It’s springtime in the Rockies. The runoff is set to run. Buds are beginning to awaken and trees are ready to shed the haggard cloak of winter.
Natural joy notwithstanding, some of spring’s best gifts will be unwrapped indoors when a new crop of short films blossoms at Aspen Shortsfest, which begins its 23rd edition on April 8 and continues through April 13, offering programming from 35 countries.
Each year, Shortsfest provides a compelling reason to sing the praises of an often-neglected cinema species -- films that never break the 40-minute mark, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences limit on what qualifies as a short.
If you’re looking for an overall gist for this year’s festival, try this: 2014 is the year the world comes to Aspen -- not to ski, but to open doors to different cultures.
“We felt it was important to showcase the ‘internationalness’ of the films we were sent,’’ the festival’s co-director, Laura Thielen, says.
Shortsfest has a proud legacy as a place to discover important new talent.
Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”), Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”), Sarah Polley (“Stories We Tell”), Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”) and Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) all brought short films to Aspen in the early stages of their careers.
But Shortsfest is more than a futures exchange for promising auteurs.
It’s an event that underscores the artistic legitimacy of short-form filmmaking. Although other Colorado festivals such as The Starz Denver Film Festival and The Telluride Film Festival feature shorts, Aspen’s focus is keener.
Here are five reasons short films should be on your radar -- with examples from this year’s Shortsfest program.
1. Shorts tend to put a premium on invention.
The word “short” is key. No film in this year’s Shortsfest exceeds 27 minutes and the shortest is only three minutes long. That means filmmakers must quickly and creatively capture the audience’s attention.
In “Over the Moon,” New Zealand director James Cunningham scores an immediate bullseye with a pointedly funny look at a comic book heroine who tries to thwart America’s first moon landing.
In seven minutes, Cunningham creates a faux lunar environment, spoofs B-movies and makes a pointed statement about America’s fascination with machismo.
2. Like a shot of good whiskey, great shorts are concentrated and carefully distilled.
How many times have you seen a one-joke movie that went on for more than two hours? In short films, tunnel vision can work to a filmmaker’s advantage.
“Pony Place,” a 10-minute comedy from the Netherlands, shows what happens when grandma gets hooked on video games. Plenty of mordant humor and not a moment of wasted screen time -- and, yes, only one central joke.
3. Shorts prove that it’s possible to reduce complicated issues to essentials.
In the 12-minute film “The Long Drum,” director Eve Symington explores the conflict between tradition and modernity in a rural Vietnamese village. She finds the emotional core in an issue that could fill a tome-sized NGO report.
4. When shorts hit emotionally, they hit hard. Why? Because they can be more personal than other forms of filmmaking.
No film I’ve seen this year affected me more than Polish director Tomasz Sliwinski’s “Our Curse.” The 27-minute film shows Sliwinski and his wife coping with their baby boy, who has Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome, a rare disease.
No disease-of-the-week weepy, “Our Curse” takes a revealing and honest look at the joys and fears of two parents dealing with an illness that might claim their new son.
5. Some of the world’s best animators work in the short form.
If titles mean anything, Irish director Paul O’Muris’ six-minute animated fantasy -- “The Ledge End of Phil (from accounting)” -- seems a good bet.
And who knows? Maybe Hungarian animator Peter Caz’s 16-minute “Rabbit and Deer,” a story about two friends whose relationship faces a challenge, will be one of this year’s breakthroughs.
I could go on, but the subject demands brevity.
So remember, short films are a vibrant part of film culture: It’s a major mistake to sell them short.
Robert Denerstein reviewed movies for The Rocky Mountain New for 27 years and still writes about movies at www.denersteinunleashed.com.
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