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By Martin Keady · November 9, 2022
There are a number of great classic short films out there that have truly stood the test of time. These are the films that have influenced generations of filmmakers and continue to not only entertain audiences but also teach and inspire future lovers of the cinematic arts. From sci-fi adventures by cinema’s first magician Georges Méliès to surrealist splendor by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, these short films have it all. Here are some of the best short films ever made… in chronological order.
Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) is the first truly great short film and arguably the short film that has had the greatest influence on the history of cinema. 21st-century viewers still recognize its most iconic image: a rocket-ship landing in the eye of the Man on the Moon. Indeed, that remains probably the single most iconic image in all of science-fiction cinema, a brilliant visual summation of the dangers inherent in space exploration, both for the explorers and the new worlds being explored.
Le Voyage dans la Lune was the first great short film, but the first great short film star, or indeed film star of any description, was Charlie Chaplin, the English vaudevillian who conquered America and then the world with his archetypal Tramp character: always out of luck but none the less indefatigable.
Among Chaplin’s many classic films – initially short and eventually longer – is The Immigrant, in which he recreated his own journey to the US as a penniless economic migrant, in the process creating a visual language for transatlantic travel that has been hugely influential ever since, even in much later films such as The Godfather Part II.
The greatest and most famous surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou, is a short film, but in just over 20 minutes Luis Buñuel and his equally revolutionary co-writer, Salvador Dalí, included enough extraordinary imagery to make it a miniature epic. Of course, one image above all resonates, that of the “eye-slicing”, as Buñuel cuts first to a passing cloud and then to the actual slicing of a dead animal’s eyeball.
It would be nearly 40 years before Stanley Kubrick achieved a cinematic cut that was as resonant — when he switched from the stick that a prehistoric human throws into the air to a rocket-ship toppling through space. Between them, those two cuts are probably the finest and deepest in cinematic history.
Sisyphus had it easy: he only had to roll a rock to the top of a hill and then watch it roll back down again, before starting all over ad infinitum. But Laurel and Hardy had to transport the titular music box (a self-playing piano) up a winding and apparently unending set of stairs while also contending with each other’s unique brand of idiocy.
The other great cinematic adaptation of the Sisyphus myth is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Suna no Onna (Woman In The Dunes), a 1964 Japanese masterpiece about a woman searching for her lost family after a sandstorm. However, for sheer brevity, not to mention laughs, The Music Box just edges it.
21st-century filmmakers, for whom a short film is usually considered to be one less than 30 minutes long, might balk at the inclusion of several longer films on this list, on the basis that they are not really “short films” at all. And yet throughout the 20th century, a short film (or featurette, as they were sometimes called) was any film lasting less than 45 minutes. Using that measure allows for the inclusion on this list of two masterpieces of 1930s French cinema.
The first is Zero de Conduit (Zero For Conduct), the third of only four films made by Jean Vigo, who is probably the greatest short filmmaker ever because even his longest film, L’Atalante (1934), was just over an hour long. Zero de Conduit was based on Vigo’s own horrific experience of attending boarding school, but he transformed that agonizing memory into an unforgettable fantasy about downtrodden students taking over a school.
Only two short films (again, using the measure of films that are less than 45 minutes long) made it onto the most recent (2021) Sight and Sound survey of “The 100 Greatest Films of All Time” and one of them is Partie de Campagne (A Day In The Country). It is not Renoir’s greatest film — that would be either La grande illusion (Grand Illusion) (1937) or La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) — but it is his best short film, and one of the most poetic short films ever made, in which an entire love affair is somehow played out in one single afternoon beside the Seine.
The only other short film to make it onto the Sight and Sound list, and at a much higher number than Partie de Campagne (at joint 50th as opposed to joint 90th), is La Jetée. And yet it is arguably not a movie at all, as it is largely comprised of still images, with only minimal movement of those images. Nevertheless, La Jetée is a masterpiece of concision, showing how the destruction of the entire human race and in particular one member of it can be conveyed in less than 30 minutes.
It was famously remade as 12 Monkeys (1995), Terry Gilliam’s time-travel epic that is one of the most thoughtful “blockbusters” ever made, but the original remains unsurpassed, not just for brevity but for beauty.
Samuel Beckett was probably the greatest playwright of the 20th century, with his finest work, Waiting For Godot (1953), proving to be the great post-nuclear play, as two tramps waited for the titular Godot just as humanity now awaited its own apparently inevitable destruction by atomic war. However, Beckett wrote only one screenplay, Film, which starred probably the greatest silent movie star, Buster Keaton.
Film is undoubtedly an oddity, as the story (such as it is) is largely seen through the eye of the camera, rather than Keaton, but it is still a cinematic odyssey completed in less time than the average one-act play.
Most students of Star Wars and its creator believe that George Lucas’ cinematic journey all began with his 1971 dystopian sci-fi feature THX 1138. In fact, the story goes back even further, because THX 1138 was itself an expansion of the student film that Lucas had made four years earlier while at the University of Southern California’s film school. The short film’s long and complex title, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, belies a relatively simple story about a man trying (and ultimately failing) to outrun state-sanctioned pursuers.
Both the short and the feature it spawned are especially fascinating because they represent the road not taken by Lucas. They were critically hailed but commercially unsuccessful, so eventually, he would make a much simpler and infinitely more optimistic sci-fi film, Star Wars (1977), which would fulfill the promise of THX 1138’s tagline: “The future is here”.
The best short filmmaker of the late 20th century is Nick Park, creator of Wallace and Gromit, who are the finest comic and cinematic double-act since Laurel and Hardy, even if only one of them (the dimmer one, naturally) is human. Almost any of Park’s early masterpieces, beginning with A Grand Day Out (1989), which was a superb updating of Le Voyage dans la Lune, would merit inclusion on this list. However, for sheer comic brilliance and especially the finest animated penguin ever, The Wrong Trousers is surely first among equals.
In the beginning, all films were short films, because the sheer difficulty of making films in the 19th century meant that they were all necessarily short. However, even after technological advancement made it possible to make longer films, the appeal of the short remained. Not only did they cost less than features but they acted, as they still do today, as the perfect calling card for any filmmaker.
Short films have experienced a renaissance in the 21st century, with further developments in digital technology making it easier and cheaper than ever before to make them. Also, the global expansion of social media has afforded filmmakers previously unimagined opportunities, first, to connect with other filmmakers (including cast and crew) and then to promote their films.
Nevertheless, despite the undoubted merits of many 21st-century short films, most of them have a long way to go to match these classic shorts, which collectively constitute almost an alternative history of cinema.
If you’re interested in writing your own short film to showcase your screenwriting abilities, you should definitely watch and study every movie on this list (and many others)!