“Sundance 2014 Live Action Shorts” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1;39, three stars out of four.
The Oscar-nominated short film collections have been a popular annual tradition at Sundance Cinemas in February, and not just for audiences filling out their Oscar ballots who want an edge. The chance to see an eclectic mix of shorts is like a sampler platter — if you don’t like what you’re tasting, the next one’s coming soon.
Now the Sundance Film Festival is getting into the act by touring shorts from the past festival (there’s a separate program of animated shorts also opening at Sundance on Friday). On balance, I’d say the Sundance shorts are even a little stronger than the Oscar ones, more willing to take chances and experiment a little.
That’s certainly true of my favorite film of the collection, Yuval Hameiri’s offbeat and devastating “I Think This is the Closest To How the Footage Looked.” At first, the premise seems bizarre, as Hameiri uses household objects in a diorama to recreate the last day of his terminally ill mother’s life. But once we understand that each of the objects is connected to his mother and some way, and that his grieving father erased the camcorder footage of that day, “Footage” becomes a powerful examination of memory and loss, and how we can imbue even the most trivial-seeming items with meaning. The film won the Jury Award for best Non-Fiction film.
A similarly understated look at family dynamics is at play in “The Cut,” which won the Jury Award for international fiction. French-Canadian director Genevieve Duludes-Decelles focuses on a small moment, as a girl opts to spend time with her friends rather than her lonely divorced dad. She finds poignancy in even the most ordinary moments, like the father putting the pork chops he was going to make for dinner back in the freezer.
I was less taken by actress Rose McGowan’s “Dawn,” a film about an upstanding teenage girl in the 1950s who harbors a crush on a nice local boy, despite the warnings of her conservative parents. “Dawn” evokes its time and place well, and Tara Lynne Barr is strong as the repressed girl yearning for more. But the film relies too heavily on a shock ending for its impact.
The films aren’t all heavy. Ben Berman’s “I’m a Mitzvah,” starring Ben Schwartz of “Parks and Recreation” and featuring an original score by Stephin Merritt, is a very funny tale of a Jewish man whose buddy dies in Mexico, so he takes his remains out for one last night on the town. Schwartz is good playing the straight man to a corpse, essentially, making his somewhat questionable decisions seem appropriate and even, in a way, poignant.
But the funniest film of the collection is “Verbatim,” Brett Weiner’s comedy that takes its dialogue entirely from the transcript of a Supreme Court of Ohio deposition that gets way out of hand. Trust me, it’s hilarious.
While the Oscar-nominated short live action films often feel like calling cards for directors who want to make feature films, the Sundance shorts often feel more like self-contained little worlds, exploring a singular vision in a compact amount of time. Here’s hoping this becomes another annual tradition for short-attention span cinephiles to look forward to.