The beauty of cinema lies in its ability to transport the viewer to its own, fictional world in a short period of time. In the dark room of a theatre, with a runtime of a few hours, magic happens when a viewer empathises with the characters on screen. Short films create that magic much more instantaneously, delivering a solid message and powerful performances within a short time frame. In fact, we can consider the short as a predecessor to feature length cinema; during the beginning of cinema, all films were very short, often referred to as featurettes. Here’s a delightful mix of some of the best short films across genres and styles that will give you plenty of food for thought.
1. Validation (2007)
While short films may often try to deal with weighty subjects or issues in a timely manner, Validation is a simple effort with a message. It puts a lot of focus on the fact that simple appreciative dialogue can solve the biggest problems that mankind faces. In the form of its main character, a parking attendant who epitomises hope and kindness, the film offers a vision of humanity.
It is a wonderful example of small-scale filmmaking which relies on conveying an emotion or feeling rather than a story. The end result is such that one feels wonderfully fulfilled and buoyant by this classic. It evokes the memory of a simpler time, comforting the viewer with a wholesome conception of life and cinema.
2. Oppressed Majority (2010)
This is not a man’s world. It’s a world where women are in charge. Screenwriter and director Eléonore Pourriat’s French short film Oppressed Majority or Majorité Opprimée is a refreshing and nuanced take on gender roles reversal. Here’s a world where women catcall, pee on streets, walk around bare- chested. The trick employed is to present the world of the film in such a matter-of-fact manner that its ridiculousness is highlighted, no matter what the gender roles are. To this end, the film uses several establishing shots at the start of the film that cement the role- reversal.
The film has continued to be highly influential since its release, and is often used in classrooms to illustrate gender politics and sexual assault.
3. He Took His Skin Off for Me (2015)
He Took His Skin Off for Me explores the idea of a relationship through a couple, one of who is ready to go to an unreasonable extent to testify his love. The man, longing for his wife’s love, is ready to literally take his skin off. The film utilises this rather graphic imagery to allude to changing yourself for the other.
At its very core, He Took His Skin Off for Me questions the worth of changing yourself for your other half in a relationship. Is the tradeoff worth it? In a rather bold and quirky manner, it heralds the arrival of body horror into short filmmaking and cinema. However, it does not veer into surrealism. Instead, it maintains a sense of reality and treats the small tasks of daily life to answer the essential questions of love, human life and companionship.
4. Everything (2015)
Very few full-length feature films can achieve what this short film manages to accomplish. The unreal visual world coupled with the philosophical narration of English philosopher Alan Watts allows one to transcend to a higher realm of understanding.
The metaphysical concepts of the universe and the self are elucidated with such clarity that it becomes possible, even for a child to grasp the inner workings of the cosmos. The interesting thing about this short is that it has been shot within the engine of a game. It allows you to look at the world through the eyes of everything — from the grandest celestial being to the tiniest biological lifeform. It is a great metaphor for different perceptions and makes us aware of the fragility of the human condition.
5. Reflections (2005)
A beautiful short film that spreads a lot of light on the world of those who are living through the war in Syria, Reflections ties together wide and varied themes in a short runtime. The main focus is put on fleeting memories and their strength over strong physical structures.
The narrative flows from one scene to the next while evoking thoughts that can be invoked only through the experience of the sublime. The genius of the movie lies in its capacity to remain vague and unpolished. The most important aspect about the film is not the political background nor the artistic expressions but the ever-evolving relationship between people and their connections which are held together by memories and threads that are both easily severable and unflinchingly strong.
6. A Girl, She Is 100% (1983)
A boy and a girl meet on a rainy road, one fine April morning. As each sees in the other the potential for a future romance, they decide to let each other go, letting fate run its course. Directed by Yamakawa Naoto, the story is adapted from the iconic Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami’s short story titled On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning. The film utilises fleeting moments of interaction between the two characters, superimposed by a narration to create an impressionistic account of young love and infatuation. A wonderful example of slice-of-life cinema, I find myself coming back to this film time and again for its fresh and unpretentious view of desire and youth.
7. Ahalya (2015)
The history of short films in India has almost always concerned itself with a certain mode of realist cinema. Amid depictions of the nitty-gritties of daily lives, and social issues, Ahalya comes in as a whimsical breath of fresh air. The story repurposes the myth of Ahalya from Indian mythology, who was turned to stone by her husband for her supposed infidelity. Starring Radhika Apte as the titular character, the film utilises contemporary settings and the bait of a detective story to lure viewers into Ahalya’s trap. Apte plays the femme fatale with finesse and a sense of mischief, easily stealing the limelight. While eagle-eyed mythology aficionados may already know how the story will end, it will leave you amazed nonetheless.
8. Inseparable (2007)
A moving picture of grief and unbreakable bonds, Inseparable, starring Benedict Cumberbatch before his days of blockbuster stardom, tells the story of identical twins, Joe and Charlie. As different as night and day, the two siblings are brought together when one of them is diagnosed with a fatal illness. The beauty of the film lies in its rich atmosphere; director Nick White combines minimal spoken dialogue with music, lighting and sly camerawork to create a sense of mourning and loss. A riveting piece that takes a long look at identity, duty and family, Inseparable is that rare gem that packs an emotional punch in just under fifteen minutes.
9. Khatoon ki Khidmat (2019)
A classic husband-wife dynamic coupled with the Islamic tradition of Triple Talaq offers poignant commentary on the society of today in this satirical film. It’s most impressive feat is the incorporation of so many varied yet interconnected issues and portraying them within a small household consisting of only three members.
The rhythm of the movie is well-maintained and goes hand in hand with the idea of intermingling modernity and its continuous battle with orthodoxy – a very cliched yet effective take. Khatoon ki Khidmat is a wonderful reminder of cinema’s capacity to be a drive for social change.
10. Happiness (2017)
One cannot help but feel happy and melancholic in equal measure after watching this wonderful take on life. Steve Cutts’ brilliant animated satire is a must watch both for its craft and relevance. Happiness tells the story of a rodent trapped in life on earth, seeking joy and fulfilment. By portraying vermin and rats as a metaphor for our own entrapment in the rat race of life, the film poses the question of true satisfaction. It utilises wonderful analogies to critique our current state of being, focusing on topical issues such as consumerism and greed.
However, it retains the spirit of classic filmmaking. The visuals evoke the feel-good shorts of Buster Keaton, and the tramp-like playfulness of Charlie Chaplin features, leaving the audience with a sense of wonder and curiosity.
11. Ursa Minor Blue (1995)
A boy and his ageing grandfather travel to the furthest reaches of the outer galaxy, in search of a mysterious starfish monster that resides in the Milky Way cosmos. Fans of Anime will recognize the stark, two dimensional forms rendered with beautiful clarity and motion, that have since become a staple of the genre.
Deeply relaxing, wholesome and heartfelt, the story utilises the visual medium available to it to paint two completely different worlds – the sky and the sea – with astonishing aestheticism. Deeply ambient, the film is a great example of executing a particular atmosphere in the narrative with finesse, lending a completely magical quality to the entire experience.
12. Un Chant d’Amour (1950)
One of the many experimental works, and the only film to have arisen from famous French writer Jean Genet’s radical politics, Un Chant d’ Amour (translation: A Song of Love) explored homoerotic relationships in a hitherto unprecedented way, garnering acclaim as well as controversy. The film takes place in a French prison, where two men long for each other. Their desire is thwarted by the cruel and sadistic prison guard, who relishes in his power over them.
The film does not so much follow a plot as it follows impressions. The desire between the two men is communicated to us through lingering shots of their body and various phallic imagery. While the film remained a contentious subject due to its frank depiction of gay sex, it has since been reappraised as a classic. Inspiring artists like Andy Warhol, the film notably holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is frequently included among the best short films on IMDb.
13. Bombay Mirror (2010)
Shlok Sharma’s Bombay Mirror is striking in its commentary on religion and riots. The short is a taut, tense watch that is sure to send a chill down your spine. The events focus on mob mentality and religious fervour from an individual perspective. Where it differs from other pieces offering social commentary is that it doesn’t just focus on the political stakes of a ghastly event, but also presents a more down-to-earth view of what is happening. Director Shlok Sharma treats the many flaws of humanity and human nature as a touchstone for the film. A lovely piece of political as well as humanist cinema, I cannot recommend this highly enough to students of cinema and cinephiles alike, for its strong approach and unity of plot and direction.
14. Occurrence at Owl Creek (1962)
Based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, this 1962 short film deals with the aftermath of an awry execution during the Civil War. When a Confederate soldier sentenced to death by hanging gets a miraculous second chance, it inspires hope in him. The narrative uses minimal dialogue, rather it prioritises the visual journey of the characters and their hardships to communicate an authentic vision of suffering and trauma.
With an ending that was both wickedly intelligent and hauntingly appropriate, the film was later aired as an episode on The Twilight Zone. It won Best Short Film at the Cannes 1962 and Best Live Action Short film at the Oscars in 1963.
15. A Trip to The Moon (1902)
Adventure and sci-fi narratives in film might not have fully taken off until the advent of colour cinema and VFX technology, but this black-and-white short film by George Melies was way ahead of its time. Adapted from various literary narratives, including Jules Verne’s From the Earth to The Moon, the plot revolves around a group of astronomers who travel to the moon and bring back a moon dweller with them.
As was the case with many films at the time, the film contained no audible dialogue. Instead, it communicates an outlandish story through the use of exaggerated acting techniques and theatricality, a medium that Melies would later become famous for. To simply say it is one of the best short films of all time would be to undercut its legacy of influence across genres and styles. Its anti-imperialist messaging and expansive stage setting makes it one of the best short films for students to learn from.
16. Negative Space
Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 90th Academy Awards, Negative Space elevated the most common acts of daily life into a picture of unbreakable bonds. Adapted from a poem by Ron Koertge, the film tells the story of a father and his son through the act of packing a suitcase. Through stop-motion animation, the narrative brings in a wonderfully innocent visuality to the words of Koertge poem.
The portrayal of memories and affection between a parent and a child through small acts and objects is impressive, especially as director Ru Kuwahata drew inspiration from her own bond with her father who was an airline pilot and travelled frequently.
Here we are, then! We hope our list of hidden gems and cult classics will fuel your appetite for experimental and varied forms of cinema. Short films are fertile ground for both seasoned veterans and aspiring filmmakers. They exhibit an economical sense of storytelling and technical innovation that students and cinema lovers can learn a lot from. In capturing the magic of films in their short runtime, short films embody something deeply essential about cinema itself.
Hungering for more? Do check out films like Anima (2019), If Anything Happens, I Love You (2020) and Lorena, Light Footed Woman (2019), which are some of our favourites among the short films on Netflix. Let us know your favorites in the comments below!