The Mill Valley Film Festival has celebrated the best in cinema from around the world for 34 years now, so it should come as no surprise that their lineups are carefully crafted creations. The big hitters often find themselves in a great position to join the ranks of Oscar® contenders early next year, and a consistent buzz on an indie darling can land it a limited theatrical run across the U.S. This year's selection of feature films have their fair share of buzz, but there's a lesser-known series of programming at MVFF: the 5@5 short film series.
5@5 gets its name from the template the series works off of—a collection of short films at 5:00PM for $5 per program with a total runtime of about one hour—so that each weekday of the festival you can catch one of these concise bouquets of short form cinema. If you're an Elton John fan, you'll probably also notice each package is named after a song in his discography, because … why not? After previewing this year's selection, it's safe to say that some of these films are strong contenders against the feature length heavyweights and should not be overlooked.
5@5: Circle of Life—Comprised of five short documentaries, this collection contains three intriguing character profile pieces, each with their own quirks. Also on display here is a short about a group of swimmers explaining the importance of their early morning ritual (Swimming in a Dream, 2010) and a topical half-hour doc about Humboldt county's most famous export (Pot Country, 2011).
Doug Nichol's Chinese-U.S. coproduction Sunshine (2011) is a standout in this program. The film is an insightful look at TV ads through the eyes of an American ad producer in China working on several TV commercials and sharing a frank and honest look behind the curtain of the industry. The film is beautifully photographed and sharply edited which ensures things never feel slow.
Another standout is the aforementioned Pot Country. The film explores the crop and the small-time farmers who are caught between legality and livelihood. The film's perspective allows the audience to consider the human consequences of keeping marijuana illegal. The story leads through last year's Proposition 19, which was a failed attempt to legalize marijuana in California. By staying informative and personal, the film breezes by in its 27-minute runtime, feeling lean and concise.
5@5: Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me—Delivering a tough message can be a difficult task, and in each of these short films a character is faced with a daunting task of delivery. Ranging from a telegram being delivered during WWII (The Telegram Man, 2010), a hired writer takes on the task of writing someone else's suicide note (To Say Goodbye, 2011), a doctor who must put his skills to the test during his second job as a taxi driver (A Doctor's Job, 2010), and a cleaning lady whose employer would like her help to reconnect with her estranged brother (Confidante, 2011).
Cinematic and intense, Julio O. Ramos' Peruvian entry A Doctor's Job held my interest and played out rather nicely, though it didn't leave me particularly satisfied. On a similar note, Lisa Melodia's Confidante is full of entertainment value and some excellent characters; but, again, by film's end it felt like an episode rather then a completed story.
The true standout in this program is Jason Headley's To Say Goodbye. Fitted with a fantastic premise of a man who is hired to write other people's suicide notes so that loved ones will be left with a touch of poetry to ameliorate their suffering, this film clenches its darkly comedic tone and never lets go. The two central characters (the writer and his soon-to-be-dead employer) play perfectly off each other as they discuss everything from how they really must "consider their audience" when writing the letter to likely candidates that will find the body. This quirky vibe constantly breathes slight absurdity to an otherwise grounded story of life and death.
5@5: Hard Times—All forms of animation and genre collide in this packed collection of 2-D, 3-D, stop-motion and live-action animation tackling comedy, drama, and far more abstract realms. Even for those who don't put animation at their top of their "to-watch" list, this collection does not disappoint.
Three phenomenal experimental pieces caught my attention: Pop (2011), The Death of an Insect (2010), and Seven Days in the Woods (2011). Conjuring up deep atmosphere and tone, these three shorts are sure to leave you with something to think about. Peter Larsson's Swedish entry Seven Days in the Woods offers up a twisted POV by way of a series of stop-motion vignettes. Each is like a moving painting, escalating with exaggerated sound design until the viewer's senses are overwhelmed by a cacophony of stimuli.
On a similarly twisted and stop-animated note, Mario Adamson's 2011 I Am Round (also from Sweden) is an enthralling short about two circularly shaped creatures who give birth to egg-shaped Mathilda, an immediate outcast from a society of squares. With evident parallels to real life discrimination, the story is heartfelt and well told, even while maintaining a bleak tone. As our spherical heroine grows up, she desperately tries to fit into a world dominated by squares hitting square buttons in even edged cubicles.
Perhaps the most visually striking and outlandishly entertaining entry in this program is the Argentine short Luminaris (2011). Utilizing an uncommon hybrid of live-action stop-motion to perfection, Luminaris is a wild and imaginative story of a man who works in a light bulb manufacturing company. He has an odd ability to chew on mystic glass marbles like bubblegum, and blow a light bulb bubble, at which point his assistant takes over and blasts the bulb with some sonic-vision wizardry that makes the bulb illuminate. Describing this film is one thing, but seeing these amazing acts take place on screen like a live-action Saturday morning cartoon complete with tons of on-screen visual tricks is nothing short of astounding.
5@5: Just Like Strange Rain—Not everyone is meant to fit in, and the world is better for it. After all, strangeness is relative. The characters in these films, for one reason or another, aren't accepted by society. Some of them are better because of it.
Erik Rosenlund Swedish-Danish coproduction Out of Erasers (2011) is bound to immediately catch the attention of anyone who's a fan of zombie films. Though Out of Erasers contains no walking dead, its execution, style, and story elements mirror those of a great zombie film. After a major shortage of erasers, a strange pencil drawing (zombie-fans can replace "pencil drawing" with "virus") appears in a small town. Without any means to erase it, the "pencil drawing" begins to spread. Out of Erasers is heavy on atmosphere and maintains an eerie and consistent tone through its 15-minute length; an imaginative and dream-like story told with subtlety and visual flair.
Bethynia Cardenas Iñiguez's Mexican-U.S. coproduction Moonless Night (2010) is a classic "whodunit" set-up, but with enough elements working together in new ways that keeps it fresh. After a man is convicted of a crime he swears he didn't commit, he becomes torn over whether the truth would just make things more complicated. Played out with considerable suspense, the film does an excellent job of keeping up the pace and remaining entertaining through its tightly woven, satisfying story.
5@5: The Last Song—Misunderstandings and fantastical stories fuel this collection of solid shorts. Covering a wide range, this collection has its fair share of laughs (Sexting, Good Luck, Mr. Gorski), but is also sure to make you ponder bigger questions (Boy, Saturn Rising), relive memories (My Big Red Purse), and maybe even feel like a child all over again (Pioneer).
Both comedies fall into the "outrageous" category, which they absolutely nail. Neil LaBute's Sexting (2010) boils down to a wickedly hilarious monologue from a young woman (played by Julia Stiles) after receiving a revealing text message. Given LaBute's playwrighting background, it only makes sense that Sexting's dialogue unfolds on the screen as easily as it would on a stage. Arron Shiver's Irish entry Good Luck, Mr. Gorski (2011) launches an alternative history where Neil Armstrong—taking his fateful step onto the moon—turns to the camera and cryptically comments, "Good luck, Mr. Gorski." An elderly couple watching this on television ponders just what it could mean? Especially since their last name is Gorski. The concept snowballs into absurdity and remains hilarious throughout, punctuated by great comedic performances by its two lead actors.
The standout in this program, however, is David Lowery's Pioneer (2011): a film that shows restraint yet manages to take you to surprising places. After a young boy wakes from a nightmare, he asks his father to tell him a bedtime story: the one of how he came to be. The father's ensuing tall tale takes up the vast majority of the film's runtime and—shockingly—doesn't use any cutaways or imagery beyond the bedroom. Much like the young boy intently listening, the audience uses its imagination to fill out details of the farfetched and earnest adventures of remembered childhood. It's a remarkable achievement and a testament to the performances of both the father and son. Hearing a bedtime story through the eyes and ears of a child has been masterfully recreated in Pioneer and is an experience readily available to anyone with an imagination.