With all the technological, social advancements cinema has made today, it seems strange to remember a time when all films were short films. That’s right, the history of film began with the humble short, also called featurettes. Short films continue to remain a relevant and economical form of filmmaking for students and aspiring filmmakers to get their ideas out in the world. Some of the most iconic names in cinema — Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, The Walt Disney — made nothing but short films for years. While shorts may have seen a dip in popularity in the post-World War II years, they later made a comeback and are now a respected form of cinema.
As filmmaking progressed, industry stalwarts like Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan started their careers making short films. As such, their creative importance for budding artists cannot be stated enough. We bring you a list of the best short films on YouTube that will leave you wanting more.
1. The Neighbor’s Window (2019)
The Academy Award-winning film revolves around a married couple who discover a new perspective on their humdrum lives. When a young couple moves into the apartment across from them, Alli and Jacob discover they can view their activities from the living room window. Director Marshall Curry does a marvelous job of establishing backstories for the characters in just under twenty minutes.
The story, while fast-paced, is told with compassion. One of the best romantic short films on YouTube right now, the film is a great example of using twists in a story minimally. It is a moving look at young love, desire and the realities of spending your lives together. I cannot recommend it enough.
2. The Disappearance of Willie Bingham (2015)
When it comes to the horror genre, it is often rare to find a short film that manages to unsettle you in a limited time frame. The Disappearance of Willie Bingham not only does that, it also cleverly puts across its political ideology. Based on the short story The Wilbur Bledsoe Amputation, the film takes place in a not-so-distant future, where the justice system comes up with a chilling bodily punishment for crime.
Director Matt Richards has said that the horror of the film reflects the state’s control over citizens. The film blends satire and an eerie sense of humor to create an atmosphere of dread and doom that is key to appreciating its many creepy gifts. One of the most thought-provoking new short films in recent memory, this one will haunt you for a while.
3. The Big Shave (1967)
As a young man who came of age in the United States in the sixties, Martin Scorsese was deeply influenced by the politics of the Vietnam War. While he famously explored the psychological fall-out for war veterans in the form of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, he also made a short film exploring the trauma from the war. The Big Shave revolves around a young man who cuts himself multiple times while shaving. The self-harm is utilized as a metaphor for the US involvement in the war. Watch the film for an early sampling of Scorsese’s trademark bleak humor, set to the jazz tunes of Bunny Berrigan. The film has since then become somewhat of an underground gem, with Wes Anderson famously referencing it in a scene in The Royal Tenenbaums.
4. Six Shooter (2004)
When a grieving widower meets an unstable young man on a train, it sparks a chain of events that end in violence and chaos. Longtime admirers of the director, Martin McDonagh (of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri fame) will be able to spot some of the similarities in Six Shooter and his later work, In Bruges. The violence is undercut with dry humor that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Fair warning: some of the violent scenes and dialogue may be a little graphic for some viewers, but they’ll find themselves in for a wild ride, regardless.
5. The Life of Death (2015)
It is not everyday that one sees the black-clad, sulking figure of Death walking in the streets. Yet, The Life of Death strives to present exactly that — a regular day for Death, the collector of souls. However, the film does not delve into the gloom and grief of the loss of loved ones. Rather, it takes a cheerful and humorous approach, displaying the titular character running into everyday problems and trying to live a normal life, the best they can.
The most wonderful takeaway from this film is its attempt to humanize loss and even death. Shot as a wonderful sequence set to uplifting music, it’s one of the best short films under 10 minutes.
6. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
One expects utter chaos and surrealist dreamscapes when ardent post-modernists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel collaborate. Their 1926 short silent film Un Chien Andalou is a triumph of emotive and flamboyant filmmaking. While they were working on the film, Bunuel said that the only rule they had was to not “dwell on what required purely rational, psychological or cultural explanations and open the way to the irrational”.
The opening scene of the film with the image of a razor slicing an eye remains one of the most controversial movie scenes in history. Critics and film scholars have not only recognised it as one of the best experimental short films of all time, but also credited it with inspiring independent filmmaking and music videos.
7. The Door (2008)
Juanita Wilson’s beautifully shot The Door is a moving attempt to view a massive tragedy from an individual’s perspective. Revolving around the act of stealing a door, the film pulls us into the lives of the central character, Nikolai, and his family. One of the best short films online, The Door deals with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and the grief and loss are highlighted by the way the film is edited and shot.
A preoccupation with bluish lighting and gray tinted backgrounds highlights the desolation of the characters. A wonderful example of how empathetic and understated cinema can convey intense emotions, it’s a must-watch for cinephiles and filmmakers alike.
8. 7:35 In the Morning (2003)
Directed by Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, 7:35 In the Morning offers us a look into the life of a working-class woman. When she regularly encounters a mysterious man every day in a nearby coffee shop, she realizes that something is not quite right. Clocking in at just under nine minutes, the film maintains a tight sense of atmosphere and tension. The viewer can almost imagine themselves as being transported to that dingy coffee shop along with the characters, waiting for something terrible to be revealed. It may be a stretch to count it among romantic short films, but it definitely captures the awkward, painful, and all-too-real nature of one-sided love.
9. Alive in Joburg (2006)
Before Niell Blomkamp became well known for the genre-bending District 9, there was Alive in Joburg, the sci-fi short film that eventually led to the former. The story revolves around a group of aliens who land on Earth and are forced to live in slum-like conditions of poverty and squalor. But the film is not only merely a fantastic approach to experimental filmmaking and great practical effects. It also contains a deeply important message.
The analogy of aliens and their poor living conditions are a thinly veiled reference to the segregation and apartheid state policies of Blomkamp’s native Johannesburg, which the title of the film also refers to.
10. Duszyczka (2019)
Through a lovely combination of filming techniques like clay animation, stop-motion animation and painting methods, Duszyczka depicts the journey of a departed soul through a muddy wasteland. It attempts to answer the age-old question: what happens to our souls when we die? Through a variety of textures, colors and lively characters, the narrative brings an almost child-like innocence to the table. Director Barbara Rupik draws from various sources of artistic and religious allegory, presenting them as occasionally beautiful, sometimes grotesque, but never dull. Wonderfully original and thoroughly wholesome, it remains one of the most beautiful short films I’ve had the pleasure of watching.
11. La Jetée (1962)
Created almost entirely from still photos and dealing with subjects such as nuclear fall-out, war and time travel, La Jetée was entirely ahead of its time. It revolves around the story of a man in Paris’s underground jails, who is subsequently chosen to lead an expedition into the past and the future. On the mission to save his present, his past and present collide in a way that alters his fate. One of the best things to learn from it is its style of editing that utilizes fadeouts and cuts with an orchestral soundtrack to provide a sense of movement.
The film presented many tropes that we now associate with time-travel, and still creates enormous discourse around its ending. Among its many distinctions, it was also the prime inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film Twelve Monkeys.
12. Imaginary Flying Machines (2002)
Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli admirers like myself will immediately recognise the influence of Imaginary Flying Machines in their later works, particularly, The Wind Rises. This short film tells the story of aviation, flights and aircrafts through an adorable humanoid pig, as in the previous Porco Rosso. The film is a wonderful initiation into the world of Studio Ghibli films, displaying its familiar penchants for whimsy, playfulness and imaginations.
Even anime novices will appreciate this heartwarming and vibrant story told through the lens of creativity and freedom. In fact, the film was often shown on Japanese Airlines, and later kept for exclusive use by the Studio Ghibli museum.
There we are! These are some of the best short films streaming on YouTube. For much of cinema’s history, short films have occasionally been sidelined. To do so would be to overlook the enormous creative potential and work that goes into making pieces of art that capture the essence of cinema in a short run time. Many directors and artists we now revere got their big break making short films. Furthermore, they provide a wonderful medium to students who want to hone their craft and learn through practice. Breaching the gap between amateurs and industry titans, experimental cinema and crowd-pleasers, there really is no doubt about the potential of short films.
Which one of these did you like the most? Let’s talk in the comments below!
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.