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MOVIE REVIEW

‘Sundance Shorts’ are long on artistry

A scene from Tanzanian filmmaker Kibwe Tavares’s “Jonah.”

A scene from Tanzanian filmmaker Kibwe Tavares’s “Jonah.”

The short film genre isn’t just the minor leagues for aspiring filmmakers. It demands the concision, ingenuity, and clarity of a veteran director like Michael Almereyda, whose “Skinningrove” is one of eight gems included in “2013 Sundance Shorts,” a touring collection of the best from last year released to coincide with the Jan. 16 opening of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Deceptively simple, “Skinningrove” records photographer Chris Killip as he projects and discusses black-and-white pictures he took of the title British fishing village. With a strong tang of Robert J. Flaherty’s “Man of Aran” (1934) about it, Almereyda’s minimalism shapes into a moving narrative involving hardship, tragedy, and a small town’s resolve not to give in to greedy developers.

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Tanzanian filmmaker Kibwe Tavares’s “Jonah” also takes place in a small seaside town, but here the title local seeks out, rather than resists the profits of development. He turns a chance encounter with a giant fish into a gimmicky tourist attraction. The concept proves so successful it transforms the dull, idyllic town into a vast, tacky wasteland. This is no straightforward morality tale, however; Tavares employs stunning, surreal imagery and flashy technique to combine the eponymous Bible story with “Moby-Dick,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Blade Runner.”

Showing more respect for the old ways is Tony Donoghue’s spritely, stop-motion animated “Irish Folk Furniture,” in which the beat-up furnishings of rustic cottages are renovated and come to life as their owners relate their history. Meanwhile, far removed from the quaintness of rural Ireland, Kahlil Joseph’s “Until the Quiet Comes” transforms the torment of inner city youth into a grimly dreamlike rhapsody.

Moving on from communal to personal relations is Finnish director Jenni Toivoniemi’s “The Date.” The title refers to the meeting of two pedigreed Siamese cats for stud purposes, and their excruciatingly funny offscreen yowlings embarrass their teenaged owners but also involve the shy pair in their own vicarious mating dance.

More awkwardness ensues in Michelle Morgan’s witty and hip, if sitcom-ish, “K.I.T.” Morgan herself plays a neurotic yuppie who feels compelled to befriend the cashier at the local grocery, even though the latter wears weird clothes, has big feet, and is the kind of woman who would “babysit your dog.” Cleverly satiric, though a bit pat in the end.

All pretensions to sociability vanish in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” True to its title, it will smack you right in the face, which is exactly what J.K. Simmons’s monstrous music teacher does to an errant student. He makes R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) look downright cuddly as he brutally humiliates band members who “sabotage” the rehearsal of the title piece. Chazelle himself orchestrates the film like a tightly structured composition, with varied tempos and overwhelming crescendos.

Finally, there is Julia Pott’s “The Event,” also about a relationship, in this case between two crudely drawn, animated carnivores who narrate in voice-over their surreal tale of woes. Infinitely enigmatic, very funny, and about three minutes long, it is the visual equivalent of a John Ashbery poem.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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