision of characters struggling to survive a world or situation that renders them small and useless is perfectly summarized by Doodlebug. The struggle and ultimate failure of his characters is almost Sisyphean, and part of what makes his early work so unique, and was somewhat present in films like Interstellar and Dunkirk, is the bleak and crushing nature of the world around them being unavoidable and inevitable. We would also see Nolan return to the more surreal and conceptual storytelling found in Doodlebug with Inception. But aside from all of the symbolism and philosophy, Doodlebug stands as a testament to the power of creativity, no matter how small you begin your journey, the potential for growth is infinite.
Next Floor (2008) dir. Denis Villeneuve
The plot here is simple, a creepy and unsettling banquet is being held in a warehouse, the banquet begins as a strange “ritualistic gastronomic carnage” (as its description puts it) and only gets more unsettling and blackly comic from there. The ideas of greed, self destruction and criticism of bourgeois sensibilities are not kept subtle in this 10 minute short and to explain what Next Floor means feels fairly redundant, it’s pretty obvious what point Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival, Enemy, Prisoners, Blade Runner 2049, Incendies) is trying to make with this short film. But what is most impressive and engaging about this absurdist short is how it unsettles and creeps you out, the food on display is hilariously gross looking, verging on the level of body horror. The look of all of the actors come across as off and strange. It’s like watching a dinner party hosted by Harmony Korine. The film punctuates its finale with a deep and piercing stare directly into your soul, reminding you that no matter how funny or absurd you found this film, you may be more involved in its themes than you may realize. It is a far cry from Villenueve’s more recent and grounded work however the DNA of his most popular work is not absent from this engaging and unsettling short film.
Cigarettes and Coffee (1993) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
It is natural that the longest entry onto this list (lasting just over 23 minutes) is the first directing credit for the brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Phantom Thread, The Master, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love). Starring Phillip Baker Hall, and a small but brilliantly sleazy performance by the late Miguel Ferrer. Make sure not to get this short film confused with Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes. Cigarettes and Coffee tells the story of a few individuals who by sheer fate have their lives intertwined by a $20 bill, all of them coincidentally convening at the same diner at the same time. Explaining who each of these characters are and what their story is would be a major spoiler. If you can handle the longer running time and the fact that there seems to be no version available that itsn’t nearly ruined by poor VHS visual artifacts, Cigarettes and Coffee is a masterwork of dialogue and character driven storytelling. Every piece of information about these characters is meticulously planned and executed, giving you a great experience slowly understanding piece by piece who these people are and the themes Anderson is tackling.
Without giving too much away the theme of the film is luck, appropriate given that it takes place somewhere in the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas. Characters engage in rituals and traditions to maintain their luck, but as the film repeatedly shows these characters have nothing but bad fortune. Still they move forward convinced that their luck will turn eventually, Phillip Baker Hall’s character (simply credited as Sydney) by the end of the film can only manage to suggest doing his rituals in order to maintain the illusion of good luck coming soon one day, despite his knowledge that the situation has slipped from his grasp. Luck and fate only seem to plague these characters, and we see them trapped in a cycle, some of them hitting rock bottom but refusing or unable to change, and this lack of change is exactly what perpetuates this cycle.
There is a lot more to unpack here, given the extra length and its an incredibly rewarding watch. While the dialogue at times seems too high concept to be performed by some of the lesser talented actors, Anderson’s signature style for strong character driven stories is evident here. The way in which unrelated characters are seemingly linked by fate or mutual suffering is a strong theme in Anderson’s most prolific works such as Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love and most obviously Magnolia. This short would also serve as the basis for the idea behind Hard Eight, Anderson’s first feature film, and the similarities are impossible to ignore once you watch Cigarettes and Coffee. Philip Baker Hall has said that when he first read the script for this short he immediately envisioned Anderson’s future as a powerful and iconic voice within the medium of film, and looking back on Anderson’s legacy now, it’s hard to disagree with this prophecy.
The Big Shave (1967) dir. Martin Scorcese
Despite its simplicity what makes The Big Shave so special is not any one thing. Like all of Martin Scorcese’s projects the genius and poignancy of the work is in how rich the technique and effort the short film managed to be despite really only having one thing of note happening. The Big Shave shows a man having a simple shave, although after shaving multiple times begins to start destroying his face while seemingly not noticing, pouring blood all over himself and his bathroom. There is no twist or subversion; this is simply what occurs on screen, but to explain it in such lackluster terms only serves to miss the genius of Scorcese’s directorial early work. So much of what makes the film unique and memorable is the care and effort put into every cut and frame, the short is not powerful due to any one thing but a combination of all of its elements. Such is true for both Scorcese’s most ambitious and most humble projects. It’s the combination of the banal and relaxed performance of the man, the bright and saccharine cinematography making this scene feel more akin to a 1960s commercial than an absurdist short film.
A soundtrack choice that simply invokes the image of the Scorcese aesthetic, and the comically clean and white bathroom being corrupted by the harsh and gloopy crimson blood. While it is one of the less creative or impressive entries on the list, The Big Shave really does have such effort and technique poured into it that it’s fascinating to see how Scorcese’s perfectionism as a filmmaker has been a part of his style since the very beginning. The Big Shave shows us that you don’t need fast talking gangsters or a morally complex protagonist to imitate the style of one of the most impressive careers in cinematic history, all you need is a healthy blend of inspiration, technique and just a dash of experimentation, and even a man silently shaving in his bathroom can feel like Scorcese.
The Alphabet (1968) dir. David Lynch
You likely already have an idea in your head of what an early David Lynch (Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway) short film might look like, a pointless series of creepy and unsettling imagery that only serves to be weird. However, while at first glance the pre-Eraserhead work of David Lynch can seem to be lacking in any real depth, there is a surprising amount of honesty and expression in this work. Lynch’s first short, Six Men Getting Sick (six times) (1967), is simply a short stop motion time-lapse of a painting in which, well you guessed it, six figures that might be men, get sick (six times, the film loops itself). While not overly satisfying, it is engaging to see the visions of Lynch before turning to feature film-making. The themes of mental and biological corruption, as well as the imagery of mental degradation taking on physical representations, is just as part of Lynch’s work then as it is now, despite the meaning of any of his work (which Lynch has always said is unique to every single viewer). His undefinable style is clear the very earliest of his work.
This strange and original vision was expanded upon in his next endeavor The Alphabet which is where we really begin to see David Lynch come into his own, juxtaposing similarly unsettling and creepy time lapsed paintings with the innocent sounds of children reciting the alphabet. The film also combines some truly terrifying live action shots of David’s then wife Peggy Lynch into the mix. It’s a truly skin-crawling watch to see the mind of Lynch refract the the themes of education and knowledge into his powerfully haunting imagery. It is indeed possible that this short is progenitor of the absolutely brilliant web series Dont Hug Me Im Scared, a similarly unsettling and dark refraction of education and manipulation on the minds of the innocent. The creators of which, have repeatedly cited Lynch as an inspiration. While this short may not proudly execute an effective narrative or clear message, it does provide an important look into the vision of a budding creative genius, all the while reaching deep into your psyche and forcing you to ask the question: “What is it about this that terrifies me?”, a question that we ask every time we watch a creative endeavor from this enigmatic artist. Watching any of Lynch’s short films is a treat, however The Alphabet stands out as a direct and clear example of one of the most unique filmmakers of all time finding out what it is that made him so special in the first place.
Hotel Chevalier (2007) dir. Wes Anderson
The most significant aspect of Wes Anderson’s (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs, Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr Fox, Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited) films that gets criminally overlooked is his deconstruction of emotionally complex characters. It’s easy to see him as a one trick pony, a filmmaker who uses a quirky style and aesthetic to no significant or meaningful degree, however, this is not the case. Hotel Chevalier is a companion piece to Anderson’s feature length film The Darjeeling Limited, showing a reunion between Jack and his Ex-Girlfriend in the hotel room Jack has been living in for over a month after his father has died. Anderson has always proven himself capable of writing complex characters that struggle to come to grips with unsolvable tragedies; aging, death, loss, failure to achieve your dreams, inability to settle down and adapt, losing those you care about, his films are profoundly introspective and he manages to use his style to tell these struggles in exciting and engaging new ways.
This is no less true for Hotel Chevalier, in which we see Jack struggle with the loss of his father, immediately jumping back into the arms of his controlling ex for comfort and knowingly make a poor decision to get back together with her, albeit briefly. However as the film goes on we begin to realize that Jack’s Ex is not as manipulative as we may have thought, her controlling and toxic behavior is in fact a symptom of her own inability to come to grips with loneliness and the decisions she makes are just as self harming as they are harmful to Jack. While watching The Darjeeling Limited does provide some extra context and reference to Hotel Chevalier, it is not required. This short stands on its own as a poignant and effective deconstruction of a relationship that only serves to bring the both of these characters further down a spiral they already believed they had hit the rock bottom of. Anderson’s signature style is of course present in the film but what makes Hotel Chevalier so special here is the way in which it focuses so strongly on a single moment of this complex relationship. The short stands as proof of Anderson’s talent at writing and directing characters and fits perfectly in his body of work showcasing similar examples of sadness and depression and the effects it has on his colorful cast of misfits.
Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB (1996) dir. George Lucas
When you think of George Lucas (THX 1138, American Graffitti, Star Wars) it’s hard not to think of Star Wars, Lucas’ most successful franchise and indeed a franchise that has caused undeniable ripples on cinema, culture and the film-making process to such a staggering degree that we are not even close to seeing it’s significance waver. But while Star Wars found its bold unique voice in its combination of Fantasy themed Science Fiction, Japanese cinema, and WW2 propaganda serials, Lucas began his journey much more inspired by the work of his favorite director: Stanley Kubrick. The influence in Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB is clear, the film shows a man (named THX 1138) escaping an underground sci-fi maze of some Orwellian dystopian colony while a command center repeatedly tries to stop him. What makes this short unique is the style, the audio and visuals come across closer to war footage than the more exaggerated fantasy tone that we associate with Lucas’ more well known work.
Throughout the short we only see faces mumbling into radios, machines and monitors displaying information we can't even begin to understand, strange hallways and offices filled with people dressed in all white with 4 digit numbers emblazoned across their foreheads and all of it executed as if being seen from documentary footage. The technology on display is reminiscent of the airplane in Dr Strangelove, and the empty and coldly technological setting invokes the imagery of 2001: A Space Odyssey, films that have been long since praised for their military and technological accuracy. The dialogue is just a mess of overlapping radio chatter, only rarely are we able to make out words or phrases until Lucas allows us to, eschewing any conventional dialogue. This short is a very grounded and meticulous representation of a crazy science fiction world that would be later expanded upon in Lucas’ first feature length film THX 1138, in which the same setting is explored in greater detail. While it is unfortunate that Lucas has never really made the comeback into storytelling that he may have once been capable of, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB as well as the rest of his pre-Star Wars work shows us that before he was a businessman, George Lucas was indeed a bold and unique filmmaker. A director who could combine his many influences into something truly special. Surely to study his legendary career through the good times and the bad would truly be a fascinating journey, and Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB is a brilliant place to start.
Locks (2009) dir. Ryan Coogler
If you watch any of the shorts on this list, make sure it is Locks, rising star Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed, Black Panther) is quickly proving to be one of the most impressive and outspoken directors working today. His talent at weaving complex character dramas to overbearing themes of oppression and racial identity are captivating audiences, not least with his more widely successful feature films. However, it becomes clear when watching his debut directing credit Locks that Coogler does not need big budgets, Michael B. Jordan, or even dialogue to tell a captivating story about survival and perseverance in the face of a world that tries so hard to keep you down. Locks follows Dante, a young black man taking a walk through his neighborhood, where he is going and why I won’t go into, but even through a couple of glances into Dante’s life we are provided with so much information. Coogler uses some brilliant filming techniques to deliver very simple information to us, but giving it the weight and gravitas it deserves. The short takes a confusing turn, a turn that runs contrary to the ideas and elements expertly placed by Coogler in the first 3 minutes, it is here where Coogler’s genius really comes through. Again, I won’t explain what exactly happens, but Locks manages to subvert and surprise even with 6 minutes of dialogue free scenes, perfectly underlining the pressures and identity of Dante and what makes him and his story so brave and inspiring. Coogler’s stories are meant to inspire everyone, no matter what situation or background (much like the philosophy of the Rocky franchise that Coogler would go on to contribute to), but it is in the marriage between this concept and African American identity that we really get to see Coogler’s vision, a vision that has always been present in all of Coogler’s work. As well as Locks, other brilliant Coogler short films are The Sculptor and Fig, and honestly all of it is worth watching. Unlike the careers of previously mentioned directors, what adds another level of inspiration to Coogler’s work is the fact that despite already having a profound effect on the mainstream, he is only just getting started.