Top 10 Short Films Available Online

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Short films rarely get major releases these days, so it’s no surprise that even serious movie fans often neglect them. But with the rise of websites like YouTube, shorts have finally found a viable exhibition platform. The following are ten of the most famous short films available online. Whether they’re art pictures, the early works of visionary directors, or new movies by up and coming filmmakers, these films can serve as an introduction to the wealth of material now on the web. Please note that in the interest of variety, classic shorts by silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd have been omitted, but you should certainly check out their work if you have the chance.

10. C’etait Un Rendez-Vous (“It Was a Date”)

C’etait un Rendez-vous (“It Was a Date”) is a 1976 short by the French director Claude Lelouch, who is otherwise known for his 1966 Cannes-winning feature film Un Homme et une Femme (A Man and a Woman). Put simply, C’etait un Rendez-vous consists of a nine minute long uninterrupted take of a car speeding through the streets of Paris in the early morning hours. The driver, who we don’t see until the end, reaches speeds of 140-plus miles per hour, and also runs red lights, drives backwards down one way streets, and at one point even cuts through a sidewalk. The catch? It’s all one hundred percent real. Lelouch–who claims he drove the Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 himself–mounted a special camera to the front of the car in order to pull off the stunt, and had accomplices positioned around the city with radios to warn him of oncoming traffic.

Why You Should See It

Despite Lelouch’s precautions, C’etait un Rendez-vous was still a highly illegal piece of stunt filmmaking. Some even claim that Lelouch was arrested upon releasing it. The film has since become a cult classic among car enthusiasts, with some dubbing it “the greatest car chase movie ever made.” If nothing else, it’s certainly the quickest tour of Paris you’ll ever take.

9. Glory at Sea

2008’s Glory at Sea may be a relatively new film, but it’s already gaining a reputation as one of the most audacious short films to come out in some time. Produced by New Orleans-based filmmaking collective Court 13, Glory at Sea was one of the first films to address—albeit quite abstractly—the aftermath and devastation of Hurricane Katrina. It tells the story of a town that has been decimated by a storm, leaving most of its residents trapped in the “underworld” of the ocean floor. When a man is spared and washed ashore, he and a few survivors build a ramshackle boat and head out to sea to rescue their loved ones in what the film’s website calls “a veritable prison break from death itself.” Director Benh Zeitlin shot Glory at Sea with largely unprofessional actors on location in the hurricane-ravaged sections of New Orleans, and the result is a lyrical and moving film that addresses themes of hope, healing, and the bonds of community.

Why You Should See It

Glory at Sea’s DIY aesthetic and emotionally stirring subject matter have made it something of an underground sensation, and the film has collected awards at festivals across the country. Not only that, but the movie’s amazing soundtrack (by Zeitlin and Dan Rohmer) proved to be so popular that part was of it was even used as a campaign song by Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential race.

8. Vincent

Vincent is a 1982 stop motion animated short by Tim Burton, director of films like Edward Scissorhands and Batman. It tells the story of a seven-year-old boy named Vincent who is obsessed with being like the famous horror actor Vincent Price, whose signature ghoulish voice provides the narration to the story. Rather than playing outside with the other kids, Vincent prefers to sulk in his room, perform experiments on his dog Abercrombie, and read creepy short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Based on a poem he wrote himself, Vincent was one of Tim Burton’s early efforts as a director. It was made while he was working at Walt Disney Studios, and the awards that it won helped him land his first feature film gig, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

Why You Should See It

Everything there is to like about Tim Burton can be found in Vincent. From his interesting visual style and off-kilter humor, to the kind of creepy stop motion animation that would later appear in The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s all here. Most early short films by famous directors are a little rough around the edges, but this one shows that from early on in his career, Burton had a truly singular film style.

7. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a 1962 film from the French director Robert Enrico. Based on a short story by the famed American writer Ambrose Bierce, the film is set during the Civil War and follows a civilian saboteur (Roger Jacquet) who is about to be hanged for plotting to burn down a bridge. The film is famous for its last second twist ending, which some have called one of the greatest surprises in film history. In fact, the film became so infamous for its plot twist that when it originally came out in America it was released as an episode of the television show The Twilight Zone. But despite earning a cult following from its TV showings, for many years An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge remained unreleased on video. It’s only in the last few years that the film has become available again on the web.

Why You Should See It

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge demands to be seen, if only to experience the shocking twist ending. It’s also a visually stunning, almost surreal film that balances its style and ideas perfectly. It was for this reason that it won the 1962 Academy Award for best short film, and also took home honors from the prestigious Cannes film festival.

 6. Powers of 10

Describing itself as “a film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe—and the effect of adding another zero,” 1977’s Powers of Ten is a short documentary with a massive scale. Originally developed by the husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames for IBM, the film is a visual representation of the vastness of both outer space and the molecular construction of the human body. Powers of Ten opens on an overhead shot of a couple having a lakeside picnic in Chicago, and a narrator explains that the shot will zoom out so that the frame increases by ten times every ten seconds.  Soon the couple is no longer visible, and after four minutes, the view has moved beyond the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy and into the emptiness of the cosmos. From here, the shot zooms back to the couple in the park and into the hand of the lounging man, where it goes to the microscopic level of the nucleus of a single atom. The result is one serious head trip, but also a truly elegant explanation of the mind-boggling immensity of the universe.

 Why You Should See It

Ever since its initial exhibition, Powers of Ten has earned a special reputation for the way it helps viewers “organize their thinking” about their environment. It’s now a certified cult classic, and is often shown in college classes and business seminars around the world. It has also inspired countless tributes—in particular a memorable spoof during an episode of The Simpsons—and even had its own holiday, which occurred (when else?) on October 10, 2010.

5. La Jetee

A famous piece of experimental filmmaking, 1962’s La Jetee (The Jetty) is a science fiction film that tells the story of a man’s life-altering experiences with time travel. The film was written and directed by Chris Marker, and is set in a post-World War III Paris where survivors live underground. Hoping to find the key to their survival in a different age, the people develop a form of time travel and send an unnamed prisoner (Davos Hanich) into the pre-war period. After he proves himself a viable candidate, the man is then sent forward into the future where a technologically advanced society offers to come to humanity’s aid. La Jetee’s time-bending plotline is not the only thing that is unusual about it. The film also features almost no spoken dialogue (though there is narration), and it is told almost entirely with still photos. But despite this lo-tech style, it manages to be a truly engrossing experience, thanks in no small part to a twist ending that’s guaranteed to catch most viewers completely off guard.

Why You Should See It

Beyond being a classic piece of experimental cinema, La Jetee was also one of the first films to consider the idea of time travel in a thoughtful, philosophical manner. Its exploration of causality and the inherent paradoxes of time travel were years ahead of their time, and proved to be a major influence on many sci-fi films from the 80s and 90s. The film that owes it the biggest debt is undoubtedly 1995’s 12 Monkeys, which lifts several elements directly from the plot of La Jetee.

4. Un Chien Andalou

At once one of the most controversial and influential short films of all time, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) is a bizarre piece of surrealism originally conceived in 1929 by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. The film is perhaps best known for its unsettling opening scene, which shows a man (played by Buñuel) slicing open a woman’s eye with a straight razor. Un Chien Andalou goes on to follow almost no conventional narrative thread. While title cards appear saying things like “once upon a time” and “eight years later,” the film is mostly a dreamscape filled with surreal imagery and elements of black comedy. In one scene, a man’s hand is shown to be crawling with ants, while in another some books a character is holding suddenly turn into a pair of pistols. The film might have no internal logic outside of its imagery, but this is exactly what Buñuel and Dali intended. Both were active in the surrealist movement that was then flourishing in France, and they specifically designed their film to be an experiment in free association.

Why You Should See It

Not only did Un Chien Andalou help launch the careers of two of the most important art figures of the 20th century, but to this day it remains one of the premier examples of avant garde filmmaking. All of modern independent cinema owes a debt to this short, and at least one critic has argued that the film’s bold visuals and abstract narrative are the blueprint for modern music videos.

3. The Great Train Robbery

Filmed in 1903 by Thomas Edison’s silent film studio, The Great Train Robbery is not only the first heist movie, it’s also the first film to employ a sophisticated plot and narrative technique. Directed by silent film legend Edwin Porter, The Great Train Robbery follows a gang of bandits who board a train, break into a treasure chest using explosives, and then rob the passengers of their valuables. They then make their getaway, unaware that a posse has been formed to track them down. These elements of The Great Train Robbery might seem clichéd to the modern viewer, but at the time, the film was simply depicting current events. In 1904, many Old West bandits were still at large, and Porter based his film on stories from cheap pulp novels as well as the exploits of Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang, which had pulled off a similar heist in 1900. The Great Train Robbery was a runaway success during its first release, and today it is perhaps most famous for its frequently-referenced closing shot, which shows one of the bandits firing his revolver directly at the camera.

Why You Should See It

In addition to being one of the very first narrative films, The Great Train Robbery also helped pioneer modern cinema style. Porter’s film was the first movie to use crosscutting—the technique where two storylines are followed simultaneously—and it was the first to use location shooting and camera movement. The film helped build the visual grammar that would come to be used in all narrative film. Watching it is like seeing the history of the movies unfold in front you.

2. The Red Balloon

If you grew up in the U.S. or Canada any time from the seventies to the nineties, then you may be familiar with Albert Lamorisse’s classic 1956 short film The Red Balloon. As one of the most beloved children’s films of all time, it was screened in elementary schools for years, and still often appears on public television. The film tells the story of Pascal (played by Lamorisse’s own son), a young Parisian boy who finds a red balloon floating near a city street. Pascal takes the balloon home, and he soon learns that it seems to have a life of its own: no matter where he goes, the balloon is determined to follow. This results in some charming scenes, including one famous sequence where the balloon follows Pascal into his school classroom and gets him into trouble with his teachers. The Red Balloon is low on dialogue, but what it doesn’t accomplish with words it manages to achieve with some excellent camerawork and a timeless story about the wonder of childhood.

Why You Should See It

The Red Balloon, in addition to being beloved by children, was also a critical darling. It won the Palm d’Or for short films at the Cannes film festival, and it also managed to win the Academy Award for best original screenplay— and this despite being up against feature length films like Fellini’s La Strada and the classic comedy The Ladykillers.

1. A Trip to the Moon

Regularly shortlisted as one of the most important movies of all time, 1902’s A Trip to the Moon is a 14-minute long short that proved to be wildly influential on filmmaking technique. A Trip to the Moon was conceived by Georges Melies, a French magician who not only wrote and directed the film, but also produced it, operated the camera, designed all the sets and special effects, and appeared in the starring role. The film—widely considered to be the first ever science fiction movie—follows a group of scientists who build a rocket and use it to travel to the moon. After crash landing, the Victorian astronauts explore the lunar surface, which is made up of rocky caves and giant mushrooms, and even encounter a race of acrobatic aliens. A Trip to the Moon was a very risky production by early film standards. Even though the prolific Melies had already made over 400 short subject films before, the movie’s 10,000 Franc budget was seen as a major gamble. But audiences loved the film’s imaginative ideas and whimsical visual style, and it proved to be a major success in both Europe and the United States.

Why You Should See It

A Trip to the Moon might seem amateurish or even hokey by today’s standards, but in its day it was incredibly cutting edge. Nearly every one of the movie’s twenty-nine shots includes something that Melies’ invented, whether it’s his use of camera tricks like double exposures, fades, and dissolves, or his groundbreaking editing techniques. Films like A Trip to the Moon helped shape the popular view of what movies were capable of as a medium, and paved the way for the more technically complex films that would follow.

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5 Comments

  1. Excellent list, Evan. I like your website too. It seems the only place to see short films these days is at film festivals. Glad to see The Red Balloon here. I suggested it for a film festival a couple of years ago and the audience of adults and kids applauded it at the end. Made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

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