Here’s a fun game; instead of trying to list your top ten films, try to make a list of half a dozen short films that were game-changers. I played this for an hour last night but only managed four until I had to look up more. Thousands of short films are written and produced every year, but they mostly act as calling cards for writers/directors, and because they need to show what can be achieved on a budget many favour style over substance.
It’s a form Europeans are especially adept at creating. In the last few years the British Academy have honoured some remarkable short films, but locating them now is often tricky. When I was growing up they often appeared before the main feature (a short film from one of my own stories, ‘Left Hand Drive’, went into cinemas and won awards). Thinking back over the ones that left an impression on me, I’ve picked out these, which are all readily available, but there are many others. What are your favourites?
Le Balón Rouge
This was the one everyone of my age saw. Albert Lamorisse directed the adventures of a boy who befriends a seemingly sentient balloon and follows it through the streets of Paris until tragedy strikes and a euphoric, fantastical ending uplifts the tale.
Un Chien Andalou
Aargh! That opening! Bunuel and Dali! This silent 1929 short made according to surrealist principles includes some of the most memorable images ever filmed, but it’s that razor-tango-moon-eye opening that you have to survive first. I saw it at school around age eleven and the boy next to me passed out.
Making A Splash
Peter Greenaway’s 28 minute film about the order of humankind conquering the chaos of water was shot in a public swimming pool for pennies and builds to a terrific climax.
Claude Lelouche drove the car in this hypnotic race through Paris first thing in the morning. It’s shot in real time and there were some real near-misses, with just one man on the ground to prevent a crash. The result is both terrifying and exhilarating. Watch it with commentary to see how hair-raising it was.
Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard)
The title is taken from the notorious Nacht und Nebel program of abductions and disappearances decreed by the Nazis on 7 December 1941. The film was shot entirely in the year 1955 and is composed of contemporary shots of concentration camps and stock footage. Director Alain Resnais found the film very difficult to make because of its graphic nature and subject matter.
Short, monochrome and composed only of stills, this is a 1962 French Left Bank science fiction featurette by Chris Marker constructed almost entirely from still photos, and tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. It became the basis for Terry Gilliam’s film ’12 Monkeys’, and works brilliantly.
7:35 De La Mañana
A girl arrives for her coffee in a cafe where everyone is behaving very strangely. When one of the customers starts singing it seems we might be in a musical, but then the spectre of terrorism rears its head before the genre twists again and we find it’s about something else entirely. All in eight minutes!
An American entry from 2016 showcasing the acting of Jim Cummings, who brilliantly plays an emotional cop at his mother’s funeral – to say any more would spoil it.