There may not be a better moviegoing bargain than the Manhattan Short Film Festival. Over the course of 150 minutes (including a welcome intermission), viewers get to see 10 finalists, narrowed down from 1,250 submissions, spanning 70 countries that showcase varied cinematic talents from around the world — and then vote for Best Film and Best Actor.
Though the 2019 program rarely hits the highs of the annual Oscar-nominated Short Films, taken as a whole, the heart and humor of the latest Manhattan batch are far more enjoyable than the depressing slate of live-action Academy Award selections from earlier this year.
Things get off to a promising start with Nefta Football Club (France, 17 minutes) — a funny, quirky, well-made tale of two young Tunisian brothers who stumble upon a donkey with unusual cargo — which provides a near ideal-hook. But the goodwill is just as quickly compromised with Debris (U.S., 14 minutes), the saga of one very bad afternoon in the life of a Hispanic immigrant construction worker. While it may be full of tension, its muddled social commentary and sudden attitude shifts from poorly-established characters are jarring in a bad way.
Momentum is soon regained via Driving Lessons (Iran, 13 minutes), an engrossing story of religious oppression and, ultimately, female empowerment that’s likely to leave audiences cheering — and may very well earn director Marziyeh Riahi some Oscar attention. Applause might also follow the downtrodden waitress fantasies of Tipped (Canada, 14 minutes), while tears could easily be shed over the road trip drama Sylvia (U.K., 15 minutes), one of two Manhattan films that coast along in mediocre fashion before a twist makes one rethink what’s come before.
Following the intermission, two middle-age women engage in an occasionally amusing tennis showdown in The Match (Finland, 16 minutes), paving the way for program highlight This Time Away (U.K., 14 minutes). Blessed with the arguably unfair advantages of none other than Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) in the lead role and blockbuster animator Magali Barbé (Avengers: Endgame; Avatar) behind the camera, the charming chronicle of a curmudgeon and a helper droid who becomes his roommate gives off strong Robot & Frank vibes and plentiful smiles.
Like Sylvia, there’s more to dance school drama Malou (Germany, 14 minutes) than it seems, and similar treacly writing following the big reveal. Laughs promptly return, however, with A Family Affair (U.K., 13 minutes), a comic triumph in which a 30-year-old woman (writer/director/star Florence Keith-Roach, Juliet, Naked) awakes in unfamiliar surroundings and receives aid from a benevolent senior citizen (John Standing, The Elephant Man).
The crowd-pleaser would have made a far better closing pick than At The End of the World (U.S., 13 minutes), a dystopian romance that frequently calls to mind the dopey film-student adverts that precede feature presentations at Regal Cinemas. But despite its wonky end, the two-plus hours of shorts is well worth a look and seems destined to help launch a few deserving filmmakers to greater prominence.