2015 Sundance Film Festival Award-Winning Shorts review: the best of the best

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World of Tomorrow green light Sundance

The highlight is the absolutely astonishing “World of Tomorrow,” which crams in more SF ideas than you’ll find in a decade’s worth of summer blockbusters.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Didn’t get to Sundance this January? Me neither. But now some arthouse moviegoers in the U.S. will have a chance to check out a selection of the best short films from this year’s fest, starting in New York City, where the IFC Center debuts today the 2015 Sundance Film Festival Award-Winning Shorts. (Keep an eye on your local arthouse: this may show up there in the coming months.)

The highlight of the program and winner of the Short Film Jury Award — meaning it was the best short of the festival — is the absolutely astonishing “World of Tomorrow” [IMDb], from American filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt. When a very little girl, Emily (the voice of Winona Mae), gets a phone call from one of her own future clones (the voice of Julia Pott), who has all of Emily’s memories (including the ones she hasn’t experienced yet, of course), she gets a peek not only at her own far-future life but the fate of humanity itself. She’s far too young to understand what she’s witnessing, but we aren’t. When I say this wise and horrifying film will make you feel all the feels, I mean a universe of them: this is funny cute disturbing sinister sad melancholy hopeful all at the same time, plus some emotions that haven’t been invented yet but which future Emily clone hints at… for her world is the culmination of more science-fiction ideas crammed into this film’s 17 minutes than you’ll find in a decade’s worth of summer blockbusters. And not all of those ideas are pleasant. The animation is conversely — perhaps perversely — like simple line drawings that a child might make, with layers of things psychedelic and Kubrickian oozing in later (some Strauss helps with the sense that this is a sidebar to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Really one of the most mindblowing short films I’ve ever seen. [The short is available to stream on Vimeo. It’s not free, but it’s worth every penny, not only for your own enjoyment, but to encourage Hertzfeldt to make more perfect little movies like this one.]

“SMILF” [IMDb], which took the Short Film Jury Prize: U.S. Fiction is from writer and director Frankie Shaw, who stars as Bridgette, a single mom of a toddler son who is feeling very lonely, isolated, and unattractive in her life. So she invites an old boyfriend (Thomas Middleditch) over one day while her son is napping, but their encounter only ends us frustrating both of them. This disconcerting little story speaks uneasy truths about the emotional turmoil of motherhood that are seldom aired in pop culture, and serves as a reminder than women are often conflicted about being mothers even when they adore their kids.

The Short Film Jury Prize: International Fiction winner is “Oh Lucy!” [IMDb | official site], from Japanese filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi. Here we meet middle-aged Tokyo “office lady” Setsuko (Kaori Momoi) who stumbles into English-language lessons via her unreliable niece, and discovers a side of herself that she was unaware of before… and it’s not entirely a nice side. This is another film (like “SMILF”) by a female writer-director that explores female loneliness, which isn’t a topic we’re used to seeing onscreen, and one that isn’t often discussed in our culture. Touching and unnerving, in the best way.

The Short Film Jury Prize for Non-Fiction went to “The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul” [IMDb]. Australian filmmaker Kitty Green — who also made the extraordinary documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel — assembles audition footage of little girls trying out to portray the Olympic gold-medallist figure skater Oksana Baiul, the first Olympic champion, in 1994, from an independent Ukraine. But their cheerful little-actress demeanors and the pink skating costume they’re all wearing cannot mask the pain and sorrow that Ukraine’s current turmoil, only 20 years later, has fomented in them, one very much at odds with Baiul’s legend and legacy.

The French “Storm Hits Jacket” [IMDb], from writer-director Paul Cabon, is the winner of the Short Film Jury Prize: Animation. And it is a deliciously strange and surreal X-Files-ish adventure amidst an apocalyptic storm, when Mother Nature is going crazy and a villain hopes to steal an invention that makes you feel as if you are seeing the future. The naive, outsider-art animation style is charming.

Finally, there’s “Object” [IMDb | official site], from Poland, by filmmaker Paulina Skibińska, which won the Short Film Special Jury Prize for Poetic Vision. At first it seems like a nature documentary from another planet, an oddly compelling look at the borderland between frozen sea and the world above its icy surface. But then we come to appreciate that this is an abstract portrait of a search for something under the ice, under the water. We never know what it is, but this is a mysterious and beautiful melange of imagery that is cold and chilling for more than just the weather.

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Thu, Jun 11, 2015 12:43am

WORLD OF TOMORROW is a masterpiece. If you haven’t, you should definitely check out Don Hertzfeldt’s IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY, which is even better.