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The 10 best short films of 2021

With another bleak year rapidly drawing to a close, a lot has been said about the state of cinema and how the industry has been slowly recovering after the unprecedented consequences of the pandemic. As a result, most of the focus has been on large-scale projects such as Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch while looking back on 2021.

With more high-profile Netflix productions and highly anticipated shows like Succession in the headlines, the brilliant short films that came out this year got swept under the rug. Apart from the screenings at film festivals and their occasional amplification by publications and people on social media, the shorts of 2021 took a backseat to the more popular projects.

In order to give them the attention they deserve, we have selected some of the finest shorts of the year from various countries. Made by filmmakers with widely differing creative visions, this collection represents some of the best experiences that modern cinema has to offer in the short format, managing to achieve more in their limited runtime than most uninspired features.

Check out the full list below.

The 10 best short films of 2021:

10. Skinned (Mike Hoolboom)

One of the most prolific and fascinating experimental filmmakers around, Canadian director Mike Hoolboom has been tinkering with the cinematic medium ever since he was a child. His fascinating body of work has picked up prizes and honours in various film festivals and has been celebrated by scholars and students.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hoolboom has made several shorts but the most interesting project out of them has been Skinned. It chronicles the demise of modern society after a virus makes the internet crash, destroying the virtual and leaving behind only the human.

9. Citadel (John Smith)

Another indispensable work produced during the Covid era, Citadel is a meditative reflection on the sociopolitical climate during the pandemic. Presenting a layered vision of a sprawling urban centre that is intercut with the speeches that Boris Johnson made about the pandemic, Smith constructs an insightful commentary on the lockdown experience.

Although Smith had wanted to undertake such a project for a long time, he was finally inspired to do so when he discovered a Boris Johnson speech from February of 2020 where he compared the UK to a Superman lying in wait to save the world from “unnecessary economic damage”.

8. August Sky (Jasmin Tenucci)

In 2019, a strange occurrence took place in São Paulo due to the dangerous fires that were raging across the Amazon rainforest. In the middle of the day, the sky turned black – almost like an ominous precursor to the events that were about to unfold in 2020.

August Sky builds its investigations on this particular event, following the story of a pregnant nurse who finds comfort in the church as the world burns down all around her. Jasmin Tenucci’s film earned a Special Mention at Cannes for its brilliant storytelling.

7. The Human Voice (Pedro Almodóvar)

An adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s eponymous play, Pedro Almodóvar’s short drama marks the director’s first attempt at filming in the English language. The Human Voice stars Tilda Swinton in a relevant exploration of human isolation and anticipating a change that never seems to arrive.

Swinton plays the role of a woman who waits for her ex-lover to come and pick up the suitcases left behind alongside an anxious dog whose master has abandoned him. A strangely captivating parable about human anxieties and existential subjectivity, The Human Voice is far more accomplished than Almodóvar’s latest feature Parallel Mothers.

6. My Uncle Tudor (Olga Lucovnicova)

My Uncle Tudor is a deeply personal project, following the filmmaker as she visits her great-grandparents’ house where she had spent a lot of time as a kid. What sets out to be a nostalgic trip actually becomes a heavily traumatic experience that have plagued her.

The director said: “I decided to make a film about my biggest pain – childhood memories that I had kept secret for decades.” It was her intention to show that children are more affected by the actions of people close to them than the cruelties of strangers.

5. Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma (Topaz Jones, Simon Davis and Jason Sondock)

This entry is actually an interesting addition to the list because it is a unique audiovisual experience, curated by rapper Topaz Jones who released this 35-minute short along with his latest album with the same title as a follow-up to his meteoric 2016 debut Arcade.

This autobiographical journey is a riveting documentary presented in the structure of “Black ABCs” – a concept pushed by pioneering Black educators which reshaped the completely hegemonic landscape of American education and promoted Black-centred learning.

4. Four Roads (Alice Rohrwacher)

Four Roads is probably the quintessential pandemic short, produced by one of the most promising filmmakers in the landscape of modern cinema. Due to the social distancing rules, our idea of human connection rapidly morphed into viewing each other through lenses.

That is what Four Roads explores, showing how the filmmaker managed to connect with her neighbours living in isolation through a 16mm camera and an eagerness to form human connections. Years from now, Rohrwacher’s heartwarming short might be cited as an important cultural relic of the pandemic years.

3. Play It Safe (Mitch Kalisa)

In a year when the public discourse around race was subjected to further polarisation by conservative ideologues spouting unfounded propaganda and manipulating narratives, Mitch Kalisa’s powerful short Play It Safe is an incredibly effective addition to the conversation.

It presents a moving portrait of Jonathan, a young Black man who feels like he is out of place at his middle-class drama program in London. When he is cast as a hoodlum in a production due to his appearance, Jonathan takes it upon himself to reveal the prejudices at work.

2. The Bones (Cristóbal León, Joaquín Cociña)

The Bones is one of the best cinematic gems to come out of 2021, produced by Ari Aster himself who saw something very special in this new project by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña. A surreal political and philosophical reflection, the film compares the discovery of the world’s first stop-motion film to the drafting of a new constitution in Chile.

Reminiscent of the works of Tim Burton, The Bones attracted the attention of many film fans and won the coveted Best Short award at this year’s iteration of the Venice Film Festival. A perfect combination of gothic fantasy and political realism, The Bones is a massive creative accomplishment.

1. Brutalia, Days Of Labour (Manolis Mavris)

A truly strange and brilliantly dark short film by Manolis Mavris, Brutalia, Days of Labour is a highly imaginative political commentary on the dangers of an authoritarian society. Through the use of a dystopian parable about an isolated society of men and women living in isolation and following the social structure of a beehive, Mavris manages to create an unforgettable experience.

Building on the ideas of philosophers who have promoted the idea of an achievable utopia where social and gender roles are strictly defined to minimise uncertainty and conflict, the film brilliantly demonstrates the pernicious consequences of complete ideological conformity in a system that only cares about the preservation of the systemic principles.

Having been compared to the aesthetic frameworks used by the pioneers of the Greek Weird Wave, Brutalia, Days of Labour is an unflinching look at a social organisation where the logical obsession with efficiency and teleology alienates those who have the self-awareness to recognise that the system is contributing to their deindividuation.

The winner of the Canal+ Award at Cannes, Mavris’ latest project insists that even a matriarchal monarchy is only a self-perpetuating autocracy that exists due to the systematic exploitation of the labour and the lives of its subjects. Through the exquisite cinematography of Manu Tilinski, this enigmatic short oscillates between calculated subjugation and the incendiary possibility of revolution.