There’s now no excuse not to find short filmmaking. Sites like the Smalls, Short of the Week, Future Shorts, and Vimeo are virtual libraries of non-feature-length movies, and McSweeney’s DVD periodical, Wholphin, is a cool, alluringly packaged vehicle that’s like getting your shorts at a boutique vegetable stand. This weekend offers two options of seeing shorts packages in a movie theater — at the Coolidge and the Kendall.
Option one is “Manhattan Short,” 10 movies from 10 countries competing for a paying audience’s vote. The other is something called “Stars in Shorts,” which features name actors at a reduced length. Both have their virtues. The films in the contest are meant to be an antidote to stardom. It’s about the discovery of new talent and hopes to present an aspect of the film festival experience. The shorts with the well-known actors are easy entertainment. All the work you feel in the competition collection is nonexistent with the more polished veterans.
Some filmmakers in the competition seem to be making it up as they go. The endings peter out, the characters are uncertain, the stories seem headed to a climax or revelation or insight without ever arriving at one. “The Elaborate End of Robert Ebb” is about a security guard who’s turned into a big, slimy monster. A charming outcome of its homemade-ness is that when the monster tries to speak it sounds like an actor trapped in a humid costume. But the movie has three directors — Clément Bolla, François-Xavier Goby, and Matthieu Landour — pulling the story toward a lot of cuteness.
That’s where most of these movies are determined to go. There are a couple of grim contributions — for instance, a Peruvian film, “Behind the Mirror,” is set in a seedy motel. For the most part, though, they’re like “Voice Over,” which is science-fiction that erases its astronaut’s stress with memories of a childhood kiss. Babak Anvari’s “Two & Two” is the opposite. It uses Iranian schoolchildren for eight minutes of cheap, obvious allegory about dictatorship and conformity.
These movies have been shot with nice cameras so they look great. They’re just raw and unfinished. You don’t always know what the filmmakers are up to. They’re calling-card movies that shout at you.
“Stars in Shorts” has a shameless gimmick — come see, say, Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson bicker and bond in a car; or Julia Stiles in one of the two inclusions that Neil Labute wrote. But what the actors contribute is an air of professionalism. They point the films in the direction of competence. The performances in tandem with the writing take most of these seven movies to interesting places. The actor Rupert Friend wrote and directed “Steve,” in which Colin Firth plays an unstable neighbor who darkens the figurative doorstep of the couple upstairs — Keira Knightley and Tom Mison. Every visit, he simmers until eventually he boils. It’s a tense few minutes, with Firth giving everything he’s got and whoever did the music giving too much.
One of Labute’s two movies, “After-School Special,” begins as an awkward conversation between Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley and ends well past uncomfortable. It’s a sick surprise, something O. Henry might have gone for were he not just clever but a shock-hungry vulgarian, too.
Like the actors in these films, Labute’s reputation precedes him. Not so with the other collection. The filmmakers in “Manhattan Short” — they’re all men — usually appear before the camera to say hi and thanks. It’s embarrassing and superfluous. They’re being asked to plead with us to like movies whose quality should be free to speak for itself.