While the chances of getting a feature film into Sundance may be slim, the short film submissions are just as competitive. For its first year back to in-person after two years of a virtual event, the festival received a record number of short films submissions, with 10,980 entries from around the world hoping to play in Park City. Shorts programmers Mike Plante and Heidi Zwicker had the task of whittling it down to 64 films and 4 episodic projects, and they assure aspiring Sundance filmmakers that they watch every single submission.
“We love all these films individually, but part of choosing them is how well they speak together as a program,” Zwicker told IndieWire during a recent interview. “They have to come together to create a cohesive whole, where each one is doing something different.”
Building the program holistically allows for a broad spectrum of genres and budgets, something Plante singles out as being unique to Sundance. “I think a lot of big festivals, they find films they like and they select them. So when you see them in a run order in a theater, it’s interesting how they’ll play off one another,” he said. “If it’s one of the 20 best films that blow everything else away, they get in. And then, what else do you play in there? And what’s good and shows promise but is a little rough around the edges?”
As a longtime shorts programmer, Plante says he’s happy if any one of his filmmakers gets to make a feature. With programs like the Sundance Institute Labs, often a promising short could lead to a lifelong relationship with the festival. Last year, Zwicker was thrilled to see Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny” play so well at the festival and throughout its subsequent release, after her short “Suicide by Sunlight” premiered at Sundance in 2019.
While shorts are an art form unto their own, part of what makes following short film so exciting is knowing the next exciting feature filmmaker is waiting in the wings to be discovered. Without further ado, here are ten of the most exciting short films playing Sundance this year.
This year’s festival runs from January 19 – January 29 in Park City, Utah. For more information on tickets for both in-person attendees and virtual viewers, head here. Check out all of our coverage of the festival right here.
“Evacuation of Mama Emola”
According to the programmers, submissions from Indonesia grew tenfold since the festival brought Sundance Film Festival: Asia to Jakarta last year, holding true to its mission of discovering emerging filmmakers from around the world. Indonesian filmmaker Anggun Priambodo’s 2013 feature “Rocket Rain” is currently streaming on MUBI, but his latest short shows a marked maturation for the indie filmmaker. “Evacuation of Mama Emola” follows an incarcerated man and a woman prison officer on a trip to evacuate his aging mother from her small village during a tsunami threat.
Shot in pleasing black and white and humming with a whimsical current, the odd couple bicker loudly over the whirr of the motorbike. With tension mounting over the impending threat, they engage in a convivial tug of war over the fastest route and the nuances of “stealing” versus “borrowing.” With a hilarious stop to a child mechanic and the intrigue of a group of looters casing evacuated houses, the 18-minute short breezes by to its joyous conclusion. It would be ripe for a feature adaptation if it weren’t so perfect already. —Jude Dry
“A Folded Ocean”
Writer-director Ben Brewer was one of the seven special effects artists on “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and you can tell from his short film, another innovative lo-fi use of special effects that goes beyond their most common application. This outlandish and inspired body-horror comedy from the midnight shorts program uses a single body-morphing CGI conceit to tell the unsettling story of a relationship coming together and falling apart.
The official description says that a couple (Anabelle Lemieux and John Giacobbe) “get lost in each other,” and that happens in literal terms too jarring and hilarious to detail here. Needless to say, Brewer has come up with a brilliant concept that uses its microbudget David Cronenberg conceit to explore the complex way that couples form bonds over time, and the complicated feelings that arise when those bonds don’t last. It suggests a bright, strange, and unpredictable future for this new filmmaker. —Eric Kohn
“Evacuation of Mama Emola”
Blending an old school animation style with deliciously adult themes, this jaunty black and white comedy looks like an early Disney cartoon crossed with gay manga. When an (actual) bear plumber shows up to his latest job, he finds himself awash in the sights and sounds of a hopping gay fetish club. He instantly breaks into a sweat in his little coveralls, the mass of bodies, limbs, and leather distracting him from the task at hand. As a parade of penis pipes, gushing streams, and multi-purpose tools dance past, the plumber unclogs his true desires.
A recent graduate of the Lucerne School of Arts and Design, Swiss animator Kilian Feusi proves himself a humorous artist with a whimsical eye and a wholesome but subversive streak. More, please. —JD
It’s hard to imagine you’ll find a stranger, more ambitious, and unclassifiable movie at this year’s Sundance than “Claudio’s Song” — at least one that clocks in at 10 minutes. Swedish director Andreas Nilsson’s shape-shifting odyssey in miniature begins as the story of some criminals who kidnap a social media influencer after holding his account hostage and then decide to kill him. From that outrageous, satiric opening, the movie takes a few other turns, transforming into a beguiling musical and ending in the future.
Deadpan surrealism is rarely this adventurous and slick at the same time — you’ll barely have time to sort out what you’re watching before it ends, as Nilsson leaves you to contemplate what the hell you just watched. The only certainty: “Claudio’s Song” is a fully realized vision about how everyone lives as a legacy in their own mind, and it ends with one hell of a catchy song. It demands to be seen and debated ad infinitum. —EK
“In the Flesh”
As editor of the Emmy-nominated short form series “Hack Into Broad City,” Brooklyn-based filmmaker and horror aficionado Daphne Gardner makes an exciting directorial debut with her first narrative short. Enlivening the feminist horror trend with a welcome blast of comedy, “In the Flesh” is a hilarious and provocative exploration of the effect of sexual trauma on a young woman’s relationship to her body — and her orgasm.
The film opens with a shot two scruffy legs slung up over a grimy tiled bathtub, as Tracey masturbates under the flow of the faucet. As memories of a past assault pop up in quick flashes, the pipes explode with brown water and she starts leaking black goo. She heads down to the creepy basement to discover the source of the sludge — a blockage that can only be cleared by confronting her demons head on. —JD
“Air Hostess 737”
With “Air Hostess 737,” Greek director Thanasis Neofotistos completes his short film trilogy (which started with “Patison Avenue” and “Route-3”) about characters who get lost in their own minds. Neofotistos explores this phenomenon through a unique cinematic device, as his entire short revolves around his protagonist dominating the frame, without showing any other characters (with the fleeting exception of one other face, in soft focus, for a few seconds).
The entire story takes place from the perspective of flight attendant Vanina (Lena Papaligoura in a tense, remarkable performance) struggling with self-image problems associated with her new braces, an anxiety that masks her bigger problem — that the plane is also carrying the body of her recently deceased mother. As Vanina’s composure gradually gives way to grief, the world of the plane collapses around her, in a thrilling subjective spiral that takes her situation to abstract heights. It’s a poignant and inventive character study from a director who seems to have landed on a sharp formula of his own making. —EK
“Shirampari: Legacies of the River”
Shot in one of the most remote places of the Peruvian Amazon, Lucia Flórez’s impressive documentary is an engrossing portrait of a father passing on his Ashéninka fishing technique to his adorable young son. A recipient of the National Geographic Explorer Grant, Flórez captures gorgeous nature footage without sacrificing character development or storytelling.
With a boisterous confidence too big his tiny frame, the boy listens intently as his father explains how make a hook secure enough to catch even the biggest catfish. As children splash in the river and men haul their catches proudly, Flórez shows the joy and camaraderie of daily life in the community. The film offers a rare window into an otherwise private tradition, but one feels the ethics behind the camera in the tenderness and admiration with which the story unfolds. —JD
“Christopher at Sea”
Veteran animator Tom Brown’s awe-inspiring and romantic animated short follows a young man who escapes the world by taking a transatlantic voyage on a cargo ship. The gorgeous 2D animation lends a storybook feel to this bittersweet flight of fancy as Christopher immerses himself in a quiet life at sea, bonds with the crew, and wrestles with unexpected desires that crop up over the course of his trip. Filled with images of gorgeous sunsets and intoxicating dream sequences, the short is a genuine cinematic odyssey that feels at once intimate and epic in scale as it explores the nature of loneliness through its singular backdrop. Expect this one to make some waves on the festival circuit and potentially keep it going into awards season. —EK
Any New Yorker can relate to the personal torment of unwillingly hearing one’s neighbors through painfully thin apartment walls. And in New York, the noises are as varied and daring as the people themselves. Rarely seen but always heard, “Troy” is named for the hunky gay man who loves next door to an unassuming straight couple. Day and night, Thea (Adina Verson) and Charlie (Michael Braun) are serenaded by the guttural moans and grating groans of Troy’s passionate sex life, which seems as endless as his appetite for it. During dinner, dishes, bedtime, or company, Troy and his rotating roster of lovers become the soundtrack to their lives. There’s nothing left but to become overly involved.
Theater director Mike Donahue makes his filmmaking debut with a funny script from playwright Jen Silverman, who rally appearances from beloved New York actors like Max Jenkins, Dana Delany, and Dylan Baker. —JD
If there’s one short readymade for feature-length treatment at this year’s Sundance, it’s writer-director Rashad Frett’s “Ricky” — and indeed, Frett is already developing the feature version at the Sundance labs. Parish Bradley stars in this sensitive and troubling look at a young Black man released from jail and attempting to stabilize his life with a new job opportunity, while struggling to suppress the anger and anxiety that got him into trouble in the first place.
That challenge leads him to a shocking and tragic decision that forces him to confront whether he can own up to his setbacks and set things right for once, no matter the cost. A haunting and emotional look at the underrepresented struggles of recently incarcerated people attempting to put their lives together, “Ricky” is a shocking snapshot of social realism sure to get people talking about the talent on both sides of the camera. —EK
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