Saturday, April 25, 2009

Nashville Film Festival 2009: Best of the Live Action Shorts

Here they are, in alphabetical order. Seek them out, and show them love:

Bravo: Instead of Abracadabra
(22 min., Sweden; IMDB)
While hunkered in our festival hotel this week, Nathaniel and I read a published estimate that 40% of the nation's college seniors expect to move back in with their parents after their imminent graduations, with no particular plan for their next forward maneuver. The Swedish delight Instead of Abracadabra suggests that becoming the village magician is not the ideal advance, except insofar as 25-year-old Thomas (Simon J. Berger) delights us as much with his flamboyant, slightly self-deluding treading of water as he flusters his father and worries his beaming, defensive mother for the very same reason. Thomas has cobbled together an act that he describes, in a foray into English, as "upclose gothic death and mayhem," and if you translate this out of his preferred Napoleon Dynamite dialect, this basically involves exploding some hamsters (or seeming to), lighting his own thumb on fire (or seeming to), and spearing his mother in the side with a machete (oops). Thomas finally has the will to raise his game when a beautiful new neighbor commissions him as entertainment at his son's birthday party, and though the comic dynamics of the pooh-poohing Dad and the rose-spectacled Mom are nothing new for indie cinema, the viewer's oddly mingled investment in Thomas surpassing himself and/or making a spectacular shambolic failure of himself provided a perky high-point of belly laughs and undemanding entertainment that is always welcome at any point in a heavy-hitting festival. I wouldn't be surprised if Oscar got excited about Abracadabra (which is almost entirely a compliment) or if, in certain film-nut circles, the enthusiastic refrain "Chimay!" graduated to the plane of "Vote for Pedro" or the Moldy Peaches. A delicious sugarcube of Scandinavian quirk.

Bravo: Love You More
(15 min., U.K.; IMDB)
This debut short by the acclaimed English artist Sam Taylor-Wood delivers a comparable adrenalin-rush of giddy entertainment as Abracadabra but with higher-key energy, more aggressive colors and edits, and a nimbly managed structure pivoting on the triple repetition of the eponymous track by the Buzzcocks. These three encores of the song correlate to a jubilant erotic encounter between two punk-era teenagers who have barely clocked each other before reaching for the same album in the record store. Taylor-Wood arrives into her first directing gig with extraordinary prestige and a bevy of connections on her side; as an innocent of the gallery-art world, I had frankly never heard of her, but it's not every short film that logs the late Anthony Minghella (producer), Nina Gold (casting), Seamus McGarvey (cinematography), and Patrick Marber (screenplay) on its credit sheet. And yet it isn't the air of celebrity or the availability of money that lifted Love You More above so many worthy competitors to earn our Honorable Mention prize for the whole live-action division. Taylor-Wood, McGarvey, the production designer, the sound-mixing team, and the two lead actors all have the knack for evoking a specific cultural moment as a personal watershed without glopping around in nostalgia or self-congratulation, and the libidinal velocity of shopping, flirting, listening, coupling, recoupling, parting, and looking forward to tomorrow have rarely been captured with such unfluffy authenticity and such verve.

Bravo: Next Floor
(12 min., Canada; IMDB)
"Are we sure we want to confer our two top prizes on our two best-connected artists?" my jury asked ourselves before finalizing our decisions. We can't be accused of privileging the films for this reason: again, I didn't know who Sam Taylor-Wood was, and my co-conspirators had never heard of Denis Villeneuve, whose debut feature Maelstrom, narrated by a lamprey eel awaiting death on a butcher's block (seriously) I had enjoyed some years ago at a campus cinema. Plus, if we really wanted to reward celebrity, we could have anointed any of the unspeakable affairs helmed by Courteney Cox, Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Demi Moore, about which I universally refuse comment. As actors are always intoning on interview shows, with perfect integrity and a little self-righteousness, it's about the work, and the work didn't get more ambitious, impressive, insinuating, or accomplished than Villeneuve's Matthew Barney-meets-Peter Greenaway parable of a gastronomic orgy held silently by some swannish aristocrats in some baroque mansion lit—or, as it were, not lit—as though it were the bottom of the ocean. From the opening shot, the hawk-eyed servants handing out the oil-slickened meats and the effulgent canapés and vegetables make a habit of staring severely at each other and at the viewer, suggesting some kind of malign conspiracy or foreknowledge... but that doesn't forestall our surprise when the floor collapses under the weight of this stabbing, slathering meal, and the anonymous over-eaters gather their wits amid the spilled wine, the debris, and the plaster dust. What happens next, and next, and next, may be predictable to some viewers and jaw-dropping to some, but even the coolest onlookers in the film start to look increasingly perturbed, maybe even frightened by what they witness. Villeneuve is holding out a big, unembarrassed, topical indictment of largesee and consumption for anyone who wants to see one, but the aural and visual atmosphere of the piece are too boldly overwhelming to recapitulate as one-dimensional dogma, and the sheer scale of the architecture and choreography that went into this bitter little passion-play are enough to strike you with awe. Even in a crowded and ornately impressive field, Next Floor didn't struggle too much to amass our Grand Jury Prize into its swelling cache of awards.

Bravo: Omelette
(7 min., Bulgaria; IMDB)
I'm sure there are wise programmers at the BFI or at Lincoln Center who know better, but from my vantage, Bulgaria hasn't made the kind of move toward global vitality as a cinematic culture (much less global recognition as such) that Romania and Hungary and the Czech Republic and several of the formal Yugoslav republics have in recent decades. All the same, Omelette, excerpted from an omnibus project of 15 short films encapsulating each of the 15 years of Bulgaria's political transition out of communism, is strong, distilled, confident, and resonant enough that one wonders about the surprises and provocations in store from film artists in that country. Omelette is so tightly shot and narratively proscribed that it would work perfectly within the anthology format for which it has been conceived, but as in those superior Romanian films we've all been so excited about, the candor and lack of pretention in the filmmaking belie strong and layered conceptions underneath. Three eggs break or almost break over the brief course of Omelette, and the source of the damage—external actor, personal error, ferocious frustration—tell their own crystallized history of domestic anxiety as it spills into self-destructive behavior, but not on such a grand scale that it can't, we hope, be curbed. A short short film is probably harder to knock out of the park than a medium- or large-scale short film, but Omelette's striking economy of means and expression demonstrate a talent at the very skill that the narrative laments: the necessity of doing a lot with a little. Well played, Nadejda Koseva.

Bravo: Terminus - watch it in full!
(8 min., Canada; IMDB)
Director Trevor Cawood's incorporation of tactile, fanciful visual effects into a general idiom of sallow urban realism (dank subway stations, greenish medical examining rooms, beige-on-yellow conference rooms) is a feat in itself, classing him in that Michel Gondry league of filmmakers who, at their peaks, can harmonize the mundane with the cheekily impossible in ways that resonate brightly with their audiences. I stand by that sentiment even if "brightly" isn't always the first word you reach for while watching Terminus, in which the stoop-shouldered residents of a composited Canadian city—Terminus was shot in Montréal and Vancouver—are individually stalked by ever more startling, abstracted forms: a tap-dancing man made of floating stones, a stretch of mean-spirited airport conveyer belt, a crouching statue in the vein of Henry Moore. There's no accounting for how these sculptural phantasms came to be, or whether the humans they pursue can perceive each other's specters, or what each particular, dogged form has to do with the individual it is trailing. Nor is there any diegetic explanation for the film's appearance of taking place sometime in the 1970s, or maybe everyone in fantasy-Canada takes their vintage shopping really seriously. Terminus makes such affective sense, goofy but unnerving, that these questions seem either like the wrong ones or like excitingly open-ended riddles. The film takes a tonal and narrative risk toward the end, accented by a quick insert of the front wheels of a bus, that recalibrates the stakes of the film just when it threatens to come across as an exceptionally weird and well-directed TV spot. There's no punchline to Terminus and no tying off of its enigmatic threads; the strange world that Cawood has envisioned keeps shuffling forward, one soft-shoe, one stony alter ego, and one sleepless night at a time.

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Anonymous Fabrizzio said...

LOVED Terminus. And it broke my heart at the beginning when he kicked the statue and it stopped dancing.

12:24 PM, April 25, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I'm with you, Fabrizzio, and I appreciate that you've been watching all of these and chiming in. I hope you're able to catch up with the ones I couldn't find online.

8:04 PM, April 26, 2009  
Blogger Catherine said...

I'm a little late to this party, I humbly admit, but I'm another person who's been diligently reading and watching along where possible. It's been a real pleasure!

I maybe wouldn't placed Terminus into my own top category, but its certainly hovering somewhere just underneath that placement (or outside it, performing a creepy little soft-shoe, at the very least). I loved how the film continued to pull the rug out from under me, on many levels. For one thing, I clicked play before reading your review so I had no idea where it was set. I was sure it was supposed to be in France; something to do with the lighting put me in mind of France and also, the lead character's droopy eyes and mouth just look French, n'est-ce pas? So imagine my surprise when he finally spoke with a resolutely North American accent! Every single time I began to settle down, thinking I knew where this was headed, the film took another unexpected detour, or shifted tone. It's perhaps stupid to say this of an 8-minute film, but in my case, its true: I laughed! (the groin kick), I cried! (well, almost, at the child trudging through the snow) and I shivered in fright! (the ending, which totally won it over for me). I thought the mutations of our impressions of the Dancing Stone Man were excellently handled: we start off be seeing these elephantine grey trunks which seem to signal a sort of urban version of the traditional nature doc, then we briefly enjoy him as an entertaining friendly creation, who suddenly shifts into a hulking monster before sliding gently into something akin to an aura - or perhaps a physical manifestation of our innner thoughts - until, wham! He's the Angel of Death. Chilling.

2:12 PM, April 29, 2009  

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