• Ben Nadeau

The Sundance 2021 Standout Shorts


Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance 2021 will always be special to me as the first film festival I'd ever attended, virtual or otherwise. I will also fondly remember it as the time I egregiously misunderstood the Explorer Pass description and locked myself into watching 50 short films and documentaries.


Sure, I missed out on CODA, but I got to see a pack of animated ghost dogs masturbating to a dog food commercial, so who is the real winner here? While Zach D’Amico, Carson Cook, Sara D’Amico, and Jonny Diaz have covered many of the festival’s biggest heavy-hitters, I buckled down with steely resolve to watch every short in five days.


Here are the brightest successes from each of the three major categories – shorts, documentary, and animated.


Short Film


Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma


The above and beyond standout of the Sundance shorts, DON’T GO TELLIN’ YOUR MOMMA transcends genre to mix-and-match however it pleases. Using educators’ Black ABCs from the 1970s to take viewers on a 38-minute journey from A-to-Z, Topaz Jones has created something truly fascinating here. While not every segment – one for each letter – is a total hit and the interviews help to pad out the overall runtime, it’s not a bother in the slightest.


In what ultimately ends up as part-documentary, part-music video, part-poem, part-everything–under–the–sun, the result is a magnetic, captivating piece of art that rises above the rest.


Lizard


Surely, if you’re reading an article about the best shorts at Sundance 2021, you’re familiar with LIZARD – this year’s Grand Jury Prize winner. Relative newcomer Akinola Davies Jr. covers an acre of ground in just 17 minutes, including the appearance of a giant CGI reptile, naturally. With a brilliant, tense score and breakneck pace, there’s not much time left to breathe but the climactic scene steals whatever’s left anyway.


You probably don’t need another recommendation to watch LIZARD, but why the hell not: go watch Davies’ stunner, LIZARD, as soon as possible.


Like The Ones I Used To Know


Although LIKE THE ONES I USED TO KNOW lacks some plot originality, they absolutely nail the feeling of crushing holiday anxiety. Annie St-Pierre has such a firm grasp on her short and confidently builds tension between an undecided child and her nervous wreck of a father on Christmas Eve. The cinematography and coloring is easy to chew on, and – although this may sound needlessly saccharine, it isn’t – LTOIUTK nearly felt like a pitch-perfect advertisement for some huge conglomerate that’s secretly trying to take over the world… yes, it’s that tight, controlled, and emotive.


Plus, the uplifting ending would’ve felt right at home before a viewing of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS on network television, thus standing as a little victory for everybody that needs more little victories once in a while.


Raspberry


RASPBERRY will catch you off guard if you let it – and that’s half the fun.


While the weight of such a moment is relatable for everybody – saying goodbye to a relative is one of life’s greatest challenges, after all – Julian Doan’s brisk seven-minute scene takes a turn for the unexpected. And when it goes there, it commits even harder, holding on for so long that it eventually becomes impossible not to crack a wry smile.


Everyone deals with death in their own way, but we’d all be better off by taking the poignant conclusion here to heart.


Animated


KKUM


KKUM is a short story about a mother’s love, connection, and intuition. While that possibly sounds too in-bounds for the animated program as of late, hardly any come with as much tenderness as Kim Kang-min’s does. Using a moody, black and white style of cinematography – as well as some gorgeous stop-motion involving styrofoam – KKUM wouldn’t have looked out of place if it was plopped into Wes Anderson’s ISLE OF DOGS.


One-of-a-kind, KKUM is a gentle reminder to pick up the phone and call your mom – so what are you waiting for?


Ghost Dogs


The aforementioned self-pleasuring phantom canines were not a bit, unfortunately. While the majority of the animated program seemed to set their sights on Adult Swim’s garish and trippy midnight block, GHOST DOGS did it best. Featuring a guardian angel Roomba, nightmarish trips through a satanic house, and the most sensual dog food commercial you’ll ever see, Joe Cappa’s sweet treat keeps the oddities coming without ever losing momentum.


You probably won’t need to see GHOST DOGS more than once, but that’s fine – the demonic vision in front of the television will stick with you forever.


Documentary


Snowy


Perhaps Sundance’s most wholesome entry of the entire year, SNOWY not only asks if pet turtles can be happy but then puts their money right where that nightcrawler-chewin’ mouth is. To catch you up: a son has a turtle, said son grows old, moves out of the house, and, in turn, cares less about the turtle – but the father, God bless his soul, is willing to pick up the reins. Decades later, and after meeting with an actual animal professional, he learns how to be a better turtle dad.


In the end, sure, this mini-12-minute documentary is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s just nice. And in 2021, which came after 2020, in case you’d forgotten, any fun-sized hit of well-meaning kindness is always a welcomed sight.


Dear Philadelphia


As far as absolute show-stoppers go, DEAR PHILADELPHIA was the best documentary short at Sundance without question. Almost lyrical in nature, the half-hour love letter skips around the neighborhood to meet members of a small community always trying to lift each other up. Far beyond the sentimentality of learning how to ride a dirt bike or giving haircuts to the homeless, director Renee Maria Osubu and cinematographer Luis Lopez have perfectly distilled a small and powerful snapshot of time.


Without a doubt, DEAR PHILADELPHIA could’ve been 3x in length and the duo would’ve found even more spellbinding threads to pull at — it’s just that wonderful, and there’s almost nothing else to say.


Ultimately, the short film seems to hint at an overall pattern at Sundance: love always wins. From turtles to Christmas time and the mothers we all adore, giving and receiving love remains one of the most powerful tools humans have. If these films are any indication of what lies ahead of us after the most tumultuous, painful year in recorded history, we’re in good hands.

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