I love the short film as a medium. I don't know what it is about truncated plotlines, but shorts allow artists to express far more creative freedom than anyone seems willing to attempt in full-length features. Perhaps it's not having to deal with the threat of losing money, or perhaps it allows filmmakers to work with ideas that can't be sustained over two hours. Whatever it is, it works. I intended to create a list of my favorite shorts of all time, but having narrowed it down to seven, I can't possibly choose between all of them. So, alphabetical order for the win. The best thing? Most of these are available on Youtube, in some form or another. Have some free time? Go edify yourself.
Cashback (Sean Ellis, 2005)
Cashback is a gorgeous hybridization of mind-numbing monotony and sublime beauty. It concerns the travails of Ben Willis, who works the night-shift at a local grocery store to pay his way through art college. The film takes 20-ish minutes to examine ways that people allow their mind to drift away from everyday events. If this were all it did, Cashback would still be an interesting study of human nature in the face of boredom. Its second half, however, allows its protagonist to stop time and, as an artist, examine and appreciate the beauty in his world. This surreal edge elevates the material into something completely unique and oddly satisfying. (Sadly, only the first half can be found on Youtube. Perhaps it's because the second half is chock full of gratuitous nudity? Youtube probably looks down on that.)
Un Chien Andalou (Luis Bunuel and Salvadore Dali, 1928)
Un Chien Andalou is nothing less than a nosedive into the deep end. Noted surrealist Bunuel and famed surrealist painter Dali team up to attempt to recreate the subconscious on film. What follows is nearly indescribable: there's no real plot, no words, and no sense of continuity. The film is a string of incomprehensible and disturbing images: a woman's eye being sliced open with a straight razor, a disembodies hand in the street, a man whose hand is being devoured by ants, another man dragging pianos draped with the carcasses of donkeys. You get the idea. One can try to rationalize this film, but it's just like the process one goes through upon waking from a dream: dreams have no real plot or continuity, but one must assign them anyway so as to make sense of the experience that was had. The same can be said for Un Chien Andalou: no real plot, but we make one anyway so we don't go crazy.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (Joss Whedon, 2008)
My God, I love Dr. Horrible. This short (some people call it a TV series, but seriously: it's forty minutes long) is the perfect blend of everything you could want out of entertainment: the music is fantastic and catchy, the acting is superb, and the writing is razor-sharp. It contains the elements of comedy, side by side with romance, all of which are suddenly pre-empted by drama and harsh reality. I feel like I'm underselling this, somehow. Dr. Horrible is ridiculous amounts of fun the first time. The second time, it's bittersweet, almost tragic. The third time, it's karaoke. The jokes come fast and furious, but so does the emotional impact. The last shot stands in my mind as one of the most affecting in recent cinema, full-form or otherwise.
Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Derren and Alexander Hammid, 1943)
And we're back to surrealism. Directing duo Derren and Hammid set out to do the same thing that Bunuel and Dali tried: to represent the subconscious on film. These two take it further, however, in allowing moments of suggested reality to creep into their film. What follows is a profoundly unsettling, downright creepy cinematic experience unlike any other. While Un Chien Andalou feels like macabre comedy, Meshes of the Afternoon is just plain macabre. The film's recurring images (figures with mirrors for faces, bending staircases, an ubiquitous knife) become burned into the retina and continue to haunt the viewer long after first viewing. The last moment of violence is singularly memorable.
Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955)
This short is, for my money, both the best documentary of all time as well as one of the most profoundly disturbing films of all time. Filmmaker Alain Resnais takes his cameras to the remains of concentration camps, most left how they were ten years before, and splices the footage with Nazi documentary footage of the Holocaust. Though the film is less than forty minutes, it could be the most disturbing experience I've had in the cinema. Resnais attempts no kind of social commentary, no hindsight observation, no attempt to make sense of the madness: instead, he just cites statistics about the Holocaust while showing the pictures. If you watch this, I'll warn you: prepare to feel wrung-out and unhappy. This film is the definitive Holocaust film, in that it's the only piece of work that doesn't try to rationalize or moralize: it simply forces the viewer to confront the grim reality of the death of millions of human beings. (Note: This is on Youtube, but only in French without subtitles. I'm told that it's on google video with subtitles, however. I honestly haven't checked.)
One Man Band (Mark Andrews and Andrew Jimenez, 2005)
One Man Band clocks in as the shortest offering on the list (just over four minutes), and is the only animated film, but could very easily vie for my choice as favorite (though, as stated before, that's not a choice I can honestly make right now). This tiny film about two starving artists and the single coin they compete for says more about the effects of poverty, greed, and pride than most full-length films do. The film is funny, heart-wrenching at times, and in the end, provides a sucker-punch of humanity to the gut. There are few things in this world that make me smile as much as the last facial expression we see on the little girl. This film is an ode to generosity, contentment, and the foolishness of placing too much importance on money.
Six Shooter (Martin McDonagh, 2005)
You are most likely familiar with Martin McDonagh as the writer/director of In Bruges. Before that, however, McDonagh created this: a short film that runs with The Joker's idea that all it takes to drive a man crazy is one very bad day. And my God, what a bad day McDonagh shows us. Six Shooter follows a man (played by Brendan Gleeson) whose wife has just died. On the train ride home, he shares a car with a couple whose infant has just died, along with an arrogant, rude young man, who makes it a point to goad everyone around him under the pretense of "making conversation." I wouldn't dare reveal what happens next; suffice to say that it's shocking, tense, and clever. The way McDonagh pulls all the strings together to make the one moment at the end of the film possible is absolutely jaw-dropping. Seriously. Go watch this on Youtube. It takes less than a half and hour, and you'll thank me later.
Hell. Go watch all of these, the ones that you can find, anyway. Find a free couple of hours. It's worth it. Come back and tell me which ones you like best. Or, if you prefer, just watch a couple and report back. If I'm forced to choose, I'd say Six Shooter, One Man Band, Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, and Meshes of the Afternoon would fight it out for my #1 spot. I'd say Night and Fog would be up there, but it just makes me feel too bad to consider it a favorite. It might be the best, however.