The Short List: The Ten Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Shorts on the Web

Storytelling is harder when you’re placed in a tight container. Short stories have long been where you could find some of the most innovative work, and the same can be said of short films. Once the dominant form of cinema, shorts have been somewhat hidden since the fall of the double feature in the 1960s, relegated to film festivals and specialty screenings. Only in recent years have we seen short films appear in greater numbers. YouTube, Vimeo, Funny–or–Die, Short of the Week, and various other sites have led to an explosion in the number of short films that gain an audience. For fans of science fiction and fantasy, short films offer fascinating new stories that will stand alongside the work of the best writers and filmmakers.

I’ve been lucky enough to program the Silicon Valley Science Fiction Short Film Festival, exposing me to hundreds of short films from around the world. While many of the best shorts I’ve found are not available online, there are many that you can watch without having to buy a festival pass!

Spoiler
If you love Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, you’ll love Spoiler. Spoiler presents a near–future America after a zombie epidemic. What really struck me was how thoroughly the film delved into the world after the fall in just 17 minutes. They even deal with the bureaucracy that such a world would require. Amazingly well–made, with subtle effects and details that populate the finest storytelling. Little things like doors that seal themselves after an alert is sounded, or self–turning screws, make this the kind of film that you can watch over and over, and discover something every time.

The Centrifugal Brain Project
Fake documentaries are great, and they’re making big splashes right now on the festival circuit. In The Centrifugal Brain Project, Dr. Nick Laslowicz discusses the experiments he’s been undertaking. Experiments on the effects of centrifugal force on brain development that required the building of outlandishly complex medical devices that just so happen to make incredible amusement park rides. Just the images of the rides kicked my vertigo into overdrive. Wonderful effects combine with a script that has its tongue practically poking through its cheek!

The Missing Scarf
Of all the films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, only The Missing Scarf features George Takei. It’s a humorous tale of a squirrel, Albert, who has lost his scarf and asks his woodland friends if they’ve seen it. Of course, they haven’t, largely because they’ve been too wrapped up in their own thoughts to notice the world around them. This one gets into some deep thoughts and ends with just about the most final finality you can get. The visual style is simple and lovely, the voice acting wonderful, and the message darker than anything!

Sorry About Tomorrow
The 48 Hour Film Project is an amazing thing. Some marvelous films have come out of the Project, all less than ten minutes long. Sorry About Tomorrow might be the best, as it’s moved beyond the Project and onto the festival circuit, winning awards all over the place. The story of how our hero, Baldwin, assists young scientists Emily and Cricket in perfecting their time machine, is at once harried, heart–breaking, and fun. The direction of Motke Dapp is precise and the imagery stunning. It won Best Film at the Silicon Valley Science Fiction Short Film Festival.

The Fabulous Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Yup, this one won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film a couple of years ago. It also debuted at Cinequest, where I’m one of the programmers. It’s an amazing fantasy story of a Buster Keaton–like guy who is tornadoed away into a colorful world where he is the caretaker of a great library of flying books. Without a doubt one of the most lyrical and beautiful short films ever made. I don’t mind saying I can’t watch it without tears flowing. There’s also an incredible iPad app to be downloaded. Moonbot Studios, who produced this wonderful film, is one of the big reasons Louisiana is becoming known as Bayouwood.

Cargo
The lengths a father will go to save his child are considerable, and Cargo is the best representation of this you’ll ever find in a zombie film. Bitten, and with only hours before he becomes one of the undead, our hero–monster sets off to save his infant child. It’s one of the most heart–breaking films ever made and has played at festivals around the world, winning many major awards. At less than eight minutes, it packs everything into as tight a film as you’ll ever find.

Glory at Sea
A survivor washes up on shore and the population of a Purgatory–like settlement believe him to be the Devil. He begins to build a boat from the wreckage and gathers the town to his vision. It’s incredibly moving, the kind of film you show to heartless wrecks if you really want to see them cry. The shooting, done in New Orleans, is some of the most effective you’ll find at any length. Beasts of the Southern Wild is immediately brought to mind by this incredibly moving short, which makes sense as they share the same director. Though it’s almost five years old, it still feels so very fresh.

The 1up Fever
Another faux–doc…maybe? The question as to how many levels of reality exist in our iPhone–connected world is central to The 1up Fever. It’s supposed to be a documentary about a Smartphone–based game played on the streets of Berlin. The game turns the city into a live–action Super Mario Brothers, only played for Bitcoins and run by a mysterious benefactor. The way it’s shot and edited recall the best documentaries of filmmakers like Wernor Herzog and D.A. Pennebaker, and the style reminds me of Run Lola Run. It had its North American premiere at the Silicon Valley Science Fiction Short Film Festival, and is now tearing up the festival scene. Whether or not it’s an actual document of an actual game becomes secondary because the questioning of what’s real only adds to the experience.

Requiem for a Robot
Sometimes, films turn on you. You think you’ve got them all figured out and then, suddenly, they’re not what you expect. The drunken robot has been a popular subject for comedic science fiction since before Bender showed up on Futurama. Meet Rob, a robot with a serious drinking problem and sadly, it’s a funny problem, until the film pulls back and shows you the rest of his world. At once hilarious and heart–breakingly sad, Requiem for a Robot tells its story in a lo–fi way that never once makes you question the existence of a cardboard robot.

Apollo—A 16mm Adventure to the Moon
Actual documentary is a field that’s not often included in discussion of science fiction and it’s probably that sticky “fiction” part of the term. In the case of Apollo—A 16mm Adventure to the Moon, it’s a shame because if Gravity is science fiction, then so is Apollo. The film uses archival footage from NASA along with period–style animation and a soundtrack that reminds me of what would happen if Wendy Carlos and Phillip Glass had a kid who wrote 1960s sci–fi scores. The editing is flawless with fast cuts and intense transitions that make this an amazing adventure indeed.

Christopher J Garcia

Christopher J Garcia is a writer, fanzine editor, curator, filmmaker, and historian from Boulder Creek, California. He won the Hugo for Best Fanzine in 2011 for co–editing The Drink Tank. He’s made short films, produced documentaries, programmed film festivals, and edits the film journal Klaus at Gunpoint as well as Journey Planet (Hugo nominee—2012–2014). He makes a living as a Curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.

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