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DVD Review: Cinema16 – European Short Films

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There are works from famed directors in the DVD collection Cinema16: European Short Films — Lars Von Trier, Nanni Moretti, Ridley Scott, and Christopher Nolan — but the best stuff comes from artists unknown to most of us.

Producer Luke Morris unspooled the Cinema16 DVD series in Europe a few years back, compiling award-winning British shorts and first films from top directors. His next DVD reached out to European directors. (Neither was region 1). This Cinema16 is tailored for the U.S., and it looks like we got the better deal — the double-disc set contains the greatest hits from the first two editions and then some.

In the U.S. at least, people who don't go to film festivals rarely see shorts. Cinema16 certainly works as a high-impact advertisement for the art. Every film is worth seeing, no shrug-inducing student films. All have major festival awards as calling cards. Two won Oscars.

Most of the shorts have commentaries; a few do not. This makes for two experiences — the viewing, and then the director explaining what was what with the film. Some of these films are abstract or just plain odd, so it's interesting to put your perceptions to the test right away.

Here are my favorites. They alone justify buying this DVD.

Je T'aime John Wayne: Fun high-energy profile of a London hipster who fantasizes he's living in Paris as a way-cool Jean-Paul Belmondo clone — until his mum calls. Filled with visual references to the new wave classics. Our Belmondo's Jean Seberg-muse turns up at a cinema, and they're off to promenade their free spirits. Cool quick epilogue. Directed by Toby MacDonald and produced by Cinema16's Morris. In gorgeous hard-contrast black and white. "London looks how we wish it looked," MacDonald says in the commentary.

Before Dawn: Shot only at dusk, this Hungarian film uses images and no discernible dialogue to tell its tale of refugees hiding in a high wheat field. A truck arrives to carry them to freedom, but state police move in quickly, aborting their hopes for a new life. The place and time are ambiguous, but the evils of the late 1950s in that country come to mind. Equally beautiful and heartbreaking. Directed by Balint Kenyeres, whose commentary is mostly about the challenges of filming Before Dawn.

Wasp: Feels like a Mike Leigh film in a hurry (23 minutes). Won the Oscar for short film in 2005. A young single mom of four yearns to party at the pub, but can't afford to feed her kids, let alone get child care. She cleans up real nice and drags the children to the local bar, where they wait outside while she keeps a date with an old flame. The kids end up eating dumpster food while their mom pleases the guy in a car. The film's magic is in its slightly sympathetic portrait of the lousy mother, who finds some hope before it's all over. Remarkable. Directed by Andrea Arnold.

The Man Without a Head
: Everyone needs a head, but our hero is fresh out. A date with a beautiful woman looms; the headless man dances an Astaire number; a golden glowing industrial city awaits outside. For this romantic evening, he decides to splurge on a head. So many to choose from … A lovely blend of effects and live action. The elegant music sets the tone. Created by Juan Solanas, who says: "Short films are one of the last real places for artistic freedom."

Six Shooter
: A man's wife of many years dies at 3 a.m. It's all downhill from there. The businessman boards a train that rails through rural Ireland. His fellow travelers are a couple whose infant has just died and a motor-mouthed punk eager to display his wit and heartlessness. A 27-minute short that feels like a feature film. The deft blend of drama and black humor earned Six Shooter an Oscar. Directed by playwright Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman).

I also admired the live action shorts World of Glory, about a "typical Swiss clock" of a realtor whose gray life includes acts of genocide; Nanni Moretti's film-biz chronicle The Opening Day of 'Close-Up'; Gasman" about some kids who learn their father's domestic secrets; and the animated freakout Rabbit, made with old weird colorful stickers from first grade reading books.

Ridley Scott contributes the tedious student film Boy and Bicycle. Lars Von Trier has a so-so tale of a woman terrified of the sun. Christopher Nolan lends a black and white tale of man vs. bug.

The DVD menu is a work of art in itself, a modular display of the films that seems as if they were competing, calling out to the viewer. The audio loop is strange and compelling, with lines from the shorts that'll soon become familiar.

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