My Fantasia Top Ten Shorts!

The 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival comes to a close today with a handful of screenings (including MMC! favourite, Gabriel Carrer and Reese Eveneshen’s For the Sake of Vicious, and its closing film, Keil McNaughton’s The Legend of Baron To’a)! Be sure to check out my Letterboxd list for the 2020 FIFF which has nearly 150 reviews and ratings of Fantasia features and shorts and which will continue to grow beyond the conclusion of the Festival.

MMC!’s round-up of its favourite feature films screened at Fantasia will be coming soon, as will individual posts imagining the Festival’s best titles for spine-numbered glory. In the meantime, MMC! celebrates its ten favourite short films screened at this inaugural online edition of North America’s greatest fantastic film festival. Here we go!

Who Goes There? (Astrid Thorvaldsen, 2020)

I often get cranky with horror shorts for cheating themselves by offering contexts rather than stories and passing off tone as plot. Who Goes There? is a case study in creating a proper horror short. Made by Norwegian-born, British filmmaker Astrid Thorvaldsen and shortlisted for the 2020 Student BAFTAs, the film is set on an 1880 Minnesota homestead where two sisters, one pious and fearful and the other assertive and irreligious, struggle to care for a third sister taken by a grave illness. The arrival of traveling doctor on the verge of death himself raises concerns that a supernatural force preys upon them and leads to a series of fearsome twists and revelations. The 24-minute film is purposefully paced and totally assured in its direction, avoiding the types of ostentatious visuals that too often plague such shorts. The result is a mini-masterpiece with a convincing period-setting, foreboding and dreadful tension, and a clever conclusion that keeps up the film’s “show, don’t tell” approach to character-driven storytelling. Who Goes There? is currently being developed by Thorvaldsen into a full feature and deservedly so.

Dead Birds (Johnny Kenton, 2018)

Elsa (or “Birdie”)  is the daughter of a badminton legend, but can barely pass as an alternate on her Catholic boarding school’s team. Eager to impress her mother and find acceptance among her mean-girl teammates, Elsa’s prayers are answered by an eccentrically eager Saint Sebastian who assigns a series of questionable challenges to the young woman in exchange for badminton prowess. Horror-comedy can be dicey to land but Johnny Kenton’s Dead Birds smashes it. The short is unquestionably hilarious and visually arresting, full of light and colour and compositions that support Elsa’s ascent/descent into daring, intercollegiate majesty. Shannon Tarbet is awkwardly endearing as outcast Elsa, while Luke Newberry’s Sebastian is magnificently cracked, prone to purple prose and tweaked out looks. Capped by one of Fantasia’s best end credits sequences and a hip hop track that feels almost directly inspiring to the short, Dead Birds is a winner.

Regret (Santiago Menghini, 2020)

Santiago Menghini’s 2018 film Milk is the type of horror short I earlier described rankling at — long on atmosphere but short on story — however his latest, Regret, is brilliant. Using business travel as an excuse to avoid the recent death of his father and his grieving family, Wayne (Brent Skagford) finds his inner demons haunting him in his dark hotel room. Menghini packs character, atmosphere, conflict, and genuine chills into Regret’s mere 16-minute runtime, eventually escalating Wayne’s situation to a desperate race through an unnaturally empty hotel and into open-ending that elaborates on the short’s terror rather than simply losing hold of it. Like Who Goes There?, Regret should be a touchstone for effective and affective horror short filmmaking.

Gon, The Little Fox (Takeshi Yashiro, 2019)

Fantasia was full of great stop-motion films and there’s no better place to start that Takeshi Yashiro’s Gon, The Little Fox, a bittersweet fable based on a story by Niimi Nankichi, Japan’s answer to Hans Christian Andersen. The short follows the efforts of Gon, a playful orphaned fox, to make amends for his mischief against Hyoju, a softhearted young man struggling with death of his mother. The short is pleasantly heartwarming, making its eventual tragedy all the more impactful. Yashiro employs characters made from intricately carved wood and his pastoral landscapes appear astonishingly authentic, capturing the fall season with colour, texture, and movement that seems to defy its fabricated reality. Gon manages to combine deep emotional sensitivity with staggering craftsmanship and the result is quietly spellbinding.

Coeur Fondant (Benoît Chieux, 2019)

Another stop-motion gem, Benoît Chieux’s Coeur Fondant (or Melting Heart Cake) involves a mole named Anna who must cross a forest to bring her friend a chocolate cake for them to share. The forest is home to a terrifying bearded giant and so a fretful spider posting warnings of the monster decides to accompany Anna. Eventually the pair meet the great giant only to discover that it is quite unlike what either of them expected. Chieux’s short is full of wonderful textures. Paper and paint, fur and felt give the short the sensibility of a glued-together elementary school art project that perfectly matches its storybook innocence and comforting moral. Imaginative and charming on all accounts, Coeur Fondant is a bedtime story made real and one that is sure to spark cries for just one more.

Kkum (Kim Kang-min, 2020)

Kim Kang-min’s Kkum portrays the dreamt premonitions of the filmmaker’s mother using figures and objects simply and elegantly crafted with soft foam material. Usually set against a black background, Kang-min’s medium sparkles with an otherworldly effect that is one part cosmic and one part spectral. For its part, the short’s narrative shifts and alters with a dreamlike readiness. Running a mere 9 minutes long, Kkum feels steeped in reverence for maternal love and loaded with imagination. Perhaps it’s only appropriate that a film made from packing material should feel stuffed with possibility.

Genius Loci (Adrien Mérigeau, 2019)

Animated abstraction was epitomized at Fantasia with Adrien Mérigeau’s Genius Loci, wherein a young woman named Reine experiences the chaos of urban living as series of physical and psychic transformations that potentially express mental illness or emotional stress in her. The short traverses a variety of art styles (surrealism, Picasso-inspired cubism, Klee-like experimentation in shape and colour) and mediums (ink, watercolour, marker) in a manner that is constantly changing and always inventive, becoming a kind of urban vision quest that tests the bounds of linear narrative while constantly reshaping the possibilities of animated representation. Genius Loci puts demands on its viewers to work out its meaning for themselves, but it does so with an abundance of beautiful and compelling imagery that ensures the audience in never without content to encourage and guide them. An absolute wonder.

A Town Called Panic: The County Fair (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2019)

MMC! is a big fan of A Town Called Panic and so the prospect of a new short film was tantalizing (even if the previous two shorts, Christmas Panic and Back to School Panic were only very good when compared to the brilliance of the feature film). The County Fair takes the stop-motion antics of Cowboy, Indian, and Horse through school cram sessions and into the desperate search for a pair of tickets to, you guessed it, a county fair. Naturally, the overly excitable Cowboy and Indian search for a solution in the most excessive manner possible, turning to Back to the Future-inspired time travel to save their precious fair tickets. A Town Called Panic relishes in the duplications and machinations of time travel with little concern over its paradoxes, happily focusing on x-ray gags, camel orchestras, and the unending hysteria of Cowboy and Indian. This is a hare-brained delight that brings Aubier and Patar deliriously close to the transcendent glee of their feature film and makes it a must watch for fans of the series.

My Dinner with Werner (Maverick Moore, 2019)

Casual film fans looking for bizarro personalities and cinephiles looking for “Inside Baseball” film industry references need look no further than Maverick Moore’s My Dinner with Werner. This fictional dinner between filmmaker Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski (actually a blind date for Herzog orchestrated by Kinski) is inspired by actual public statements made by the two men and is demented in all the all the right ways. Matthew Sanders wonderfully conveys Herzog’s impassively whispered slant on the world while Andrew Perez seems consumed in Kinski’s maniacal bombast. Grant Virtue is a perfect punching bag playing the restaurant’s waiter and Chynna Walker is charming as Werner’s date Christine, so much so that I don’t know if I can live in a world without Hamlet performed in 15 minutes. Consistently absurd, occasionally violent, and at times alektorophobic, My Dinner with Werner is worth its weight in Michelin stars.

The Grave of St. Oran (Jim Batt, 2019)

Jim Batt’s The Grave of St. Oran brings some star power to Fantasia’s short film program by adapting Neil Gaiman’s haunting poem “In Relig Odhrain” and having the writer serve as the film’s narrator. The short details the construction of a chapel on the isle of Iona by Saint Columba and the sacrifice of his companion, Saint Oran (looking very Dream-like), purportedly done to hold up the structure. The short is animated using intricate paper cut-outs that contrasts beautifully with Gaiman’s rhythmic, alliterative narration. On the one hand, the paper figures convey an extreme sense of tangibility that compliments the very physical fate of Saint Oran. On the other, Gaiman’s sonorous voice expresses an ethereal and foreboding quality, an allusive and transcendent force that is obvious in its spirituality and inherent to the act of storytelling. By its conclusion, The Grave of St. Oran is alive with this frisson and its effect lasts beyond its final credits.

There were a number of other great short films at Fantasia that deserve mention as well and so here are some honourable mentions for some excellent works that just missed this list:

  • Thin Blue Variety Show (Gretta Wilson, 2020); a clever stop-motion film that surveys the costumes of the entertainment industry’s great cops and detectives to make surprising point about the mythologized image of law enforcement in our media.
  • The Weather is Lovely (Lien Chun-Chien, 2020); a meteorological science fiction adventure capturing the clean look and smooth action of Disney/Pixar-style animation and the quiet grace and the enervating flight typical of Studio Ghibli.
  • Wade (Kalp Sanghvi and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya, 2019); an animated short from India with a style reminiscent of illustrator Tomer Hanuka, concerning a Kolkata flooded by rising sea levels and its inhabitants who forage for food while negotiating tigers that prowl about the city.
  • Blocks (Bridget Moloney, 2020); a live-action short full of humour and surrealism as a devoted wife and mom finds herself vomiting Lego pieces.
  • Cloudy (Filip Diviak and Zuzana Cupová, 2018); a delightfully funny short animated designed in a wonderful mid-century modernist style, wherein Mr. Gnome solves his sunbathing issues in a completely unexpected manner.
  • A Million Eyes (Richard Raymond, 2020); a gentle, beneficent live action short film which concerns a budding young photographer grappling with his mother’s alcoholism.
  • Seoulsori (Kim Kyoung-bae, 2020); a rhythmic and graphically clean animated film about an anxious young man drawn into a painting of a procession.
  • The Kite (Martin Smatana, 2019); another stop-motion success that makes great use of its stacked paper medium to tell the story of a boy and his winnowing grandfather.
  • The Nurturing (Esteban Pedraza, 2019); a loving film about a woman who believes she can transform the world through a video game controller and her boyfriend who risks losing her while attempting to break her free of her delusion. (Pedraza co-stars in the film and his voice-over narration is divine.)
  • Live Forever (Gustav Egerstedt, 2019); a musical tribute to horror cinema’s nameless victims that includes my favourite closing credits of the Festival!

Next up, MMC!’s favourite feature films from the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival!

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