Managing Cynicism: This Year’s Great Crop of Sundance Online Shorts

25 Jan

Maybe I’m a bit cynical. That’s not true. I’m excessively cynical. I could claim it comes naturally once you’ve seen too many movies, but that doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse. And the 2012 Sundance Film Festival’s online shorts are a perfectly illustrative example of why any exhausted approach to new movies is a bad idea.

American independent film has arguably hit a point of stylistic ferment. There’s a ton of exciting and innovative new work produced every year, but there’s also a growing list of aggravating indie film trends. Documentaries about cute old people doing something unexpected en masse, raucous banter-heavy family comedies, quirky teenagers that talk like cynical 30-somethings. It’s true that each of these styles initially caught on because of some genuinely excellent films, but that doesn’t make the inferior ones any less irritating. If I were to say “oh, it was just another bad Sundance movie” a lot of people would have a pretty clear stereotypical image, though it might vary based on the individual.

All of that drives the cynicism. You can sense a dreadful movie in its first few minutes; it’s so easy to put it into a box. Yet take heed! Apparently it doesn’t always work that way (I know, duh). Sometimes that instant recognition is right (see Jesus Henry Christ). But often it’s totally wrong. Seven of the nine Sundance online short films had me convinced for a good 1-3 minutes that they were going to be predictable and frustrating. Each one of them proved me wrong.

Click on the images to go watch the shorts!

Una Hora por Favora, by Jill Soloway

I got pretty invested in the apparent genre of this short film rather quickly. The set-up is as follows: a single woman inCalifornia, constantly harassed by her mother, ends up hiring a day laborer to come fix her shower. Lonely and neurotic, it becomes inevitable that she’s going to hit on him. Movies about middle-class white urbanites having a roll in the hay with the help, without any effort to resolve the whole objectification-exoticizing thing, are really irritating. Mercifully, this turns into a satire and by the end has supplied enough ridiculous neurotic behavior that I’m confident it knows what it’s doing. I think.

Henley, by Craig Macneill

Sometimes a short film can be a bit too long. It sounds silly, but it’s actually a lot easier for a short to overstay its welcome than a feature. Shorts need to validate every second. Henley just takes too much time to wind up. Ted is nine years old and has an unsettling hobby, like many of his Sundance-y brethren. He collects dead animals from off the road by his father’s motel. For most of the short he just keeps gathering and experimenting. Director Craig Macneill is very deliberate in slowing down the kid’s process of inspiration. Yet the last half is redemptive, and the final moments of the short show that Macneill really does know what’s up.

Odysseus’ Gambit, by Àlex Lora Cercos

Documentaries about the really entertaining and socially excluded person hanging out in the park (or any other public place) often come from a genuinely selfless place and turn out to be impressively self-indulgent. I worried about Odysseus’ Gambit from the beginning, but that was mostly because I really need to get my cynicism checked out by a doctor. Admittedly the intertitles aren’t the best device and the audience could easily build a story without them (they could certainly be in a better font). But once Saravuth gets around to telling his story things lift off. Sometimes a human life gets caught in the mess of a filmmaker desperately trying to tell it. By the end of this short, its subject’s fascinating character absolutely gets through.

’92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card, by Todd Sklar

Bros acting ridiculous can get really tiring, whether or not they are actually brothers. Adults acting like adolescents, especially in some recent “homecoming of age” movies (™ Christopher Campbell), behave badly and only learn once the plot forces them into obligatory heartwarming Act III. Todd Sklar miraculously doesn’t let that happen, despite some early warning signs: comically large diner orders, inexplicable childish costume choices and other irritating antics. Yet the relationship between these brothers feels genuine by the end, and somehow you end up liking both of them. It does feel top heavy in structure but there’s enough humor to keep you going for the very empathetically written last few minutes.

The Arm, by Brie Larson, Sarah Ramos and Jessie Ennis

Children talking like adults, if those adults were disaffected 30-somethings, are arguably Diablo Cody’s fault (and I’m not even one of the bitter Juno haters.) Texting jokes can easily go the route of terrible New Yorker cartoons. When you put the two together, failure is practically guaranteed. Jessie Ennis, Sarah Ramos and Brie Larson (who may have picked up the teenager-speak thing on the set of The United States of Tara) pull this off with flying colors. Two teens have a relationship that consists entirely of text messages. One of them dies, while texting. What’s the emotional impact? Is there an emotional impact? Whimsically metaphorical instead of moralizing and oblivious, The Arm asks some questions without presuming to know all the answers. That’s why it keeps both funny and intriguing throughout.

Aquadettes, by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari

Old women synchronized swimming is not, at core, enough for a movie. Not even a ten minute movie. Thankfully, these two filmmakers are much less concerned with making us awwww for the duration of their project à la Young@Heart than they are with telling a single story. Margo is getting older, and uses the swimming pool and medical marijuana as a way to cope. We learn about her life from a simple one-to-one perspective, seeing her truth instead of (only) how cute she is. It’s refreshing and delightful.

Dol (First Birthday), by Andrew Ahn

I have seen this film too many times: A single cultural event brings a family together, but the gay protagonist is left isolated either internally or explicitly and it becomes an opportunity for conflict, growth and a heart-warming conclusion. Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet is excellent. Many other films are not. The one biggest weakness they have is their inability to let loose the reins and give the audience an opportunity to gather up emotions independently. Writer/director Andrew Ahn gives us a little space. There’s no open conflict but there’s also no painfully obvious guilt. There is only the basic element of longing, a wish for the real traditional values of family that might not be open to some because of the so-called “traditional values” that stand in the way. With an unexpected closing shot that oddly enough recalls last year’s Sundance hit Like Crazy¸ Dol shows us the ambiguity of a gay Korean American’s life without needing a thematic cudgel.


38 Responses to “Managing Cynicism: This Year’s Great Crop of Sundance Online Shorts”

  1. The Simple Life of a Country Man's Wife January 27, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    very interesting. this is the first i have heard of sundance online films. thanks for the introduction.

  2. Mikalee Byerman January 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    Too funny…a reader just left a comment on my blog about MY cynicism…nice to meet a kindred spirit!

    Seems like there are some amazing films I’ll need to catch in the coming months…


  3. Jon The Blogcentric January 27, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    Thanks for the info. I know that last year, there wasn’t really a big hit from Sundance. I was anticipating Like Crazy but it didn’t pan out. I hope there’s a gem for this year’s movie season at this Sundance.

  4. susielindau January 27, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    Interesting group of films and they each look so different. I have to wonder how the texting film comes off….fun subject since so many live their lives through technology!

  5. pezcita January 27, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    This is a little off topic, but what are those things in the last picture? Piles of candy? Fruit? Large party hats? They’re drving me nuts!

    • momsomniac January 27, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

      Those decorative towers are common at a d’ol. They are probably made of candy or sweet rice cakes.

  6. poetcolette January 27, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    The Sundance shorts have had more muscle than the full length Hollywoods lately, IMO.

    The slow start of Henley was perfect in that it illustrated the boy’s dull, unstimulating life and the slow-business hotel he lived in. You are right that the short really sped up at the end, like the highway traffic the boy used to create more roadkill. 🙂

  7. g00dg33kranting January 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    Good reviews, and ’92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card made me want a chicken fried steak sandwich. 😀

  8. IamNotDefined January 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    Wow, that was very interesting!

  9. booklvr21 January 27, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    I love your post. I never knew Sundance had short films online, that’s a definite good to know since I don’t have the channel anymore.

    P.S. Cynicism is as natural as breathing; modern times made us this way 🙂

  10. 35andupcynicismonhold January 28, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    hello, shortstack,

    i like these lines: “I’m excessively cynical. I could claim it comes naturally once you’ve seen too many movies, but that doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse.” yes, it seems that seeing too many movies makes cynics out of us, ahaha. but we keep on watching them anyway. ^^

    and there’s your term, Sundance-y. the movie buff here thanks you for your fair and delightful reviews. happy weekend. 🙂

  11. Melanie January 28, 2012 at 1:20 am #

    I’m cynical and love movies too! It can’t be a coincidence. I’m going to check out the online sundance films. My favorite sundance film is Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind, but I’ve haven’t seen any new sundance films since then. Ima check em out.

  12. Single Malt Monkey January 28, 2012 at 4:00 am #

    Very informative reviews. Thanks….and a useful one-stop shop to seethe films. I’m coming back when I’ve an hour to spare and watch them all. Great post.

  13. Travelling Writer January 28, 2012 at 4:12 am #

    cant wait to watch Dol. im sure it would be a good movie.. :p

  14. purplepolitico January 28, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    thanks for the information I will be checking these films out

  15. cestlavie22 January 28, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    I was drawn to this blog because I am also a cynic! I have not actually had the opportunity to see Sundance films online so thank you for sharing this post.

  16. katcatvision January 28, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Reblogged this on katcatvision and commented:
    For those of you not at Sundance…

  17. The Hook January 28, 2012 at 11:37 am #

    Great share!

  18. patricemj January 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    I just watched the first one, love it, “Extreme Soulmates is on. Do you mind if we watch it?” Very much looking forward to watching the rest of the shorts as your commentary intrigued me. I watch a lot of movies, love them, and pretty much use all the cliches I gather from my multiple viewings to teach my daughter the ways of the world. Movies are like church for the godless.

    • nikoleherself January 29, 2012 at 12:26 am #

      ahaha couldnt stop laughing at “movies are like church for the godless” brilliant.

  19. ifeomaokoro2011 January 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Reblogged this on FREESTYLEVILLE and commented:
    This is worth reading. Good piece.

  20. divasLICIOUS January 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

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  21. nikoleherself January 28, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    hey this was a brilliant post. watched some amazing shorts that i would have otherwise been oblivious too! 🙂

  22. nazarenegonzales January 29, 2012 at 1:10 am #

    Reblogged this on nazarenegonzales and commented:
    nice theme

  23. OmegaAfroVivaldi January 29, 2012 at 2:53 am #

    I really like this post. Those of you who want a daily dose of literature and everything in between, come check out my blog @

  24. Turkey Property News January 29, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    Great information and post. I would like to thank you for sharing your ideas and times

  25. sarahnsh January 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    I was only able to see short movies once and it was closer to the city, but I really enjoyed them. Short movies pack quite a punch at times and they seem to get straight to the point since they have such a small amount of time to tell their story. I’ll have to see if I can check out some of these, I especially liked the sound of Aquadettes.

  26. loriemmons January 29, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    Thanks for sharing those shorts, I’ll have to come back & watch more when I have more time.

  27. gaycarboys January 29, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    great crop as always.

  28. WhenYouPutItThatWay January 29, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    This is a great idea for a post and I couldn’t agree more that a lot of indie’s are predictable (with cynical teens who talk like 30 somethings, etc.)

  29. saileshbhupalam January 29, 2012 at 11:18 pm #

    my name is sailesh, and i’m a cynic 😛 , and i agree too many movies can do that to you.

  30. severin January 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    Wow, great blog post. Thanks for sharing.

  31. The General January 31, 2012 at 6:28 am #

    You hit the nail on the head re: Diablo C. I’m no way, no how bitter… but i think Dawn’s Creek stirred all that up in the 90s. I need get out and see more shorts… it’s something i don’t think to do.

  32. revolutionaryprojects January 31, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    some of these films seem really interesting

  33. Kotenks January 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Your cynicism turned out to be good! You came in expecting them to be predictable but then they surprised you. It doesn’t need to be managed. It’s perfectly fine. I’ll check out some of these short films thanks to this post.

  34. Darwin Franks February 2, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    Reblogged this on The Mind Worm and commented:
    Really pleased to stumbled across this blog. I had no idea that Sundance had partnered with Yahoo to make a selection of Sundance 2012 shorts available online. I hope you enjoy them. If I can find the time, I’ll post my comments on them soon.


  1. REBLOG —-> Sundance Online Shorts via « wildapplause - January 27, 2012

    […] 25JAN […]

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