DIRECTED BY: Juan Solanas, Andrea Arnold, Christopher Nolan, Roy Andersson, Toby MacDonald, Lynne Ramsay, Jan Svankmajer, Mathieu Kassovitz, Run Wrake, Virgil Widrich, Ridley Scott, Lars von Trier, Balint Kenyeres, Anders Thomas Jensen, Martin McDonagh, Nanni Moretti
FEATURING: Natalie Press, Brendan Gleeson, Rúaidhrí Conroy, Klas-Gösta Olsson, Kris Marshall, Johannes Silberschneider, Tony Scott, Ulrich Thomsen
PLOT: This collection of sixteen award-winning shorts made by Europeans (mostly Brits) is a mix of dramas, comedies, and experimental pieces.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compilations aren’t eligible for the List. Although there are several short films on this set that are both weird, and great for their length, none of them have the weight it would take to displace a full-length feature film from the List.
COMMENTS: Like any box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get with this collection of sixteen shorts—it could be a caramel, a raspberry creme, or one of the dreaded coconuts. The wide array of styles from artists working free of commercial concerns makes collections like this excellent primers on what cinema can accomplish, and this selection from short film specialists Cinema 16 is one of the most award-studded compilations you’ll find. Not having to worry about the box office receipts allows short film-makers to experiment with technique and go weirder than they otherwise would; indeed, about half of the movies here have at least a nodding acquaintance with the bizarre, while a couple are full-fledged works of surrealist art. But no matter what direction your tastes run, rest assured there is something here to delight, and to bore, every film fan.
For completeness’ sake, I’ll briefly run down the realism-based entries first, in ascending order of quality. We’ll then spend a little more time with the experimental offerings, a few of which are extremely important to the world of weird film.
The oldest film, Ridley Scott’s 1956 Boy and Bicycle, about a lad who takes a bike ride to the beach and carries on an inner monologue the whole time, is a tedious exercise that will remind you of the worst film school indulgences. It’s included here because of the stature of the director, but it shows off little of the talent he would later bring to Alien and Blade Runner. Pierre le Pou (1990) is an inconsequential comedy about an uncoordinated man trying to impress a talented and attractive female with his basketball prowess. Seemingly aimed at flattering film festival fans for their superior taste—though there’s sly satire in the portrayal of the pompous manager of an art theater—The Opening Day of Close-up shows the arthouse fallout when Close-up get steamrolled by The Lion King on its opening day. Extremely thick Scottish accents make Lynn Ramsay’s Gasman, a drama about a man who takes his children to spend one day a year with their half-siblings, very difficult to follow for American viewers. Before Dawn is the story of illegal immigrants trying to enter a country through a cornfield. It’s done in a single 13-minute tracking shot and is a technically amazing feat of choreography and camerawork, but there is little for the audience to connect with storywise. The mildly amusing Election Night is a satire involving a principled liberal desperate to get to the polls before they close who finds himself in a taxicab driven by an obnoxious racist. Funnier is Je T’Aime John Wayne, a jazzy black and white portrait of an English man who patterns his life after French New Wave films; anyone should find it hilarious, but a knowledge of cinema trivia will pay extra dividends for film fans (e.g., the love interest is a pixie girl named Zazie). The most memorable of the “straight” films is Andrea Arnold’s Oscar-winning Wasp, a sadly believable and strangely sympathetic portrait of a very unfit single mom struggling to feed her four children while longing to find a sex life for herself.
On to the weirder offerings:
The Irish black comedy Six Shooter is another Oscar winner, and one of the best films in the collection. It isn’t strictly a weird movie, but it deserves an honorable mention thanks to a funny fantasy sequence wherein a “short fella” repeatedly stabs a cow with a screwdriver to relieve it’s “trapped wind.” The scenario, by playwright Martin McDonagh, here directing his first movie, involves Brendan Gleeson losing his wife, then sharing a train ride home with the most obnoxious traveler imaginable. Corpses pile up as Glesson’s character experiences the worst day of his, or anybody’s, life. Rúaidhrí Conroy is extraordinarily loathsome as the foul- and motor-mouthed sociopath.
Nocturne was Lars von Trier‘s final film school short before moving on to features. Sadly, it has a stereotypically pretentious “film school” look and feel, but it’s clearly an experimental work. The “story” concerns a woman who’s afraid of sunlight. All of the shots are low-light and murky; it’s often a struggle to make out what we’re seeing. There are some memorable shots, like the double image of a woman watching as a solarized man breaks through a plate-glass window in the background. In the commentary, the director is more than a little amused by the odd visual theories of geometrical correspondences espoused by his earlier self.
Doodlebug is a one-effect, one-joke effort from Christopher Nolan. It’s amusing and lightly Kafkaesque, but at a mere three minutes it doesn’t hint at what the director is capable of.
Cinematographer Juan Solanas’ directing debut, The Man Without a Head, won a short film Jury Prize at Cannes, and is a favorite for many. It’s about a man without a head (naturally), who lands a hot date and decides he needs to buy a noggin for the occasion. Comic complications result. The scenario is similar to Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s short “La Cravatte” (1957). Unlike some others, I didn’t find this affectionate fable about self-acceptance moving, but the art direction and music are unquestionably excellent. The headless man in a tuxedo dancing like Fred Astaire in his dingy apartment is unforgettable. The imaginary French city (based on Marseilles) has a grimy but elegant Europe-between-the-wars look, and it’s entirely draped in drab olives, greens and yellows that clearly evoke The City of Lost Children (1995).
Copy Shop is about a man who works at a copy shop and one day discovers that things he photocopies show up in the real world; he decides to photocopy himself over and over, resulting in an anarchic world of doppelgängers on top of doppelgängers. The movie’s unique look results from the fact that what we see on the screen is really a painstakingly fluid animation composed from 18,000 actual paper photocopies, with copy errors and low-toner moments included (and sometimes deliberately induced). The minimalist score by Alexander Zlamal is reminiscent of Philip Glass; the string lines chase each other like a rondo, aurally mimicking the visual copies. It’s an impressive experiment that results in a wonderfully distressed film.
Roy Andersson‘s World of Glory (1991) prefigures the precise, absurd cinematic hypnotism the auteur would perfect in Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007). In a scene that’s never placed in context, the movie begins with a crowd silently watching nude people being loaded into the back of a truck, gassed, and driven away. A middle-aged man keeps glancing back at the camera with a mildly disturbed expression. (Throughout the film minor characters continue to acknowledge the camera with the same strange look). We then follow the man through a series of static, repressed tableaux showing his daily life, including his son getting a corporate logo tattooed on his head, his refusal to release the wine cup while taking communion, and finally his insomnia caused by the fact that he hears someone screaming in the distance. Andersson’s dim view of humanity as a species of moral cowards obsessed with meaningless banality gets under your skin. It’s cruel and ridiculous, but it’s also frighteningly accurate. Fans of the director’s grim feature films will feel at home here.
Jabberwocky (1971) is another movie that foreshadows a director’s later work: in this case, Jan Svankmajer signals his intent to mix Lewis Carroll and Sigmund Freud together into a horrifying yet whimsical witches’ brew, an alchemy that would come to full ferment in Alice (1988). The Czech stop-motion surrealist indulges his love of vintage objects here, particularly dolls. Weirdophiles will chuckle with delight as Svankmajer takes us on a tour of his unfiltered subconscious. A narrator reads the poem “Jabberwocky” while a wardrobe wends its way through a forest, then winds up in an apartment full of toys. The poem soon ends but we continue to watch as Svankmajer manipulates the objects in the room: a suit of clothes dances and rides a rocking horse, dolls indulge in cannibalism, and branches spontaneously grow and drop apples which immediately rot and split open to reveal worms. An important short film in the history of stop-motion animation, and Eastern European surrealism.
The gem of the entire collection is Run Wrake‘s fabulous (in both senses of the word) Rabbit (2005). The story of greedy children who slaughter animals for personal gain but are frustrated by a magical idol, it’s told using images from an old English reading primer. The names of common objects hover in the air. Rabbit is such an amazing weird film that we gave it its own post years ago (you can watch the embedded movie at that link, as well).
A review by the Sunday Times described one Cinema 16 collection as “film studies in a box.” That’s only a slight exaggeration. Any aspiring filmmaker who watched all of these sixteen movies and paid close attention to the included commentaries would be inspired, and fairly well prepared, to go out and make his own short film.
One final note: Cinema 16 has put out two DVDs titled European Short Films, one available in Region 1 (U.S. and Canada) and one in Region 2 (UK and Europe). The lineups on the two sets are different. We reviewed the U.S. version. Copy Shop, Opening Day of Close-Up, World of Glory, The Man Without a Head, Election Night, Nocturne and Jabberwocky overlap both sets, but the Region 2 version has nine different films, including entries by Jean-Luc Godard, Tom Tykwer, and Chris Morris. If you’re looking for a particular title check carefully to make sure it’s included in the set you’re ordering.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… these directors seem to prefer surrealism and unusual imagery… for the most serious of viewers, but it meets its goal of introducing viewers to the range of European short film.”–James A. Stewart, DVD Verdict (DVD)