SCREEN TIME: Atlanta Shortsfest showcases new wave of movies in miniature

Are we seeing a golden age of short films?

ST The Stew
Photo credit: Chris Wood
Carlos Valdes: digs into “The Stew” at Atlanta Shortsfest.

Something was missing when Toy Story 4 opened to wide acclaim on June 21. The latest witty adventure of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and company marked Pixar Studios’ first release in more than two decades with no animated short preceding it.
Pixar’s shorts have been more than just a charming throwback to the era when cartoons, newsreels, and short features were part of the moviegoing experience. In the mid-1990s, they were probably the most prominent example of new short films as an art form. Two decades later, in a media landscape shaped by YouTube and viral videos, shorts see a lot more love.
Locally, the annual short film festival Atlanta Shortsfest showcases movies of under 45 minutes. “Atlanta Shortsfest typically screens right under 100 films per year, and this is our 10th season,” says founder Eric Panter. “Each year, around 20 percent of the films screened are Georgia-based filmmakers.”
For 2019, out of nearly 1000 entries, the festival will screen about 90 works, 15 from Georgia, from July 11-13. Part of the Atlanta Film Series, a four-month showcase of small film events that includes Atlanta DocuFest, Atlanta Underground Film Festival, and Atlanta Horror Film Festival, Shortsfest gives awards for documentary, animated, local, LGBTQ, and many more categories, including best director, actor, and actress.
The festival screens the shorts in blocks of about 90 minutes each, which frequently exhibit the work of established filmmakers exploring ideas that may not support a feature film, as well as fledgling artists trying to advance their careers and creative abilities. Shorts often serve as calling cards for new directors. “The Neighbors’ Window” is the first fiction from Marshall Curry, a multiple Oscar nominee for documentaries, and crafts a lovely story of an overwhelmed mom fascinated by the passionate young couple she can see in a neighboring apartment.
It’s a fun surprise whenever famous performers turn up: Tom Stern’s funny, feverish “Adams” adapts a short story by the great George Saunders, casting Patton Oswalt as a family man increasingly obsessed with his neighbor (“Portlandia”’s Fred Armisen) and willing to go to extremes to protect his family.
Milla Jovovich stars in “WithorWithout,” Benjamin Howdeshell’s extended music video for the Berlin-based band Parcels. Not just a vehicle for a pleasantly placid pop song, the film unfolds in the form of a home invasion horror story (some shots seem inspired by Jordan Peele’s Us) and manages to pull the rug out from under the viewer at least once in seven minutes. Chris Wood’s “The Stew” unfolds like a “Mr. Show” sketch in its depiction of a passive-aggressive married couple, played by Melissa Benoist and Carlos Valdes (both regulars of The CW superhero shows).
The title is fairly self-explanatory in the Atlanta-made “I Think My Dead Sister is Following Me Around,” from David Nobles. A young woman grapples with her strained relationship with her late sister in a tale that flirts with humor but is more of a bittersweet character study that has echoes of David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story.”
Outside of film festivals and compilations like the annual Oscar Nominated Short Films, it can be a challenge to find worthwhile shorts among the countless available in YouTube, Vimeo, and other online outlets. Sometimes fan films inspired by famous franchises can be surprisingly sophisticated. Earlier this year, 20th Century Fox celebrated the anniversary of Alien by releasing six fan films that explored tropes in the sci-fi series. Noah Miller’s “Alien: Alone” delivered the best by portraying the unlikely bond that forms between the survivor of a spaceship disaster and something inhuman.
Streaming services sometimes provide shorts, with Amazon Prime hosting Ray McKinnon’s Oscar-winning, Georgia-made dark comedy “The Accountant” from 2001, possibly the sharpest and least sentimental film ever made about the South. Donald Glover’s “Guava Island,” at nearly an hour, may push the definition of a short, but as a parable of art vs. capitalism in developing countries, connecting Childish Gambino songs, it’s an energetic work that can tide us over until the next season of “Atlanta.”
And even though Pixar released a short-less Toy Story 4, it’s not stinting on brief animations: Its YouTube channel releases the Pixar SparkShorts, developed by studio employees in a six-month time frame. The February release, “Kitbull,” offered an extremely sad but ultimately uplifting portrayal of a friendship between a stray kitten and a fighting dog.
With so many shorts being made and so many means for potential viewing, it feels like a golden age of short films is about to begin. It may even have already begun, but the audience hasn’t found them yet. Little movies could be the next big thing.
Atlanta ShortsFestShortsfest, July 11-13, Synchronicity Theater, 1545 Peachtree St., Suite 102. $12 per block online, $14 per block at box office, $25 day pass. $50 two-day pass. atlantashortsfest.com.
Coming Attractions: Of all the summertime releases shot in Atlanta, probably the big marquee name is “Stranger Things,” returning for a third season of 1980s nostalgia and kids hunting monsters. The next batch of episodes drop July 4 and will prominently feature “Starcourt Mall” (actually Gwinnett Place Mall given a retro makeover).
Summer movies shot in Atlanta include June 14’s blaxploitation reboot Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson and the July 12 action/comedy Stuber, which stars Kumail Nanjiani as an Uber driver hijacked by a police detective played by Dave Bautista.
My favorite summer shout-out in an Atlanta production appeared in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. In a sequence with monstrous “titans” emerging across the world, one of the locations was Stone Mountain, leaving viewers to wonder: Is there a Georgia-themed monster we don’t know about? Were the mountain’s Confederate carvings mistaken for kaiju? Maybe the Altamaha river’s legendary Atlamaha-ha took a wrong turn somewhere.
Screen Time is a monthly column about film and cinematic narratives, from the big screen to streaming services.