The HollyShorts Film Festival showcases exactly what I love about the form. Every film was so different than the last, and I rarely knew something about these films since there hasn’t been a lot of exposure to them yet. This year’s festival played hundreds of films from all around the world, and I tried to consume as many as I could (I saw 79, and I could do better next year).
Here are my top 25 films from this year’s festival.
- F^¢k ‘Em R!ght B@¢k – After a Black, queer aspiring rapper accidentally eats an edible, he goes toe-to-toe with his supervisor in order to avoid being penalized at his job. Director Harris Doran keeps it light and funny, and lead Ddm Ddm is a STAR.
- Bump – Gemma Arterton gives a ferociously free performance as a very pregnant woman taking her rage out on the world. Rory Keenan’s film explores the expectations we put on expectant mothers and skewers how we think they should behave.
- We Should Get Dinner! – A pair of former stepsiblings meet up for dinner for closure, and everything goes hilariously wrong. The physical humor from stars Eliza Jiménez Cossio and Anthony Oberbeck is crackly, and we can all relate to not wanting to sit down with people we never thought we’d see again.
- Call Casting – An eager voice actor sweats through a session and takes us through his anxiety in a single-shot short. If you are anywhere adjacent to the world of performing, you will understand exactly what this film is doing.
- Ninety-Five Senses – What starts as a clever exploration of the senses of the body through one elderly man’s experience transforms into something entirely different in this animated short. It explores regret, memory, and repentance more successfully than some feature films.
For Tiffany, working the graveyard shift as a security guard at a government building is routine. When she has a chance encounter with a high-level employee, Paul (Jason Butler Harner), they spark up a conversation, and she resumes her night just like any other before a dramatic event shifts her perspective. Dylan Boom’s film is simple in its construction, but it’s very effective in its execution as it asks us to make sure human connection and kindness are not lost. As Tiffany, Tracie Thoms is a comforting presence.
We all flailed in our own ways when the pandemic and quarantine set in, and many of us had to deal with paranoid parents. Or parents going through their own trials and tribulations. Rylee Jean Ebsen’s coming-of-age doesn’t focus on a twentysomething as much as it chronicles that a coming-of-age can come at any point in our life. Sarah is determined to reconnect with an elementary school crush now that they are all grown up, but she has to deal with her parents’ marital woes as they are all locked in a house together. Marin Hinkle is delightful as Jean, a mom with a secret.
A flamenco dancer turned office worker’s life is turned upside down when her grandmother dies, and she is forced to confront her family’s history and her grief. Gabriela Ortega’s film folds tightly in on itself like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. Shakira Barrera’s Daniela has her eyes ripped open to the generations of pain her ancestors have endured. This is an example of horror that is felt deeply.
22. The Hostage
You don’t have to convince me to watch Annie Mumolo–she could be mowing the grass and, somehow, make it utterly joyous. In Natalie Prisco’s brief and relatable comedic short, The Hostage, a bored woman wants to feel like her life has meaning and purpose. So she volunteers to help a group of diamond thieves with their scheme. I’m not sure if most of us would put ourselves in that much potential danger, but Mumolo’s character is at least taking control of her life. After over two years of pandemic this and pandemic that, she is ahead of the curve.
Scale is, at times, hard to watch, but any stories about addiction and awareness is vital in my book. What separates Joseph Pierce’s film from other familiar stories is that it is animated, and it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and fear that come along with struggling substance abuse. There are some ghastly images in Scale, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I’ve never seen anything like it.
20. Paper Thin
Sometimes when we are hurting or grieving, we simply need to get out emotions out by saying the right words. We aren’t looking for resolution or advice necessarily, but the act or releasing our feelings to the world is an act of relief and mercy for ourselves. In Neil Dua’s Paper Thin, a young man (played by writer Thomas Archer) chats up a vending machine repair man as he waits in a hospital waiting room. There is anger and sadness, and we too might confront our feelings the same way someday.
Does violence beget violence? There were several shorts about gun violence in America at HollyShorts, but Tara Westwood’s Triggered brings it home the most successfully. A senator’s home is broken into by a pair of grieving parents who reveal a tragic motivation. It reminded me of Fran Kranz’s Mass but if the circumstances leading up to the parents meeting were under different circumstances. I was not ready for the ending.
18. The Baldwin Archives
There has been hesitancy to touch the work of James Baldwin. Reading his work, you get such a feeling of how mighty he was with his word, and it’s not uncommon to get emotional when you watch archival footage of him in interviews. Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is the only film adaptation (so far) that has done Baldwin’s work justice. Laura Seay’s short takes on another intimidating task by re-creating the 1963 BBC interview with Peter Duval Smith. Even though the film clocks in under ten minutes, Archives reminds us of Baldwin’s legacy by showing not just talking but listening. Tory Devon Smith (who also wrote the screenplay) captures the cadence and spirit of Baldwin so effortlessly that if they ever make a feature or series about him, we have the best candidate right here. If you were Smith conducting that interview, what would you be able to say to Baldwin to soothe his pain?
17. Skin & Bone
A man stumbles upon a farm looking for work, and he is met by the owner, played by Amanda Seyfried. She lets him stay on a mattress in the barn, but she doesn’t want any trouble. Plagued by nightmares and mysterious voices every night, the man, played by Thomas Sadoski, wonders if his host has a dark secret. Director Eli Powers shoots his film with an earthiness that you can smell. You can feel the fog rolling in.
16. The Event
The creative process is a tricky one, and asking your friends for a truthful reaction to something you made is fraught with many different emotions. Vince wakes up his roommate, Jack, with one pressing, important question: “Why haven’t you watched my short film yet?” Jack is getting fed up with his friend’s questions and pleas, and Vince’s behavior is beginning to startle Jack’s girlfriend, Beatrice. Why doesn’t Jack just watch the film? Are we afraid of telling our friends the absolute truth? Will Jack judge Vince if he doesn’t like his short? The Event confronts those feelings in a refreshing, honest, and touching way that I did not expect. Frank Mosley and Hugo De Sousa are great together.
15. Return to Sender
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t after you. I kept thinking of that expression throughout Russell Goldman’s film. The filmmaker has talked about how, during the height of the pandemic, he received a Valentine’s Day package for his girlfriend, but the package only contained dirty shin guards. Where did they come from? Was someone watching him? Playing a prank? Sender stars Allison Tolman as Julia, a recovering alcoholic who becomes the target of an online scam that hits a little too close to home. As she tried to regain control over her life, things begin to spiral out of hand even faster like when you’re on a spinning merry-go-round, and your only option is for it to slow down. Goldman does a great job of putting us inside Julia’s head and making that apartment feel claustrophobic. And more Tolman in everything, please?
A telephone pole snaps in half in the first few moments of Hlynur Pálmason’s Nest, a voyeuristic journey back to the innocence of childhood. Once the structure is broken, a new creation can begin in the form of a treehouse. Instead of taking us inside the construction or interviewing any actors, Pálmason sits the camera down and we watch the painstakingly long process of a new haven being constructed before our eyes. Weather causes delays and injuries occur, but I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was so simple yet so striking.
13. How Do You Measure a Year?
“You keep wanting to get older and older. How come you’re in a hurry?” director Jay Rosenblatt asks his daughter, Ella, halfway through his documentary short. Every year, on his daughter’s birthday, Rosenblatt (who was nominated last year for When We Were Bullies) asks Ella the same questions and he charts not only how her answers change but how she matures from the ages of four to eighteen. Some of the questions are easy and common like asking what she wants to be when she grows up (“to be a mommy,” is an answer when she was younger) but some are complicated enough that she doesn’t understand the questions until she is older. The answer to “what is power?” changes throughout Ella’s life, and we realize that our responses would change too. Rosenblatt is a filmmaker who is interested in honest emotion and communication and understanding, so How Do You Measure a Year? is a gift of a film. It shouldn’t belong to us since it is so personal, but we should thank him for sharing it with us.
12. Act of God
I reviewed Act of God when it played at the Palm Springs Shortfest, and it has stayed with me since my original viewing. Stuart’s caregivers are giving up on him, and some people don’t want to be around him because of his attitude. When he spies a rogue $100 bill fluttering on the ground, Stuart is determined to snatch it even if his wheelchair isn’t used to the terrain. I loved how director Spencer Cook and Parker Smith used what Stuart hears to drive Stuart’s motivation. We are right there with him.
11. The Water Murmurs
An asteroid has his close enough to a region in China that a tsunami has forced entire communities to evacuate. As time runs out, Nian tries to visit all of the places she can as she realizes that she will never see them again. We see, in real time, her desperation to consume as many images as she can before it’s too late. There is an eerie calm to Jianying Chen’s Palme d’Or-winning short, but it forces us to question whether we would be brave enough to walk away from everywhere we love to find a new place to call home. It’s a gorgeous, haunting film.
A young Filipino man works the night shift mopping up a shopping mall food court. He is quiet and ignores his coworker’s chatter. Paco could be any immigrant as they slowly try to get ahead in a world that demands money for everything. He is trying to save up for college in Vancouver while trying to support his wife and daughter back in Manila. Once one circumstance sets Paco back, it sets off a chain reaction, and it’s terrifying to imagine the sacrifices some families need to make in order to not just make ends meet but retain the smallest ounce of happiness. Paco could have been a misery tour, but director Kent Donguines (and leading man Edward Escobal) keep his flame burning.
9. 100% USDA Certified Organic Homemade Tofu
Tragedy isn’t the result of Gbenga Komolafe’s charming and winning film about a trans woman saving her dollars for breast augmentation surgery. So many narratives shine a light on the adversity that trans people endure in order to be seen, but 100% USDA is a story of how one woman understands her daughter’s wants and confidence. Nikki wants to enhance her shape, but she has no money. Her mother, Mama Kim, owns a tofu restaurant that could use more customers. Nikki is impatient, but when her recipe randomly becomes an social media sensation, both her chest and her mother’s business are saved. I could not stop smiling through Komolafe’s film because it illustrates how a parent’s love doesn’t have to be suffocating but it can show support to let their child shine.
A man, played by Zachary Quinto, picks up a young client, Russell Kahn, and takes him to the middle of nowhere. The Chaperone wears black, sunglasses, and expensive leather gloves. The Client is eager to follow his senior’s instructions. For the majority of Sam Max’s alluring and mysterious Chaperone, the director keeps you in the dark, and the result is an intriguing blend of tension and mercy. Any time I thought I knew where Max’s film was going, I was wrong. Some of us need help in order to live the way we need to.
Will Poulter delivers a towering, desperate performance in Jack Reynor’s Bainne, a horror short set during the final year of the The Great Famine in Ireland. A man begins to see a ghostly female figure as his fellow countrymen die of starvation. How do you look away from a starving man once you lock eyes with him? This is historical horror by way of Edgar Allen Poe, and Reynor should keep working in the genre.
6. 38 at the Garden
Frank Chi’s look back at America’s Linsanity during the 2011-2012 NBA season will make you stand up and cheer. I do not follow basketball (surprise, right?), but I remember the earthquake Justin Lin caused when he was drafted by the New York Knicks. Barack Obama commented on it. Not only does Chi speak to Lisa Ling, Hasan Minhaj, and Jenny Yang about seeing Lin tear through the court, but Lin offers his own perspective. “If you are an Asian American person, you’ve spent your entire life identifying with people who looking nothing like you. Now I can see someone who looks like me? I didn’t know it could be that easy,” is a line spoken early in the film, and it alone shows how Asian Americans are devalued not just in sports and entertainment but everywhere. Chi not only shows the triumphs and excitement around Linsanity, but he shows how that one moment isn’t enough. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans were brutally attacked all across America. 38 at the Garden is not just a call for representation, but it’s also entertaining as hell. Every time Lin sprints across the court, he makes you believe in something huge.
I originally saw this at this year’s Outfest, and Mike Donahue’s comedy only improves with repeated viewings. Charlie and Thea are annoyed by the sex sounds they constantly hear from their neighbor, Troy. When the muscle bro experiences an unexpected breakup, the couple find themselves increasingly invested in the big lug’s mental well-being and recovery. It’s tender, sweet, and absolutely hilarious.
“Decent girls don’t dance dirty,” is the first line uttered in the award-winning short, Sandstorm. Kara, a young woman in Pakistan, flirts with her paramour, Omar, via Snapchat, and she sends him a video of her gyrating her hips as she dances. That one, seemingly insignificant message could destroy Zara’s reputation even if it leaks. Omar wouldn’t face any consequences for saving or enjoying Zara’s dance, but she would be punished. Director Seemab Gul presents this scenario simply, and it raises so many questions about a young woman’s ownership over her own body and sexuality as she comes of age. It’s easy to see how Sandstorm won the Best Narrative Short prize at this year’s festival.
3. The Wake
The lives of two brothers change forever when petty thievery becomes dangerous. Martin, a young deaf boy, looks up to his brother, Walter, even though he doesn’t realize that he is trouble. The Carpenters own and operate a funeral parlor, and when a grieving family arrives to say goodbye, Walter takes the opportunity to break into their houses and steal small items. Walter brings Martin along because their father insists, and the older brother uses Martin’s adoration to supply another set of thieving hands. The Wake has a shocking ending that made me gasp out loud, but it’s quiet and patient under Luis Gerard’s direction.
2. Too Rough
Nick is not out to his family, so he is reluctant to bring his boyfriend, Charlie, home despite feeling pressured. The plan was to sneak him out before his parents woke up, but the couple sleeps in too late in order to make a timely escape. What results is a tense ticking time bomb as Nick is terrified that his parents will discover him, and that tension weighs on Nick’s own self-hatred. Nick is a young man who doesn’t think he deserves love because his alcoholic parents know how to show genuine, warm affection, but perhaps Charlie’s devotion can change that. A lot is unsaid, and you can unpack whatever you put onto Sean Lìonadh’s breathtaking short. I was fortunate to interview the director, and you can read it here. I cannot get this film out of my head.
1. North Star
Much like Too Rough, I could not stop thinking of PJ Palmer’s celebration of true love and queer resilience in North Star. Colman Domingo stars as James, a rancher trying to keep everything operating despite a lack of funds and fellow hands. His lover, Craig (Malcolm Gets), suffers from an illness that keeps him homebound, and Craig’s sister, Erin, comes over to help as much as she can. Erin thinks that James should let go of his stubbornness and allow Erin and her husband to take care of Craig (her brother), but James insists that he can work the land and help his partner. Queer people instinctively pick up on cues or comments that some religious or anti-gay people make–whether it’s pointed or not–so we are always on guard. Erin’s faith can sometimes blind her to the true love that is right in front of her. This film is gorgeously shot, and I cannot help but come back to the paradise that James and Craig have lived in for years. Queer people have to fight for their own paradise sometimes, and James is not going down without a fight. Domingo gives yet another subtle, commanding performance. It is tender, urgent, and beautifully crafted.