Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
The DC Shorts Film Festival features 17 collections of shorts, each showing several times over the event’s 11 days. Here: a few reviews of full programs.
The Cold Heart, the first film of the first DC Shorts showcase, kicks off the fest in spectacular fashion. An animated adaptation of a German fable, it tells the story of Peter, a poor charcoal burner who yearns to be a member of the upper class. As he’s tempted by the devil and a sincere, wish-granting spirit—both wanting to give Peter the wealth he desires—swirling, shadowy, ever-morphing images enliven the screen, accompanied by an ominous, attention-grabbing score. The film’s moral might be familiar, but its presentation will wow anew.
The seven-minute documentary He’s a Fighter (above) is another compelling watch, an up-by-your-bootstraps tale of District native and pro boxer Antoine Douglas, who was born premature to a drug-addicted mother. The film features footage of Douglas in the ring with voiceovers from both Douglas and his mom, each beautiful in their own way: hers is forthright and stark, his forthright and poetic. Both address the disheartening prognosis that infant Antoine would never survive. Lyrical, inspirational, and touching, Fighter is a winner about a winner.
When things get kissy, though, this collection flags. Everything Starts Somewhere begins with gauzy scenes of a couple with retch-worthy “We’re in love!” smiles, dancing on a stage as heart-shaped lights and fireworks twinkle behind them. Really, though, that was a dream; in reality, the officemates only had a drunken hook-up. What comes next—the pair waking up the next morning, us hearing their troubled thoughts—is about as novel as your average network sitcom. Other films that only earn a grin or two: One-Minute Time Machine, about a time-traveler trying to pick up a woman (yes, it’s been done before), and A Special Day, about a groom who discovers on his wedding day that his future wife is a superhero. The camerawork of the latter work will nauseate you more than its gushiness, which is tamped down in favor of gags. But this Spanish-language short isn’t so much funny as bizarre, with ’70s-era TV music and a group of crime fighters who look awfully similar to ones who’ve recently made supersums of cash for Marvel and DC Comics.
2:43 has the potential to be a gut-wrencher; you watch a sobbing, brokenhearted man tell his ex, in so many words, to fuck off. What he doesn’t know is that another verbal dagger he hurled is about to come true—she says so on a voicemail she left earlier, but he doesn’t listen to it until after their phone conversation. But if you go crazy during those ubiquitous romantic comedies in which hijinks could be resolved by someone spitting out one piece of information, well, you’ll go crazy here. There are only so many trailing “Wait…please…no…”s a viewer can stand.
Job Interview is another extreme love story of sorts, and it’s best if you know few details before seeing this nine-minute mindfuck. The plot is creepy, as is the interviewer herself, but it also feels contrived. Don’t think too much about the concerted “happenstances” that had to click to lead to this meeting—just enjoy the chills.
Mosquito is the big loser of the lot, a grotesque, boring, and just plain witless story of a man tormented by a mosquito in his apartment while he’s trying to sleep. Its horror-movie tone, with dark lighting and oddly angled shots, is an approach with parodic possibility, and there are a couple of amusing moments. But the man’s actions, especially his final one, make Mosquito less Airplane!-esque parody than Scary Movie 5 stupidity. —Tricia Olszewski
The films in Show 3 are conceptually tight—with gimmicks, twists, and clever motifs, they’re classic shorts fodder, but they’re uneven in their execution. The first, Inside the Box (above), decants its plot like syrup, backstories oozing out a little bit at a time before the facts come together and the truth empties out. Actor Wilson Bethel is an attractive Mike Wahlberg-meets-Matthew McConaughey, a Southern tough-guy cop who finds out that a bloodied perpetrator he booked under duress has tested positive for HIV. There’s enough room left at the not-quite-resolved end for inquisitive viewers to fill in their own blanks and consider the effects of the laws we make around one of our most feared pathogens.
Alfonso, too, is a slow pour: It takes a couple of minutes just to figure out who’s the old man robbing a kid of her pocket change, why he’s talking about deep relaxation, and what he’s doing onstage in a bowtie. But that’s part of the point, so I won’t ruin it—suffice to say he uses his powers for both good and evil by the end of the suspenseful film.
The world’s most average man making the world’s first human contact with a higher power, who’ll only discuss cooking tips, is one of the best concepts in the bunch. In Ike Interviews God, the titular Joe Schmo unexpectedly ends up saddled with the responsibility of talking God (or Goddess, as the deity’s voice sounds much like Siri’s) out of destroying the universe. It’s a real shame that what could have been thoughtful, insightful, or just pure fun is tarnished by stupid jokes and derivative moralizing about humans’ stewardship of Earth.
Decorations, a Nutcracker–Fantasia mash-up, takes on more than it can chew, too (it’s a stop-motion film starring an icing dispenser, so that there was a pun). I would have been happy watching the beautiful, well-directed animation without trying to follow a vague plot and wondering whether the cupcake with the guitar was the icer’s daughter, its friend, or just a damn cupcake.
The rest of the films, luckily, know exactly what they’re supposed to do, resisting the urge to overshoot what can conceivably be accomplished in under 15 minutes. The Ring Cycle, about a recent divorcée who’s having trouble getting rid of her wedding ring, and Ziazan (above), which follows the most adorable Armenian toddler on her quest for a processed chocolate confection from Turkey, are delightful stories, both with resolutions that bend feminist.
The only documentary in the bunch, The Silly Bastard Next to the Bed, is a single page of history—a soon-forgotten budget scandal from the Kennedy Administration—seen through the eyes of Ernest Carlton, the small-time Air Force public information officer who invoked the president’s wrath in the summer of 1963, though he didn’t know it back then. See this shorts showcase if only to watch Carlton react to an audio clip of JFK badmouthing him with the phrase that gave the film its title. —Christina Cauterucci
It’s unclear if you’re supposed to be lovin’ or pityin’ the subject of Ronald, the first short in this showcase, so the documentary feels somewhat pointless. Joe Maggard was once—once—among the nine official Ronald McDonalds employed by the fast-food chain. Now retired in Las Vegas, Maggard still dons the suit to, say, hang out at carnivals and “make people happy.” It all reads pathetic and creepy, though—pancake makeup on a sunken senior face? Not a good look. After Maggard dresses up, revealing that he goes “method” with Ronald (“Brando did it”), the doc will do little but unsettle the coulrophobes in the audience: “At a moment’s notice, Ronald can appear. Yes.”
Down in Flames: The True Story of Tony “Volcano” Valenci, meanwhile, is sure to entertain—as long as you don’t take the title literally (ahem). Nearly everyone involved in this story about Tony, a fire eater trying to set a world record, is a cartoon: the goofy pro-skydivers Tony hires; his Long Island–accented, animal-print-tanked ex-wife; and, of course, Tony himself, with an ink-black toupée and a thick stache to match. Every detail is carefully tended to, and the result is a very funny half-hour.
Ella’s Wedding Day is a good time for a restroom break. Right from the start, why the titular bride is marrying her jerk of a groom is a mystery, and the “strange encounter” mentioned in the film’s synopsis is certainly that. Throughout the film’s 11 minutes, there are maybe two or three moments that feel true. The rest makes the case that short and weird is not always better than long and universal.
Charm and sadness bubble up in equal measure in The End of the Line (above), an eavesdrop into the day of an elderly and destitute French actress as she waits to hear about a potential role. She smokes, swears, practices her lines, and generally putters around her fantastic sky-high apartment trying to distract herself. When the phone rings, you’re as anxious as she is.
Foxed! is a stop-motion short that recalls Coraline in its story of a young girl who’s been kidnapped by foxes. One day, she tries to run and actually makes it back to her home. What she sees there gives this four-and-a-half-minute film more goosebump potential than what currently passes as big-screen horror.
It’s difficult for a film to be whimsical without being Wes Anderson–precious. But Lialou achieves admirable balance in its warm tale of a recently acquainted couple who believe in affecting big changes by starting with small ones—in this case, giving people brightly colored shoelaces. The dialogue is dry and witty, the settings theatrical. And when you see what manifests from their project, you’ll feel like you’re sporting vibrant laces, too.
Last Shot is a detailed thriller that you’ll want to watch again, only to decide that it’s way too studied to be satisfying. A bartender is about to close up shop when a customer flashing his cash asks for five shots of bourbon. Just like the barkeep, you’ll weary of the stories the man tells before drinking each down. And when guns make an appearance, the film goes from convoluted to absurd.
Hugo Weaving may narrate Manny Gets Censored, but that doesn’t make it worthy of a marquee. It’s a story of a young man whose life suddenly becomes G-rated: He can no longer curse without being bleeped or walk around naked without a black circle blocking his sensitive areas. There’s clearly a metaphor here, but it’s too complicated—or maybe not clever enough—to ask the audience to unravel. —Tricia Olszewski
Platforms like Vimeo and YouTube have made short films easier to find and distribute than ever—but even at one of the country’s biggest short film festivals, it’s clear that many filmmakers are still figuring out the form. Show 9 serves up a broad sampling of films that vary equally in subject, form, and quality.
Short films struggle when they sacrifice detail for the sake of brevity, a common misstep in this collection. Yearbook, an existential dark comedy, tells the story of a man at the end of the world tasked with documenting human history on a limited-space hard drive. An otherwise interesting idea, the film’s narrative crutch—a rapid-fire voiceover that bombards the viewer with plot detail and character motivation—undermines the filmmaker’s intent. Yearbook hobbles to an unearned sentimental conclusion, prescribing meaning to our dull relationships and meaninglessness to existence in general, in just over five minutes.
My American Fund (above) suffers similar problems. This family melodrama doesn’t have enough time to explore characters and relationships before it settles on a sweet resolution that could be part of the new “Share a Coke” campaign. But the greatest offender here is the documentary Heal H Street, a history of the Northeast corridor told from the perspective of director and self-professed gentrifier Craig Corl. The film offers a well-intentioned, one-note critique of the “large group of young white folks moving into the neighborhood,” discussing the 1968 riots and D.C.’s redevelopment in a single breath. But instead of exploring the economic and political circumstances that have displaced many longtime residents, Corl simply shames newcomers who come seeking cheap rents and access to award-winning ramen. The worst part? Corl seems unconscious of his role as the gentrifier not only of his neighborhood, but of his own film. He needlessly inserts himself into a space he knows little about, and to which he contributes even less.
Short films work when they embrace form, when they execute a simple, lean idea without sacrificing necessary exposition and development. It’s a structure that often favors comedies, which is exactly where Show 9 shines. Verbatim is a wonderful reenactment of an actual deposition transcript of two lawyers who spar, evade, and obfuscate their way to a satisfying punchline. Crash-film satire Anthony is easily one of the festival’s strongest entries, simultaneously spoofing kitschy Christmas traditions and survival flicks while effectively using its jokes as character exposition and narrative-propelling devices.
Both heartwarming and a bit nauseating, Kisses in Zocalo’s simple premise (everyday people telling stories about locking lips) uses kissing as a surprisingly interesting vehicle for stories about the meaning of intimacy and human connection. Like the results of most vox populi interviews, the results are sweet, occasionally exploitative, and definitely a little creepy.
Salvatore ponders religion’s role in calming existential fears, and while the premise is flimsy—the nothingness that the Pope encounters while medically dead for a few minutes justifies an announcement that there is no God?—the film’s portrait of a politicized Catholic Church poses interesting questions without making a moral judgment.
And then there’s Good Air. Viewers had best enjoy the strong visuals—that’s all they’ll be getting for 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the short doesn’t capitalize on the possibilities of film’s eccentric protagonist, making it more of a meandering cinematographic exercise than a worthwhile narrative. —Maxwell Tani
You might hesitate before clicking “like” on a Facebook post after watching The Profile of Jonas Aquino, a mostly comic but occasionally disturbing story of an awkward high-schooler whose lonely “Facemob” profile and social life mysteriously get a makeover. Copying the way Bizarro Jonas dresses and musses his hair, Nerd Jonas gets a taste of the good life. Anyone who’s seen a movie or two will predict the unpleasant consequences that come next. They’re rather nightmarish, and, like most nightmares, don’t make a ton of sense. But the “just be yourself” lesson is learned.
Euthanasia, Inc. (above) is an amusing but underdeveloped tale of a future in which those who want to give up on life—or whose families think it’s about time they do—can go to an office where a perky assistant will help them choose which way they want to die. In this short, it’s Grandma being unloaded by her unemotional family. But Grandma’s not ready to go, so she has fun giving her sorta-loved ones a scare. Euthanasia, Inc., like the company’s clients, feels like it ends prematurely, and you may have questions left over. What is offered is clever enough, though, for those queries to be shrugged off.
There’s one big problem with Je T’aime (besides it being a musical, that is). Its lighthearted tone, through which it tells of a man who abruptly leaves his shrewish girlfriend for his true love, makes it vulnerable to misinterpretation: Is the gender of the object of his affection supposed to be funny? This niggling concern aside, Je T’aime is rather joyous—and, OK, fine, the singing and dancing don’t totally torpedo the thing. Sometimes breaking up is easy to do.
The not-even-three-minute Ride is described as a man’s daily bicycle outing “with a twist.” And there’s only one thing to say about it: It’s pretty dumb. The best part of Ride—besides its very brief run time—is its soundtrack, “We Do Wie Du” by the Monks. The fun of that song overrides (heh) the flatness of the film’s conceit.
Deserted, about a pair of women in the military vying to become officers, is by far the best of this lot. On the duo’s final assignment to navigate out of a desert, one woman—the one who’s sure to be promoted—starts out strictly following the rules, while the other, not so much. But when Ms. Perfect makes a huge mistake on the pressure-packed trek, watch how quickly her morals crumble. Her expression at the film’s end is all that’s needed to convey that when you compromise your ethics to avoid disgrace, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.
An animated remembrance of a woman’s childhood with her father, My Milk Cup Cow is filled with the charm of a kid’s imagination. With simple lines and muted colors, Nunu’s story of her impoverished father trying to hide his hardship is bolstered by touches of whimsy and magic: a porcupine attached to Dad’s chin as she recalls his beard; Nunu nuzzling a life-size version of the cow he’d tell her was at the bottom of her glass so she’d finish her milk. While Nunu’s father tried to protect her from the harsher realities of life, the cow comforted her when bits of truth slipped through.
A Life With Asperger’s is barely four minutes long, but it succinctly outlines a man’s experiences growing up with the condition. Part animation and part live action, the inspiring film has Emmett Goodman narrating his own story, from a socially awkward childhood, when he wasn’t really sure what Asperger’s was, to his current young adulthood, when he lives in New York City and accepts that he won’t achieve success without dealing with discomfort. Goodman-as-child is drawn with an old-fashioned scuba-diving mask; when the film addresses the present, bubbles are superimposed on the real Emmett. The sense of being underwater is an apt metaphor.
The Ring, about a loudmouth steamrolling a man into letting her try on the engagement ring meant for his girlfriend—guess if it gets stuck?—is obnoxious. The strange woman is obnoxious, the man’s girlfriend’s reaction is obnoxious, and the entire story is ludicrous. With broad sitcom gags throughout and no particularly likeable characters, this is your cue to go to the lobby to check your texts. —Tricia Olszewski
If you’re a college-aged woman who whines that no one will ever date you because you think you’re fat, Love at 20 (above) will make you STFU. Sofia, as the title says, is 20 years old and has been trying to meet guys online. She’ll eventually videochat with someone—angling her face just so—but otherwise her public photos are of flowers, not herself. The reason may not be immediately clear to viewers, but Sofia’s limitations, both genetic and self-imposed, bring to light romantic challenges most people have never had to consider. Love at 20 is occasionally heartbreaking, but it ends with a feel-good message: Everyone can find someone who thinks they’re perfect.
Witches is a mostly amusing glimpse at what a coven might act like when they drop the spooky spell talk. “I feel like I’m kinda over it,” one witch says when the others accuse her of not reciting chants with enough gusto. Turns out her mind is elsewhere because she’s met someone, and the “Are you shittin’ me?” quarrel that follows has the feel of a Saturday Night Live skit from recent seasons. Witches is stretched a bit too thin, with a man in pointy-hat drag offered up as one of the laughs. But as is often the case with comedies that make you grin instead of gasp for air, the outtakes shown during the credits are prime.
This Is Me is a compact documentary about a District woman who, afflicted with HIV and cancer, tires of her pharmacy’s worth of medications and tries her live-in granddaughter’s suggestion of medical marijuana. Balinda’s results are impossible to discount, and she says she made the film with the goal of destigmatizing pot so it might help others. This Is Me (below) will certainly open some eyes, especially when Balinda’s granddaughter assesses her progress: “She’s like a flower blooming.”
Silence Is Golden will feel familiar to anyone who’s dated around only to find suitors who say things like, “I know you said you don’t go to church, but we can change that!” during a first coffee date. The parade of losers—and, more crucial, each one’s deal-breaking line—this woman encounters is hilarious, and you’ll agree with her ultimate decision.
A father who coaches, and sometimes cruelly pushes, his teenage son in track is the subject of Cadet. There’s a little too much going on here for the short to be successful: a tragedy, steroids, using violence to win and using the sport to fill a void. You feel the sadness in the script, but with so many potential sources, you never feel it too deeply.
Around a Table, however, is full of melancholy that may spill over to recollections of grief for viewers who can too intimately relate. Its very simple, nearly childlike black-and-white animation keeps the focus on its voiceovers, centering on the death of a grown man’s grandmother, who used to tell fortunes with coffee grounds. It dovetails with a woman’s story of how her family would sit together and read coffee grounds, too, to find answers to their problems. The takeaway is that it was the communal experience, not the joe, that soothed, particularly when no answer to a deeply troublesome question would bring relief.
A Stitch in Time (For $9.99) is a witty take on what seems to be a perennial shorts subject: time travel. In this film, a company advertises short fast-forwards for less than a hamilton, its office signs reading, “The future. There is nothing you can do about it.” Naturally, people discover that unsavory experiences await them, particularly a woman who just wants to know whether a cute guy will talk to her at an upcoming party. Glitches in the system, two wiseass technicians, and consistently funny dialogue ensure that Stitch is a bit of time you wouldn’t mind reliving.
The Dandelion is also entertaining, albeit in a sillier way—at least until its very end, when the cast performs an extremely misguided song-and-dance that recaps the story. A hedgehog (or “-dog,” as the subtitles insist), a seduce-and-blackmail scheme, and an unexpected corpse are involved in this tale of a quirky coffee shop facing foreclosure. Its characters are wacky, yes, but the tone is more pleasant and farcical than irritatingly forced. When the credits roll, though, you’ll feel as if you’ve overstayed your visit. —Tricia Olszewski
The DC Shorts Festival runs Sept. 11-21 at various locations. $0-$15.