The Best Short Films of 2023
One of the benefits of the streaming-industrial complex and its rapacious and insatiable lust for content is that short films suddenly have a noticeably more robust presence in the landscape of global cinema. Shorts often have been regarded as serving one of two functions: vehicles for the modernist obsession with newness and innovation (as if experimental filmmakers were really just frustrated tech bros); or little proof-of-concept seedlings, fundraising warm-ups that show that their makers can one day direct a “real movie.” But this wider visibility builds the case that the form perhaps can be deployed and appreciated for its own sake—as a more accessible and less capital-intensive mode of filmmaking that’s free of the formal constraints and commercial demands typically placed on feature films.
That this work also tends to exist online in proximity to a wide range of vernacular internet practices and platforms is significant, too. Those wedded to the idea of the short film as the domain of artists’ film and video might bemoan this collapse of context, waxing nostalgic about the aesthetic coherence and genre purity of the historical avant-gardes. But the increasingly sprawling and global world of short films—both online and offline—has engendered something more valuable: an accessible, dynamic, and intractable zone of output that isn’t defined by geography, critical discourse, or particular demands for formal novelty.
Assaying this vast and unmanageable sphere of production is obviously an impossible task in any year—and anyone laying claim to having seen a representative portion of it is probably lying. Nevertheless, here—in no particular order—are 10 short films that were the strongest, strangest, and boldest I saw in 2023.
Abattoir U.S.A.! (Aria Dean, U.S.)
Aria Dean’s video enlists 3D computer graphics to render the empty interior spaces of a slaughterhouse—an eerie venue for a reverie on industrial labor and mechanized death.
Slow Shift (Shambhavi Kaul, India/U.S.)
Elegantly drifting between human, animal, geological, and mythological timescales, Shambhavi Kaul’s Slow Shift takes on the collective, nonhuman point of view of a troop of langur monkeys who leap and play amid the ruins of the 14th-century city of Hampi in India.
NYC RGB (Viktoria Schmid, Austria/U.S.)
Simple and thrilling, Viktoria Schmid’s film is a vibrant city symphony that refracts Manhattan’s skyline into a hazy iridescence, where the spectral traces of traffic and rainbow smoke lend New York a blurrier edge.
Mast-del (Maryam Tafakory, Iran/U.K.)
Maryam Tafakory’s dense and sensuous Mast-del compounds nested personal narratives and points of view, a variety of textual treatments, and original and found images into a dark and unreconciled middle zone, where images and impressions bleed into and occlude one another, and rage and desire irrevocably intermingle.
Prearranged Signal (Alina Taalman, U.S.)
Drony washes of synthetic sound, snippets of field recordings, and fragments of old movie dialogue make up the soundtrack of Alina Taalman’s Prearranged Signal, accompanying a dizzying and unsettling montage of disjointed signs that juxtaposes the overdetermined structures of mid-20th-century suburbia with the seeming chaos of the natural world.
The Rays of a Storm (Julio Hernández Cordón, Mexico)
Like a goofy companion piece to the feature of the year, Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós’s Dry Ground Burning, The Rays of a Storm uses drifting, eccentric camerawork and cheeky soundtrack interventions to chart the provisional collaboration between chilango motorcycle gangs and a troupe of historical reenactors in indigenous garb to restage a 16th-century confrontation between the Aztecs and Hernán Cortés.
Ohio State Reformatory films (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S.)
Another year, another crop of essential films by Kevin Jerome Everson. The prolific artist produced a number of great works in a variety of modes and styles this year. (Honorable mention goes to his anti–music video If You Don’t Watch the Way You Move, which features trap rappers Dripp and ChoSkii going head-to-head with John Cage.) Most substantial among these is the suite of films Everson shot in the now-derelict Ohio State Reformatory—including Banging on Their Bars in Rhythm, Boyd v. Denton, and (a contender for title of the year) Air Force Two—which advances Everson’s concern with abstraction by photographic means. Grainy, monochromatic 16mm images, the embodied physicality of Everson’s cinematography, and the rapidity of his montage place the films at the border of representation and formalist obfuscation, while also summoning the ghosts of the prison’s long history of radicalized oppression and a chronicle of trash cinema.
History as Hypnosis (Alison Nguyen, U.S.)
Wry and sinister, History as Hypnosis brings Alison Nguyen’s longtime preoccupations with technology, consciousness, and identity out of virtual spaces and into the so-called real world of Southern California. With a live-action narrative that resists narrative itself, Nguyen finds a curious meeting point between dystopian sci-fi and an Eric André/Nathan Fielder–style documentary comedy. As the uncanny childlike narrator reassures the film’s trio of robotic protagonists: “It’ll all start to feel better and make more sense once you’re more integrated.”
The Fist (Ayo Akingbade, U.K./Nigeria)
Rendering the Guinness factory in Ikeja, Nigeria, in sumptuous 35mm, Ayo Akingbade’s exquisitely detailed process film captures the factory’s assembly line and the social world around it in superabundant color and texture, slyly tracing the reverberations of colonialism and globalization.
Passing Time (Terence Davies, Belgium/U.K.)
On September 15, the International Film Fest Gent celebrated its 50th edition with its 2×25 project, which paired 25 filmmakers with 25 composers from around the world to make short films—most only two to three minutes in length—that were then posted to YouTube. A mere three weeks later, the maker of the best of these films, the superlative Terence Davies, died of cancer at the age of 77. A collaboration with Uruguayan composer Florencia Di Concilio, Davies’s film is a typically lush and melancholy affair, consisting of a single frame, hemmed in quivering leaves, which holds the image of a field near Davies’s home in Essex for its entire three-minute duration. On the soundtrack, accompanying the lulling cadences of Di Concilio’s string composition, is Davies’s own eloquent but halting voice, reading his own verse—a floridly romantic, emotionally ravaging poem that seems to anticipate our own grief at his loss: “For you are gone and not replaced / But echoes of your lovely self / Will bear us through life’s cruel stream.”
Honorable shouts to: Trouble (Miranda Pennell), Live from the Clouds (Mackie Mallison), N’importe quoi (For Brunhild) (Luke Fowler), Blank Photograph (Hsu Che-yu), Nearest Neighbor (Rebecca Baron & Douglas Goodwin), My Caldera (Cauleen Smith), Mélodie de brumes à Paris (Julius-Amédé Laou), and @maltdisney’s Instagram account.
Leo Goldsmith is a visiting assistant professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School; and a programming advisor for the New York Film Festival.