100 Films @ 10: Short Films

For the final in my series of ten top tens (yes, we’ve reached the end already / finally (delete as appropriate)), I’ve decided to take a look at one of the less-discussed aspects of the film world: shorts.

In the past ten years I’ve watched and reviewed just 51 short films, but as I’ve never ranked them before it seemed overdue that I create some kind of quality-sorted list. Here, then, are my ten favourite short films that I watched in the last decade.

10
Pixels

Don’t worry, there’s no Adam Sandler in sight — this Pixels is the three-minute short that went down so well online someone bought the rights and turned it into a feature. A fun idea, it works better as a narrative-less couple of minutes than it did forced into the shape of a blockbuster.

9
Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter

Easily the best of Marvel’s now-defunct series of short films, Agent Carter was so good — exciting, characterful, funny — that it was later expanded into a two-season TV series (which I still haven’t watched. Oops.)

8
Telling Lies

A simple idea, very well executed: as we listen to a series of phone conversations, the speakers’ dialogue appears on screen… except instead of transcribing their exact words, it reveals their true thoughts. At only a few minutes long Telling Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, instead maintaining the basic idea well and crafting a neat and amusing little story with it.

7
Toy Story of Terror!

Having managed to beat the odds and create three great Toy Story movies, Pixar seemed foolish trying to extend it further as a franchise. Toy Story of Terror justifies that decision, however, with a story, style, and message that would’ve been strong enough to be a whole feature (with some expansions, of course) but plays equally well in just 20 minutes.

6
Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death

As with #7, this was a seasonal special for old animated favourites that would’ve worked just as well (perhaps even better) expanded out to a full feature. A Matter of Loaf and Death is the first Wallace & Gromit film since the very first not to win an Oscar, but it’s every bit as good as its forebears — I can’t think of much higher praise than that.

5
Presto

The Pixar short that accompanied WALL-E, Presto is a perfectly-executed piece of near-silent slapstick tomfoolery. Surprisingly, this also lost out on an Oscar. Its director went on to co-direct last year’s Storks, which… didn’t go down so well.

4
The Lunch Date

Winner of the short Palme d’Or and an Oscar, The Lunch Date is a clever little tale with a well-disguised twist. I imagine if it was made today people would talk about its social relevance, which is a little depressing nearly 30 years on, but there you go. The first work by director Adam Davidson, he’s since gone on to helm episodes of shows like Six Feet Under, Lost, Deadwood, Dexter, Rome, True Blood, Fringe, Fear the Walking Dead, and many, many more.

3
The Present

As with most of the best shorts, The Present presents a simple but effective idea quickly and with a strong emotional hit. A cute tale of a boy and his dog, it also has a message about positivity and overcoming adversity. No Oscar here, but its director has since worked for Disney on Zootropolis and Moana, as well as on The Secret Life of Pets and Revolting Rhymes.

2
Feast

Another lovely short, also told economically and without dialogue, about a friendly little dog who helps out his owner. Yeah, I’m a sucker for cute dogs. But Oscar-winner Feast is also beautifully animated: nicely stylised and executed as essentially one long montage, proving again that exceptional filmmaking can create an emotional experience in the briefest of times.

1
Commentary! The Musical

Unlike the previous films on this list, it’s the very opposite of silent — it is, in many ways, all about sound. There’s also no big emotional hit and no sniff of awards recognition either. So why does Commentary! The Musical top my list? Because it so impressively made. It’s the commentary track on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but rather than just the production team chatting about how they made the show, it’s sung through. And it’s not just a collection of new songs played over the original production — it’s frequently scene specific, sometimes even shot specific. It’s an incredible feat of writing and planning; not only that, but it’s hilariously funny too.

Tomorrow: birthday day.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

2015 #183
Mark Burton & Richard Starzak | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & France / silent (English) | U / PG

Shaun the Sheep started life in the 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. Eventually granted his own TV spin-off aimed at little kids, it’s become a global hit thanks to the decision to make it a silent comedy — no need to pay for pesky dubbing into other languages, while its sheer quality (it is Aardman, after all) helps it to transcend national boundaries. This year, Shaun and friends made the leap to the big screen, in what may be the year’s best animated movie.

The film begins with Shaun and the other ovine occupants of Mossy Bottom Farm getting fed up with the daily grind of being sheep, so they concoct a plan to distract sheepdog Bitzer so they can lure the Farmer into a slumber and take over the farmhouse for a well-earned break. Naturally things go awry, and the Farmer ends up whisked off to the Big City. With no one to feed or care for them, Shaun, Bitzer, and the rest hop on a bus and set off to retrieve their friend.

Expanding a series of five-minute-ish shorts to feature length is always a risky proposal, but fortunately we’re in the more than capable hands of Aardman Animation here, and they’ve come up with a plot big enough to fill a feature running time. In a style one might describe as ‘classical’, you can break the film down into individual segments and sequences, each one a crafted vignette of silent slapstick. That doesn’t make the story episodic, but rather serves to keep the humour focused — no gags are overused or outstay their welcome. Indeed, some fly so fast that they’re literally blink-and-you’ll-miss it. I suspect this means Shaun would reward repeat viewings, particularly to spot all the little background details.

It’s also in the details that Shaun proves itself to be a true family film. Like the TV show, it’s sweetly innocent and simple enough for little’uns (that US PG is thanks to a couple of oh-so-rude fart jokes), but there’s a sophistication to the way that simplicity is handled that adults can enjoy. There are also references and in-jokes for the grown-ups; not hidden dirty jokes that’ll put you in the awkward position of having to explain to the kids why you were laughing, but neat puns (note the towns that the Big City is twinned with) and references to other films (like Taxi Driver. Yes, really.)

Naturally, technical aspects are top-notch. Aardman are the kings of claymation, consistently delivering work in which the animation is polished, clever, and surprising, but which also retains the sense that it was achieved by hand (unlike some other films — Corpse Bride, say — which are so slick you begin to wonder if they’re actually CGI). I always marvel at stop-motion anyway — the persistence to animate something a frame at a time, taking days to create one shot and months to create one scene, is a dedication and skill I can barely fathom — but Aardman’s productions routinely push beyond your expectations of the form.

Aardman’s stop-motion silent comedy will certainly lose to Inside Out across the board come awards season (apart from at the BAFTAs, perhaps), but it’s the more inventive, amusing, innovative, accomplished, and impressive achievement. Delightful.

4 out of 5

Shaun the Sheep’s Christmas special, The Farmer’s Llamas, is on BBC One on Boxing Day at 6:10pm.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.